The Great Dress Debate: Sheer Madness or Sheer Perfection?

Steve Bisgrove/Rex; Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP
Rooney Mara in Balenciaga, left, and Gwyneth Paltrow in Antonio Berardi

See-through clothing is the hot trend of spring 2014 -- but among Hollywood's early samplers, the red-carpet look proved it could either showcase an A-lister's assets, or doom her to fashion infamy.

Preventing stars' clothes from being see-through used to be the First Rule of Styling: Thou must avoid wardrobe malfunctions with opaque fabrics, slips, linings and Spanx.

Now 2014's sheer trend -- translucent insets, mesh necklines, net illusion waists, peekaboo cutouts and vertical or horizontal panels of filmy fabrics -- is the biggest look in red-carpet and cocktail clothing. And actresses walking the steep steps of the Palais this year and their stylists will be resorting to it to turn up the wattage. The question is, will the attention be good or bad?

PHOTOS: 15 Starlets in Sexy Sheer Dresses

When it's good, sheer is very, very good. Examples: Charlize Theron in partially transparent black Dior Couture (with strategic coverings) at the Snow White and the Huntsman premiere in 2012. Or Kate Winslet wearing a black Stella McCartney see-through-sleeved dress to the Mildred Pierce premiere in 2011. Diane Kruger keeps see-through looking ethereal, as she did in a green Jonathan Saunders dress at The Bridge premiere in July 2013. The list of other chic-and-sheer renditions is long, from Zoe Saldana in Gucci at the LACMA Art & Film Ball in 2013, to Cate Blanchett and her Armani Prives at both the Golden Globes and Oscars, to Rooney Mara at November's Rome Film Festival in Balenciaga spring 2014.

But when it's bad, well, the word "tacky" comes to mind. So does the word "Vegas." Need we remind you of Gwyneth Paltrow boldly donning a white, green and sheer black Antonio Berardi gown for the Iron Man 3 premiere in April 2013, with not just her legs but most of her butt on display? Or Kristen Stewart at The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2 premiere in 2012, also showing mucho derriere in a nude cutout Zuhair Murad? Beyonce at the 2012 Met Ball in a head-to-toe lace Givenchy, with cheek-bottom cleavage? Jennifer Lawrence in a deep blue Dior at the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire premiere that looked like a doily draped over a bathing suit? And Jennifer Lopez just about everywhere? If not done with restraint, sheer is the kind of trend that can instantly send an A-list star into Miley Cyrus country.

PHOTOS: Top 10 Best-Dressed at Met Gala

The difference between sheer perfection and sheer agony? When the final effect screams "Look at me!" it's the fashion equivalent of a sex tape.

"Fashion looks much different from the front row of a show than in a paparazzi photo on a real woman," notes Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing. "Too much skin distracts from what's supposed to be glamour. The star shouldn't become secondary to the sheer." And an underpinning is a girl's best friend. He adds: "The foundation needs to be seamless, a nude color and not have elastic or lace. Stylists need to think about camera tests -- lights can render the most opaque gown virtually see-through."

PHOTOS: Grammy Awards: 17 of the Raciest Dresses

Of course, there are some fashion watchers in favor of letting it all hang out. "The only way to wear see-through clothing is to do it fearlessly and unself-consciously," says Barneys creative ambassador-at-large Simon Doonan. "No matter how plump or tight your body is, somebody will point a camera at you and find an unflattering angle. So stick your chin in the air: Confidence is a great aphrodisiac." That is, unless you can see through it.

This story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.