Fashion and/or Sex - A Primer in the History of Looking the Part
Sex isn’t about fashion. Fashion isn’t about sex. If fashion were about sex, models would twerk down the runway in fashion editors’ faces and twirl around poles for the photographers.
All photos by Weegee—International Center of Photography/Getty Images
Wearing her wig hat and shades to match
She’s got high-heel shoes and an alligator hat
Wearing her pearls and her diamond rings
She’s got bracelets on her fingers and everything
She’s the devil with the blue dress, blue dress
Devil with the blue dress on.
—“Devil with the Blue Dress On,”
Shorty Long, 1964
Most women will indignantly deny that the pleasure they derive from their clothes has anything to do with the idea of attracting the opposite sex. They dress, they say, to please themselves or (a little more profoundly) in competition with other women. But in competition with other women for what?
—Clothes, James Laver, 1952
Sex isn’t about fashion. Fashion isn’t about sex. If fashion were about sex, models would twerk down the runway in fashion editors’ faces and twirl around poles for the photographers. Vogue editors would get lap dances. And the models wouldn’t look prepubescent. The rack would be back in fashion, and not the one you see pushed down Seventh Avenue. Strippers would put it on instead of taking it off. Sasha Grey would be in high-end fragrance ads.
Victoria’s Secret pretends that it has a fashion show and that it participates in the world of fashion, but the secret of the Secret fashion show is that it isn’t a fashion show—it’s Republican burlesque. It isn’t about fashion any more than the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” is about sports.
Indeedy-do! Fashion is one world and sex is another. The twain may meet once in a while, and while we might treasure the juiciness of those overlap moments, there are two different distinct systems and iconographies at work here. But then again, there is sexy fashion and there is fashionable sex. We are not entirely deprived of their collaboration. If you’re lucky and smart you can have it both ways on occasion. Sex and fashion are very intimately related in their origin, and once in a while, even today, they are joined somewhere near the hip.
But if fashion isn’t purely about sexual attraction, what is fashion about?
Traditionally, fashion is about class. If you’re wearing fashion then you belong to a particular class and what you wear identifies you as such. It may even differentiate your status within that class. Originally, fashion was the exclusive domain of an elite—the aristocrats, and then the ownership class. Landowners wore fashion and then the great mercantile barons got in on it, but everybody else was just wearing clothes. Any episode of Downton Abbey illustrates this distinction clearly. Both classes are dressed in code: those downstairs are in uniforms as flow-chart specific as those of the military, defining rank at a glance, while the costumes of the upstairs denizens emphasize narrative, history, and, if not creativity, artistry and taste. For both ruling-class men and women, fashion promoted individuality and broadcast the lack of physical employment, although physical sportiveness, particularly horse and hunt, did occasionally sex things up a bit.
“You look classy, you know what I mean?” That’s a very middle-class thing to say, but fashion is always aspirational.
In Clothes, James Laver wrote: “In early times, before women began to compete in the game, the Hierarchical Principle was almost the only one that mattered. Anything was welcome which raised a man above his fellows, often in the quite literal sense. Hence plumes in the hair, and the strict rules that had soon to be devised for preventing unimportant persons from wearing as many or as conspicuous plumes as their betters.”
The seminal text explaining the class struggle behind fashion is Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which offers two key motivations for the codified and competitive manner in which we dress: conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption. In a society of classes, members of the upper class seek to emphasize the fact that they don’t work or, if they do, that they don’t sweat or get their hands dirty. The work of the upper class, according to Veblen, is “exploit,” while the work of the lower class is “drudgery.” The idea of a multi-class society is simply that better people don’t work. Today it’s OK to work as long as you only use an iPhone to do so and stay out of the office.
The history of fashion is filled with extreme examples of the demonstration of idleness, indolence, and conspicuous leisure, from Chinese foot-binding, long lacquered nails, petticoats, bustles, and crinolines, to platform and high-heeled shoes that often make the simple act of walking unassisted problematic. Hobbling women is one of the most persistent fashion strategems, from the platform shoes of ancient Athens, to the teetering Gaga boots that offer NBA height to average women. For centuries, high-end women’s footwear was designed to be worn in a sedan chair (or later, limo). If you have to actually walk anywhere, how important can you be? Male pimps were never great believers in walking, so they adopted platform shoes in the 70s to lengthen their “gangsta lean,” and grew their pinky nails long, not just to scoop up daring powders, but to show that they didn’t do manual labor or housework. Work clothes are not fashion. Fashion is “I don’t work” clothes.
