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After a frigid start to the year, the thought of spending a long, languorous summer in nothing but light layers of see-through fabrics holds a certain appeal. And, in fact, the spring/summer 2014 runways were full of gauzy, peekaboo options, from Vera Wang's primary-coloured silks to Victoria Beckham's patchwork tops in crisp white. The dresses at Fendi likewise featured gradating panels of pink or blue, while Marques Almeida's fluid tanks were cut from iridescent textiles in hues reminiscent of Hypercolor tees.

Of course, the concept of transparent clothing can seem counterintuitive to those outside the fashion set – if you're going for a nude look, why wear anything at all? This season's take, though, is a softer and more romantic – not to mention less revealing – alternative to crass exhibitionism. In an age when sensationalism trumps modesty and bare bodies are everywhere, restraint, by contrast, borders on rebelliousness.

Historically, transparency in fashion has often accompanied moments of women's lib. In the first half of the 20th century, when resources were scarce and women joined the work force in greater numbers, a desire for lightness and mobility led to the abandonment of Edwardian-era corsets in favour of lingerie-style dresses and more fluid silhouettes. Couturier Madeleine Vionnet, for one, used draping and bias cuts so that chiffons and silks floated around the body, allowing freer movement and revealing feminine curves.

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The provocative unveiling of the female body continued into the fifties in a racier style of dress popularized by Hollywood – remember the white slip worn by Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? The radical new shapes and textiles of the sixties showed more skin than ever before while reflecting a sense of optimism brought on by the promise of a technologically focused future.

In the seventies, women burned their bras and chose fluid dresses and deep décolletages that mirrored the sexual and feminist revolutions. By the eighties, designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier were subverting the codes of sensuality and power, adopting elements of lingerie and S&M gear to further push the boundary between the intimate and the public.

That aggressive approach to transparency in fashion is still in play today, perhaps echoing the level of exposure that people experience (and seem to want) in this era of social media. At Burberry Prorsum's spring show, for example, the innocent pastel palette was offset by openlace pencil skirts worn with high-waisted knickers, a look that only the most adventurous woman would dare to flaunt.

The trend was interpreted more realistically at 3.1 Phillip Lim, where organza sweaters were embroidered with geode patterns that strategically covered and uncovered. And at Mulberry, Calvin Klein and Lacoste, some of the tops revealed the torso but employed solid horizontal stripes to conceal the breasts.

London designer Erdem Moragliu also took a more subtle approach to baring skin. "Spring for me was very much about layering and transparency," he says. "Only when you take a closer look do you notice what is underneath, whether it's another fabric or a hidden hand-embroidered note. I love the idea of the hidden and the revealed. This is the best thing: to design dresses that have a secret."

Moragliu's collection featured airy layers of tulle and organza and intricate tone-on-tone floral embroidery, mostly in black and white. The tails of poplin dress shirts covered the hips under revealing skirts, while lace tops and pants were worn with sheer dresses. This contrasting of texture and line made for a demure but seductive style.

"Transparency is, in its essence, sensual," the designer says. "It's about the seen and the unseen and the revelation of what is underneath."

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While many sheer collections tended toward neutral and monochromatic shades, others focused on the layering of lightweight elements in brighter hues. Prabal Gurung's directional lineup featured clear plastic skirts printed with graphic floral patterns. Combined with sporty yellow tops, they created a look that was both colourful and bold, an intergalactic garden party of sorts.

Olivier Theyskens's coveted collection for Theory was more subdued and poetic, evoking Ophelia wrapped in fluid layers of silk and chiffon. The collection's highlights included tank dresses in fiery tones of poppy red, pastel yellow and rose pink layered with whites. They had a distinctly modernboudoir feeling.

And therein lies transparent fashion's inherent trickiness. No matter how a designer tries to tackle sheer textiles and make them practical for everyday wear, it's hard to overcome the preconception that they're best suited for the bedroom.

Even there, though, secrecy and seclusion are often just illusions. "What you do in private is no longer private," says Alexandra Palmer, fashion curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The lesson to be learned: Tread carefully into the world of see-through clothes; you never know who might be watching.

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