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Portraits, Pants and Public Opinion: Fashion Scandals Throughout History

At the heart of worldly scandal is fashion! Liana Naidu gives us a juicy insight into a few of history’s sauciest fashion scandals!

With Grapeshot examining all things scandalous and taboo this issue, let’s explore one of the most common ways people express themselves: clothing! Unsurprisingly, fashion has always been the subject of numerous controversies, but the reasons behind them have varied throughout history and across cultures. So, allow me to present you with five highly scandalous moments in fashion history:

  1. Marie Antoinette’s Portrait:

Let’s begin in 1783 with French queen, Marie Antoinette, whose portrait, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, created outrage among her subjects. The painting, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, originally featured Antoinette in a dress made of muslin, which was deemed to be ‘improper’ attire for a queen, as it was too informal, and was not perceived as appropriate outerwear. The backlash was severe enough that Vigée Le Brun quickly replaced the painting with one of the Antoinette in a more traditional gown.[1]

Although many people today would consider the original dress fairly modest, in the 18th century it was in clear violation of societal dress standards for aristocratic women. And although these dress standards have changed dramatically in the last 240 years, there are also modern examples of lingerie causing a scandal when worn as outerwear.

  1. Dior’s New Look:

When Christian Dior launched his New Look collection, which included women’s outfits with cinched waists, padded hips and A-line skirts, many people responded with outrage.[2] While these features may not sound like a particularly controversial style for women, this collection was released in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II. In contrast to the minimalist silhouettes that were prevalent during the war, Dior’s style was judged by some to be offensively extravagant and indulgent, with people criticising the excessive use of expensive fabrics that had been rationed during the war. Despite this, the influence of Dior’s New Look collection is still evident in today’s fashion. 

  1. Harry Styles in Vogue:

On the other hand, men such as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Billy Porter have turned heads by wearing dresses or skirts to formal events. Although men in many cultures throughout history have traditionally worn skirt-like garments, it still feels unusual to some today.

So, in 2020, when Harry Styles became the first man to appear alone on the cover of Vogue, wearing a Gucci dress, people inevitably questioned, and in some cases criticised, how he chose to express himself through his clothing choices.[3] But as I mentioned, Styles is in no way a pioneer in the department of famous-men-wearing-dresses, however this photoshoot was still incredibly effective at challenging society to look at the relationship we have created between gender and clothing.

  1. 2004 Super Bowl Controversy:

In more recent history, the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show ended with a true scandal, which some media outlets named ‘Nipplegate.’ During the end of the show, as Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson performed Rock Your Body, Timberlake reached across to Jackson and tore a section of her costume off, exposing her breast before the cameras cut away to a wide shot. Public opinion was extremely divided in the aftermath, with people debating what should be deemed appropriate for broadcast, who was at fault for the incident, and whether it was staged. Timberlake, Jackson and CBS Broadcasting were at the centre of these discussions, and released statements in response, but a disproportionate amount of criticism was directed at Jackson herself.[4] 

Perhaps one of the most significant controversies of the Super Bowl halftime show, Nipplegate is a clear example of how the public responds when dress standards are broken in a very public situation.

  1. Helen Hulick’s court attire:

But models and celebrities weren’t the only ones causing a stir.

In many Western cultures, skirts have been regarded as feminine attire for centuries, while pants, or slacks, were regarded as appropriate only for men. Thankfully, as we’ve seen with Harry Styles, these expectations are changing within society, but it was not so long ago that women could get in trouble for wearing a pair of pants. 

In 1938, Helen Hulick, a kindergarten teacher, was called to as a witness in a burglary case. Yet her decision to wear slacks to the court hearing resulted in Hulick receiving a five-day jail sentence, as the judge believed it was unacceptable for women to wear pants. Hulick was quoted saying “If he orders me to change into a dress I won’t do it. I like slacks. They’re comfortable.”[5]

Eventually, after appealing to the Appellate Court, a judgement was ruled in her favour. And once she had obtained permission to wear slacks to court, what did Hulick wear to the follow-up hearing?

A formal dress, of course.


So, what made each of these moments so scandalous? I barely scratched the surface of controversial fashion moments throughout history and around the world, but there are some common themes.

In each of these situations someone has subverted expectations and directly challenged their society’s views. But although the causes of controversy usually seem to make sense, there is also a clear element of arbitrariness to some of these fashion trends. 

Which raises some interesting questions: Why was showing some cleavage acceptable in Victorian times when bare ankles were thought to be too suggestive? Are some, or all, of the things we sexualize completely arbitrary? Whose discomfort should be considered when pushing the boundaries of fashion? Which standards of modesty must we enforce in public?

Fashion scandals reveal a great deal about how we view the human body, sexuality, and gender roles, highlighting the situations in which we can’t agree on what should be acceptable. 

But whether you love or hate these fashion moments, you cannot deny their impact on the world around them.

[1] Tutter, Adele. “THE LADY IS A TRAMP Vigée Le Brun”. The Brooklyn Rail, Apr. 2016,

[2] Bass-Krueger, Maude. “10 Scandalous Fashions the Rocked Fashion History”. Google Arts & Culture,

[3] Heyward, Giulia. “Harry Styles becomes Vogue’s first-ever solo male cover star”. CNN Style, 13 Nov. 2020,

[4] Karsen, Shira. “What Happened After Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl ‘Nipplegate’ Incident”. Billboard, 23 Oct. 2017,

[5] Harrison, Scott. “From the Archives: Wear slacks to court and go to jail”. Los Angeles Times, 15 Nov. 2019,


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