Editor’s Note: Delving into the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a CNN Style series offering a nostalgic look at the celebrity outfits that defined their eras.
Remember when Robin Williams threw on a set of rock hard abs? The buttoned-down shirt was from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring-Summer 1996 collection, “Pin Up Boys,” and featured an unmistakably chiseled male torso rendered in red and white halftone dots.
The print was a “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 image is unknown, it seems Williams’ look was fresh off the runway.
The 1990s were a fruitful period for the late comedian’s career. From his seminal performance as “Mrs Doubtfire” in 1993 – a movie that grossed $441 million on a $25 million budget – to the equally triumphant box office smash hits “Jumanji” (1995) and “Good Will Hunting” (1997), the decade was filled with red carpet events, paparazzi and, for Williams, more opportunities to flex his tragically underestimated fashion credentials.
Meanwhile, the Jean Paul Gaultier brand was busy oozing sex appeal. In 1991, Gaultier sent a houndstooth bodysuit and matching fetish mask modeled after London’s club kids down the runway. In 1992, a nipple-bearing harness-turned-bralette was debuted by supermodel Eva Herzigova. Gaultier’s boundary-pushing vision even earned him the nickname “enfant terrible.”
Williams, a physically unassuming 45-year-old comedian, donning the sex-soaked designs of Jean Paul Gaultier in broad daylight illustrates he understood fashion’s power to subvert. Fashion and comedy may at first seem like immiscible industries, but in reality both hinge on challenging and deconstructing expectations.
The muscle shirt is just one of several outlandish and expertly curated outfits worn by Williams over the years. Scroll through any of the numerous Twitter threads dedicated to cataloging the actor’s surprising arsenal of high-fashion items and you’ll see his sleek black “Parachute Cargo Bomber” jacket by Japanese designer Issey Miyake, worn to the 1997 premiere of “Flubber,” or his custom 1996 Alexander McQueen patchwork suit from the 1998 “Patch Adams” red carpet.
“Dad casually, daily wore things I have never seen another person dare wear,” wrote Williams’ daughter, Zelda, on Twitter in 2020. “And I have always respected that flex.”
The language of fashion
As renowned costume designer Edith Head wrote in her 1959 biography, “fashion is a language, some know it, some learn it, some never will.” Today, celebrity stylists are typically the ones keeping abreast of latest collections on behalf of A-listers. But in the 1990s, stars were largely left to fend for themselves. In an interview with Vogue in 2021, Gwneyth Paltrow recounted picking out her 1999 Oscars dress from the Ralph Lauren lookbook and telephoning the brand directly. “It was in the days before stylists,” she said. It makes Robin Williams’ red carpet looks all the more special, because it proved he spoke the language.
Trompe l’oeil nude prints have since been revived from fashion history. Recently, the hypnotic halftone designs have taken on new meaning in a digital age. In February 2020, emerging designer Sinead Gorey created her own version of the trompe l’oeil style in a 3D Sim-like render, later making a physical garment called the “digitally printed curve enhancing dress.”
Two years on, Belgian designer Glenn Martens paid homage to the naked pattern in his Fall-Winter collection for Y/Project. One dress in particular broke free from the fashion bubble and entered the mainstream after it was worn by Bella Hadid in a TikTok now watched by more than five million people. Now, similarly hypnotic versions of faux nudity are everywhere, including the printed mesh Balmain look worn by Kylie Jenner at the 2022 Billboard Awards and Schiaparelli’s golden breastplates.
There’s no denying that the current trompe l’oeil relaunch is more sexy than subversive. More often than not, these dresses are accentuating the curves of surgically enhanced women – instead of turning the impossibly high standards of physical beauty into a punchline, like Williams did 25 years ago. But all it takes is one unlikely visionary to inject some fun into fashion, and we’re due for another.