As far as conspicuous consumption goes, that game has changed somewhat. Dressy clothes aren’t what they used to be. Hermès offers a $91,000 T-shirt, and the APO jeans that cost four grand have gold rivets. It’s all coded through a matrix of brand names now, so that the rich can recognize each other, but the muggers can’t.
Today we look at the extreme costumes of a century or two back with eyes far different from those to which they were designed to appeal. We may find them unsexy in the extreme, although with a little investigation we learn that what’s sexy is also quite subject to fashion’s twists and turns. In the Renaissance, a woman might have bared her bosom at court and received a certain admiration, but to show her calf or ankle might have sparked a scandal. Fashionable breasts were, of course, breasts that never gave suck, to babes anyway, but those of a woman who, if she had children, paid someone to wet nurse, someone who didn’t sport décolleté.
One need only look at how Marie Antoinette was dressed and how her hair was done to understand that revolution against fashion, as it was then known, was inevitable. The next things to go after Marie Antoinette lost her head were corsets, high heels, layered skirts, and towering powdered wigs. All of a sudden, women could move. They could even run. It was a first taste of freedom that would eventually overthrow the conspicuous feminine leisure apparatus.
Then, in 1851, a married woman involved in the Temperance movement named Amelia Jenks Bloomer promoted pantaloons for women through her journal, the Lily. Thanks to an odd coalition of suffragettes, manufacturers (particularly textile manufacturers) who employed women, and health advocates, “bloomers” caught on like crazy, and once women took to bicycles in them, well, there was no stopping them.
The first modern fashion that we might recognize today as sexy was created by Madeleine Vionnet, who founded her Parisian Temple of Fashion house in 1912. Inspired
by dancers, particularly Isadora Duncan, and appealing to the neoclassical sensibility of bohemians who admired the Greek and Roman pagans of old enough to dance around the maypole in togas, she liberated the female body from corsets and stays, simply draping the natural body like a classical sculpture and introducing the bias cut that both concealed and revealed.
This artistic renaissance happened to coincide with social and political changes that liberated women from roles symbolized by those massive petticoats and bony corsets. Ironically, what we see today as the beginning of sexiness in women’s fashion actually had far more to do with women going to work than with sexual liberation. The flappers of the jazz age, with their short skirts, sheer stockings, bobbed hair, and red lips, smoked cigarettes, drank cocktails, and danced daringly to “Negro music.” They slept around, but they also manned the phones, typewriters, and sales counters of the new world. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who invented public relations, told the flappers that Lucky Strike cigarettes were “torches of freedom,” and smoking became fashion for suffragettes. Pardon me for putting it this way, but the jazz age was girls gone wild. And some men liked it.
Women found new ways to demonstrate their leisurely unemployment, and fashion developed into a great industry that reached high and low, creating styles and brands that would signify status more literally than it had ever been signified before.
Revolution continued throughout the 20th century. It was proclaimed an age of democracy, and so the old classes were mixed until class became not a segmented totem pole, but a sort of infinitely varied spectrum, with the masters of the universe on the couture end and the lumpen fabulous occupying the other wing. In fact, fashion became a new form of class warfare, far less risky than taking to the barricades.
Today, fashion is a complex engine. It consists of many layers, each corresponding to a specific class sensibility, some oddly invisible to the others. There is the traditional top-end couture crowd, which favors original creations made to proclaim supreme consumer power and unrivaled leisure. Then you have your fashion avant-garde demimonde, ever advancing the bounds of fashion and obsoleting last year’s advances. And then you have various levels of fashion, from Donna Tartt intellectual, all the way down to working girl and fly girl. They all work the same way, but each looks different. Sex girls have their own fashion—bimbo goddess wear. But each level operates in some way as fashion.
Of course, fashion at any level has to change, or it’s not fashion but a continuum of style. Fashion changes the eye’s focus, suddenly manifesting epiphanies of a new beauty. Once we’ve refocused to the new conventions we wonder how our parents, or even our former selves, once considered those looks to be attractive. Or were they?
