Janet Jackson's Nip Slip And The History Of The Wardrobe Malfunction (NSFW-ish)

Janet Jackson's Nip Slip And The History Of The Wardrobe Malfunction

Feb. 1 marks the 10th anniversary of Janet Jackson's nipple. Well, the 47th anniversary of her nipple, but the 10th anniversary of the reveal of said nipple on a national stage -- the Superbowl XXXVIII controversy that Jackson's spokesperson Stephen Huvane described as "a malfunction of the wardrobe."

janet jackson 2004

While singing the line “gonna have you naked by the end of this song," Justin Timberlake tore at Jackson's bustier, supposedly intending to leave her red lace bra intact. A decade later, speculation remains as to whether or not the whole thing was intentional. The incident sparked a legal battle between CBS and the FCC (who thought the performance a basic disregard of "common decency") that culminated with a fine of $550,000.

"Clearly somebody had knowledge of it. Clearly it was something that was planned by someone," Michael Powell, then FCC Chairman, said at the time. "She probably got what she was looking for."

Although the case surrounding Jackson's visible nipple didn't quite make it to the supreme court, it certainly succeeded in penetrating our vernacular. The etymology of the phrase "wardrobe malfunction" can be traced directly to Huvane identifying the exposure as such. The Global Language Monitor named it as one of the top Hollywood-derived phrases and the Chambers Dictionary acknowledged the term in 2008.

By definition, Dictionary.com lists a "wardrobe malfunction" as "an embarrassing situation caused by the clothes a person is wearing." But what about the wardrobe malfunction as a concept, as an accidental (or deliberate) means to obtain relevancy?

As was immediately the case with Jackson, nearly every "malfunction of the wardrobe" comes complete with a question of intent. One might reasonably argue that a well-executed nip slip is a quick way to obtain publicity with immediate, though fleeting attention. (See: Janet Jackson's Google trends results' peak in 2004 and almost complete disappearance shortly thereafter.)

In 2006, there was a series of particularly NSFW up-skirt photos of Lindsay Lohan that surfaced with alarming frequency. She failed to pair various skirts and dresses with underwear on Sept. 6, Sept. 12 and Nov. 8, amid various nip slips in April and throughout that summer, and what can only be called an "ass slip" at Nickelodeon's Kids Choice Awards.

Similarly, Britney Spears had so many wardrobe malfunctions beginning in 2008 that haplessly revealing lady parts has been dubbed "pulling a Britney," since she has had her "p---y hanging out" on and off stage.

To what extent does intent matter? Well, there is something somewhat disturbing about deliberately skipping out on panties only to do a faux split while exiting a limo. But whether someone means to show us their unmentionables is almost irrelevant when you consider the place of the wardrobe malfunction in celebrity culture. Really, the action has become so pervasive, that it extends beyond scandals and stunts, surpasses trend and simply becomes an anticipated aspect of being a lady in the public eye.


In 2011, Jen Chaney tucked her turtle neck into her khakis to write about the "common occurrence" of exposed celebrity breasts. Citing Khloe Kardashian, Nicki Minaj and Kelly Rowland's unintentional nudity, she claimed the nation had grown accustomed to exposed nipples. "Is it so hard for famous women to dress themselves?" she asked.

But, as Jezebel noted at the time, famous women wouldn't necessarily be famous if they wore sensible sweaters from Anne Taylor Loft. There are definitely intentional instances of the wardrobe malfunction, but sometimes, it just happens. The most shocking thing about the history of the term "wardrobe malfunction" is the fact that it continues to be so newsworthy.

carmen electra

So, it's been 10 years and where are we now? Over the course of the past few months alone, Carmen Electra, Kim Kardashian, Toni Braxton, Courtney Stodden and Paris Hilton have all experienced a highly viral "embarrassing situation caused by the clothes a person is wearing."

Alas, the fact that this remains the state of things 10 whole years since we saw Janet Jackson's nipple in that uncomfortable-looking metal pasty signals two unsettling things: 1) society will likely forever remain obsessed with voyeurism as it applies to the female body and 2) we're, like, really, really old.

Before You Go

Amal Fashanu February 2013

Eek! Wardrobe Malfunctions (NSFW)

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