Jennifer Lopez understands--if only subconsciously--a few things about the visual power of fashion, the control a woman can reap when she defiantly reveals her body and the uncomfortable fascination that comes from a magnificent physique exposed.

She also knows the go-to design house for when a woman wants to flirt with indecency.

Lopez turned to Donatella Versace for her Grammy night ensemble. And at the house of Versace she found a wisp of a dress. The floor-length gown in rain forest green was printed with a lush pattern of palm fronds and tropical leaves. The gown, with its long gossamer sleeves, plunged several inches below the navel and was held together by a spectacular brooch. The dress was open below the jeweled pin and had a teasing tendency to blow back and away from Lopez's muscular legs as she moved.

Lopez was able to appear on national television in this Garden of Eden dress only because of a pair of turquoise hot pants she had the good sense and the modesty to wear. One must also give thanks to body glue and good posture for preventing one of those moments of universal discomfort as one watches a young starlet tumble from her frock. And noting that the gown was crafted of featherweight chiffon and without any means of internal support, one also can't help but to be impressed by the all-around perkiness of Lopez herself.

Still, how Lopez was able to sit down and not have her bosom spring forth triumphantly is one of the great mysteries of engineering. Perhaps she was simply sitting with her dress pulled taut over her bosom and bunched up under her famous derriere.

For its part, the dress was from the Versace spring 2000 ready-to-wear collection, a season in which the prints were inspired by the tropics. The silhouettes resulted from the designer reaching back into the Versace archives and rediscovering the company's vast history of scarves. Indeed, most of the dresses from that collection played on the idea of twisting scarves around the torso in order to produce a dress.

All of which is to say that yes, your instincts were correct if you thought the evening gown looked a bit like a topless beach sarong; and yes, this spring you, too, could pop into the Chevy Chase Versace boutique and purchase a similar frock for about $15,000.

Once again a Versace dress has managed to become the talk of an event--the most notable other example was when Elizabeth Hurley turned up in a Versace safety pin dress at the 1994 London premiere of "Four Weddings and a Funeral." The gown, which seemed precariously held together by punk rock safety pins, transformed Hurley from a mere model into a celebrity. It isn't clear, yet, what sort of metamorphosis the scarf dress might effect for Lopez, but at the very least it helped to distract a bit of attention from Lopez's boyfriend, Sean "I just got indicted" Combs.

Lopez was not alone in her femme fatale attire. Faith Hill's black leather gown also had a neckline that plunged down to kiss her bellybutton, but it had a thin piece of leather holding the V-neck in place. A safety bar of sorts. Hill climbed up onto the fashion high wire but used a net. She might as well have been racing in the Tour de France on a bicycle with training wheels.

Singers Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige wore strikingly similar ensembles. Both were dripping in pink: slinky evening gowns and fur stoles. Even their haircuts were similar: cropped flips with a hint of just-rolled-out-of-bed ennui. But Blige's faux platinum locks left her looking a little 'round-the-way rough next to Houston's charm school facade. Besides, neither of these divas has the superhero body of Lopez.

And pop star Christina Aguilera happily showed off her rear end in another Versace number: a silver chain mail slip adorned with giant killer butterflies from the Atelier line. Mostly, though, no one cared about her adolescent tush, except, perhaps, her mother.

Besides, there's an enormous difference between seeing the Grammy-winning Aguilera--who peppered her thank you speech with numerous "goshes" and "you guys"--glitzed up in silver and seeing the curvaceous, grown-up Lopez. The former is playing dress-up. Lopez seems to be playing you.

The power of the scarf dress was not in what was revealed--everyone has seen plenty of navels and cleavage. (Indeed, as a warmup, Lopez wore a low-cut Gucci shirt dress to the VH1 Awards to little more than admiring glances.) Instead, the Versace dress caused stunned chatter because of what it threatened to reveal: a womanly body of breathtaking proportions. Like the safety pin dress, it was held together by seemingly unreliable means. The woman who wore it was positively daring someone, something, the wind, to test her moxie. What would she do if suddenly everything was revealed?

The dress also showed off a bit of the old Versace deftness. Once again the label balanced the tawdry with the tasteful. A spectacular print on demure chiffon cut for a night in the red-light district. Palm Beach bumps up against skank ho'.

There is a long history of femmes turning up at award shows wearing next to nothing. Cher virtually invented such exhibitionism. Toni Braxton has strutted about in a revealing manner. Ashley Judd strode across the stage at the Academy Awards in a dress cut high enough to reveal her underwear, and Hurley showed her leopard print panties at a friend's wedding in the United Kingdom.

When the revelation seems to be accidental, it causes a certain amount of embarrassment among observers. But in the case of Lopez, with a smile on her beautiful face and her perfect body toned and tawny for its unveiling, observers are left to marvel not only at her nerve, but also at her.