Perhaps the pants worn by Barbara Stanwyck or Rita Hayworths’s shoulder pads were never intended to lure Fred MacMurray or Glenn Ford, but to bewitch other women with their ballsy, take-charge drag. After World War II came the baby boom, when all the GIs got home and down to bedroom business, and it was no coincidence that fashion suddenly emphasized the heroic breast, with Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Sophia Loren, and Diana Dors starring as Venus. Yeah, the human body has its own fashion trends. Remember curvy supermodels? If you’re under 30 you might not recall the era of pre-interchangeable fashion models. Designers, apparently, want all the applause at the end of the show. Still, sex always seems to be trying to make a comeback in fashion, but often under new guises.
As Mary Eliza Joy Haweis wrote in her 1879 book, The Art of Dress: “Costume vibrates perpetually between the need of being seen and the need of being covered. Now one bit of the body’s beauty is displayed, and the rest is sacrificed and covered up… Another scrap of arm or shoulder has its day, and gives way to the foot, or the waist, or something else.”
Every man who loves women knows the bafflement that arises in him over certain costumes that are all the rage in the fashion establishment. I remember feeling that there was a conspiracy at work when they attempted to foist the maxiskirt on the public, just when the miniskirt had given us more leg (and glimpses beyond that) than ever before. We also feel cheated when we begin to realize that she’s not really dressing for us, but for her girlfriends.
It is not entirely about money or class or sex. It’s about being ahead. Of having the vision before it goes mass-market, and thus being in the leadership dragging us into the future. They want to be imitated by the women who see them, and to be the first to introduce the latest shock of the new. Even if it’s about recycling, fashion is the religion of modernism.
Most of the women who participate in real fashion dress for other women. Some women dress for men. But those who dress for women seem to belong to a class above their sexed-up sisters. Leandra Medine, a deliberately adorable and adorably deliberate young fashion blogger who goes by the handle the Man Repeller, explains that pursuing true fashion, the hardcore, often entails what she calls “man repelling.” Leandra defines a man repeller as “she who outfits herself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls, shoulder pads, full-length jumpsuits, jewelry that resembles violent weaponry, and clogs.”
It’s not that a woman of fashion is consciously motivated by the prospect of scaring off men, but the chances are that your basic hetero guy hasn’t broken the fashion code to the extent that he can fully dig what she is wearing and why it is attractive and powerful. Fashion is always ahead of the curve, and the alpha male is often way around the other side of that tricky bend. But sometimes we get lucky.
There is always, even if it’s hidden away, fashion that qualifies as such and yet is visible and appealing to the hetero-male naked eye. Some of us can read fashion in all its coded glory, and occasionally we find ourselves aroused by something that emerges from fashion. We see the primordial in the sophistication of Azzedine Alaia. He makes women look hot. We can say the same for several Italian masters such as Antonio Berardi, Dolce & Gabbana, Gianni and Donatella Versace, and the new Sicilian guy, Fausto Puglisi, who told me, “I like the idea of the traffic stopper. I am Sicilian in this.”
“The real truth would seem to be… that the human creature is by nature not a clothed animal but a naked animal, is ever reverting by bits to its original state. Never can it attain to it, in the temperate zone, under whatsoever revolution of feeling, health, or morals. Clothed it must be; and yet is impelled dimly to be at once clothed and unclothed.”
—Mary Eliza Joy Haweis,
The Art of Dress, 1879
In our convoluted system of ephemeral and instantaneous class struggle, we are perhaps always computing the signals we send out with our clothes, to achieve a perfectly targeted balance between attraction and repulsion. Like Lady Gaga with nice tits and horns growing out of her shoulders. Born this way? Not exactly. It’s voluntary alienation. With the right clothes, a woman can turn this one on while turning that one off. It’s a new and small world, and we can’t afford to simply attract everyone anymore. It’s not safe. Billionaires don’t wear cutaway coats; they wear jeans. A genuinely rich person wouldn’t dare look it. Today, fashion and sex are all encoded. When they’ve got your number, you’ll know.
In the Old Testament, we are told that after eating the fruit that imparted knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. Clothes, apparently, were improvised after this satanically inspired epiphany. But perhaps it was the other way around. In On Human Finery, Quentin Bell quipped, “Such races as go naked are by no means deficient in modesty, and the first garments worn were perhaps used in erotic dances as a means of excitement.” Perhaps especially in our time it seems clear that the purpose of clothing is not so much to prevent us from getting aroused as to expedite it. It’s all a matter of fine-tuning to bring fashion and sex into harmonic alignment.
When tuning up, start with the G-string. If it’s vibrating correctly it will lead you straight to the G-spot.