The new upper middle

Marilyn Monroe in the early 1950s

And so we come to the great reveal: no, not a further uncovering of rogue reporting shenanigans, but rather the fashion version of the above. It’s just as scary. The midriff is being exposed.

From fringed and cropped pieces worn with lace-up hipsters at Roberto Cavalli to combos of bikini tops and low-slung culottes at Vanessa Bruno; from striped high-waisted pencil skirts that don’t quite meet shorter vest tops at Versace to stomachs veiled under layers and frills of chiffon at Givenchy – that area of the body between the waist and the ribs is the current erogenous zone of choice for designers.

Think of it as the “upper middle”, seen in the late 1990s when girl-band All Saints stormed the charts wearing cropped tops and combats. They and the young Britney Spears combined the look with low-slung hipsters that revealed the navel and belly – but many of today’s midriff-baring styles are limited to the high-rise. Designers claim the upper/lower distinction is key.

“I’m not a fan of the lower midriff area,” says young British designer Danielle Scutt, “but showing the part just below the bust can be really flattering.” The focus is on the upper midriff, generally a leaner part of the body than the lower.

In his spring/summer collection, Richard Nicoll too concentrated on the midriff as a counterpoint to the obvious – pairing exposed flesh with midi-length skirts and buttoned-up blouses. Nicoll veils the midriff under layers of sheer fabric – one way to brave the trend off the catwalk. “Layering is signature to my collections,” he says. “For the commercial pieces, we put a layer of opaque under the sheer. It’s about concealing and revealing.”

Versace spring/summer 2011 collection

It also harks back to the summer silhouettes of the 1940s and 1950s – think Audrey Hepburn in cocktail trousers and cropped blouse in Funny Face – as seen recently on Rihanna, Chloe Sevigny, Beyoncé, Alexa Chung and Jennifer Lopez. “People think this is a trend for young, skinny girls,” says Stephanie Jones, women’s wear buyer at Liberty. “It’s not necessarily true. I’m curvy and often wear a cropped piece with high-waisted trousers, or a maxi skirt. It looks sexy without that much flesh on show.”

Melissa Ramos, a press officer, would never bare her navel, but is happy to combine higher-waisted Capri pants with a cropped T-shirt. “I don’t have a problem with the upper midriff,” she says. “There’s something more ‘put-together’ about this look, not so teenagery and trashy. The glimpse of midriff implies something without being obvious, and it’s super-sexy too.”

Now that legs and bust have become hackneyed symbols of sex in evening dress, the midriff feels fresh – and safe too. By showing even an inch of stomach, but wearing trousers or a longer skirt, you can add allure while keeping covered elsewhere.

Brand consultant Madeleine Davenport believes she can carry off this look in the City. She often wears a cropped silk Hermione de Paula T-shirt with tailored trousers and says, “I’ve got a great vintage Alaia cropped top which has a higher neckline and long sleeves. It shows skin without being overexposed; a bit like wearing a long skirt or dress with a split to the side instead of a super-short hemline.”

Designer Geoffrey J Finch, whose Antipodium collection mixes layers of chiffon with cropped pieces, says such sneaky physical revelations allow wearers to keep their options open: “We’ve realised you can go bare but it’s good to add layering too. It’s whispering sexiness, not shouting about it.”

Cutting it out

Beyoncé and Chloe Sevigny

For those still sceptical about flashing their upper tummies, there is yet another option this summer: the cut-out – a controlled approach to exposure, allowing just a small amount of skin to be on show. At Christopher Kane, small slices of fabric were cut away under the bust; at Stella McCartney and Hakaan, some hip flesh was on display; and Theysken’s Theory provided a glimpse of back. Antipodium’s Geoffrey J Finch calls the cut-out a “nice way to show a glimpse of skin”, while Danielle Scutt sees it as a “way to emphasise a body part in a flattering way”.

“Cut-outs are a much easier way to wear the trend,” says Liberty’s Stephanie Jones. “Stella’s fruit dress, with cut-outs at the side of the waist, drapes so it’s very flattering. Or the back is a really nice part of the body to show – I have a Phillip Lim dress that exposes the lower back but keeps the bra strap covered.” Safety first, you know.

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