Leah Dolan, CNN
Remember when Robin Williams threw a bunch of hard abs? The button-up shirt was from Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1996 Spring Summer collection, “Pin Up Boys,” and featured a torso unmistakably engraved with red and white dots.
The print was “trompe l’oeil,” meaning “trick of the eye.” According to Getty Images, the photo was taken sometime in 1996 – and while the exact location of the photo is unknown, it appears that Williams’ look was fresh on the runway.
The 1990s was a fruitful period for the late comedian’s career. From his breakout performances as “Mrs. Doubtfire” in 1993 – a film that grossed $441 million on a $25 million budget – to box office hits like “Jumanji” (1995) and “Good Will Hunting” (1997), the decade has been filled with red-carpet events. And the photographers, and for Williams, had more opportunities to showcase his tragically underrated fashion credentials.
Meanwhile, the Jean Paul Gaultier brand has been preoccupied with sex appeal. In 1991, Gaultier sent a tight-fitting bodysuit and an identical fetish mask modeled on the London Kids Club on the runway. In 1992 supermodel Eva Herzigova debuted the 1992 nipple-bearing straps turned bra. Even seeing Gauthier push the limits earned him the nickname “The Terrible Brat”.
Williams, a 45-year-old comedian, modest bodied, wearing sexist Jean Paul Gaultier designs in broad daylight shows that he understood fashion’s power to subvert. Fashion and comedy at first glance may seem like unmixable industries, but in reality both depend on defying and deconstructing expectations.
The muscle shirt is just one of several whimsical and expertly coordinated outfits that Williams has worn over the years. Scroll through any of the many Twitter threads dedicated to cataloging the actor’s amazing arsenal of high-fashion items and you’ll see his sleek black “Parachute Cargo Bomber” jacket by Japanese designer Issey Miyake, worn at the 1997 premiere of “Flubber,” or Alexander McQueen’s patchwork suit. Dedicated to him for the 1996 Batch Adams red carpet.
“My father, incidentally, daily wore things that I had never seen anyone else dare to wear,” Written by Williams’ daughter, Zeldaon Twitter in 2020. “And I’ve always respected this flexibility.”
As famed fashion designer Edith Head wrote in her 1959 autobiography, “Fashion is a language, some know it, some learn it, and some will never know.” Today, celebrity stylists are usually the ones keeping up with the latest collections on behalf of A-listers. But in the ’90s, the stars were largely left to fend for themselves. In an interview with Vogue in 2021, Gwyneth Paltrow recounted her choice of dress for the 1999 Academy Awards from Ralph Lauren’s book, and phoned the brand directly. “That was in the days before the stylists,” she said. It makes Robin Williams’ red carpet look even more special, because it proves he speaks the language.
Trompe l’oeil’s nude prints have since been resurrected from fashion history. Recently, hypnotic halftone designs have taken on a new meaning in the digital age. In February 2020, emerging designer Sinead Gorey created her own version of the trompe l’oeil pattern in a Sim-like 3D rendering, and later created a physical garment called the Curved Enhanced Digital Printed Dress.
Two years later, Belgian designer Glenn Martens paid tribute to the nude style in his fall-winter Y/Project collection. One dress in particular broke free from the fashion bubble and entered the mainstream after Bella Hadid wore it on TikTok that is now viewed by over five million people. Now, similarly hypnotic versions of fake nudity are everywhere, including the printed Balmain mesh look Kylie Jenner wore to the 2022 Billboard Awards and gold Schiaparelli bra panels.
There’s no denying that trompe l’oeil’s current relaunch is more exciting than disruptive. Oftentimes, these dresses accentuate women’s surgically enhanced curves—rather than transforming impossibly high standards of physical beauty into an intertwined ensemble, as Williams did 25 years ago. But all it takes is just one improbable vision to bring some fashion fun, and we deserve one more thing.
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