The new squeezed middle

At last month’s Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards, the star of the show was a harness cut-out gown by Michael Kors. Worn by the fiftysomething Linda Fargo, women’s fashion director and senior vice-president at Bergdorf Goodman, the £2,150 dress’s strategic trapezoidal and triangle cut-outs revealed Fargo’s stomach, lower back, shoulders and sides.

A few weeks later, 64-year-old Vera Wang made a splash too when she accepted an award at the Delete Blood Cancer gala – and not because her date was Katy Perry. What caused a stir was the designer’s low V-neck mermaid gown with bandeau accent, modified from her autumn show.

It may be acceptable (or expected, even) for 16-year-old Hailee Steinfeld to attend the CFDA awards in a Suno crop-top and matching midi (a similar style runs to £439 and £635, respectively, minus the Swarovski embellishments). It may be acceptable for Carey Mulligan (age 28) and Jessica Chastain (36) to appear at the Cannes Film Festival in keyhole-detail gowns by Vionnet and Saint Laurent.

But it’s hard not to consider whether there should be an age limit on midriff-baring. Fashion has clearly embraced the trend of showing parts of the body that are not traditionally displayed – Roland Mouret, Cushnie et Ochs, Marchesa and Derek Lam are among those who set their sights on the solar plexus for summer. But should their customers? Especially customers of a certain age?

Opinion is divided. Italian designer Miuccia Prada, 64, says: “Women always try to tame themselves as they get older but the ones who look best are often a bit wilder.” As Fargo says, “Skin can actually be the new fabric. But a self-evaluating eye is a must.”

Yet Tatiana Sorokko, a San Francisco-based philanthropist and former model in her early forties, is not a fan of surprise skin revelations and thinks side cut-outs are never a good idea. “Really, is the shock value still necessary?” she asks. “It’s a confidence of a certain age not to wear something like that.” It is “more intriguing” to be covered, she adds.

Kim Vernon of brand growth consultancy Vernon Company seconds this. “There’s a fine line with age and representation,” says Vernon. “In one’s mid-forties, you’re supposed to age with a certain level of grace. And if you’re over 50, don’t even think about it.”

Avril Mair, fashion director at UK Harper’s Bazaar, says: “If you’re very young and very thin, go right ahead – Topshop is full of crop-tops and I wish you lots of fun in them.” Otherwise, Mair believes, this is a trend that should be approached with caution. For the over-30s “a tiny sliver of skin above a high-waisted skirt is about as far as anyone should go – more of a peekaboo effect than anything else, the illusion of exposure.” Mair thinks modest cut-outs at the ribcage could do the trick, though the strategic placement of the horizontal line is also key.

Vera Wang at this year’s Blood Cancer Gala

To wit: “These are not the old crop- tops, which had a low-rise bottom and exposed the belly button,” says Cindi Leive, editor of US Glamour magazine. Indeed, today’s cut-outs and crop tops tend to expose the area north of the belly button, which is generally safer, at least in terms of visible stomach.

At the recent Time 100 Gala, attendees such as Christina Aguilera (32), TV producer Lisa Oz (49) and Spanx founder Sara Blakely (42) all dared to bare their midsections. CNN correspondent Alina Cho (42) followed suit in a £1,800 Peter Pilotto dress.

“I didn’t even realise it was considered a ‘midriff-baring dress’ until people started talking about it,” she says. “I wanted something with some punch for a high-wattage event.”

Desirée Rogers, 54, chief executive of Johnson Publishing and a fellow Pilotto fan, says, “I’m all for it, as long as it’s what I consider to be ‘appropriate’.”

Translation: body parts that shouldn’t be exposed shouldn’t be exposed – especially to business functions, where Rogers thinks that surprise skin is taboo. Rogers notes that when she bought her cut-out dress, she wasn’t shopping with the goal of buying one. “Here’s a change in fashion and let’s see how it looks on me,” she says. “Everything has to be tried on. And there’s always alterations.”

Donna Karan offers a similarly philosophical take: “What a woman chooses to reveal or conceal is highly individual,” the fashion designer says. “If she feels good about her midriff, she’ll show it. It’s that simple – and that personal.”

Still, there is a happy medium to be found in the shape of sheer transparencies – something that Stella McCartney made infamous on Kate Winslet in 2011 and that Emilio Pucci creative director Peter Dundas, whose designs are known for their red-carpet sex appeal, readily incorporates.

“An exposed midriff looks good with a long silhouette, and a peekaboo waist needn’t be overkill with a lot of leg,” Dundas says. Indian women, with their sliver of midsection revealed in a sari, are a case in point, he says. “It’s ironically the one part of the body that I think appears slim even when the rest is not.”

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