The Historical Circle Jerk of Fashion and Sex

June 5, 2014 • Fashion

A motive of fashion is to exhibit the self – it is a pathway of distinction, it is just traveled with cotton and tulle. Clothing is a medium of communication; it is crux in identifying and securing your social role in culture at large. People that dismiss fashion as frivolity miss the baseline of clothes itself: nobody goes to work naked, and the clothes you do wear to work have been pre-determined to suit a standard of respectability and style itself. Clothing – and fashion at large – is entwined in a debate on all platforms of identity. Fashion is a sex struggle, a race struggle, a class struggle, and it has been for all of time. Members of the highest social strata are always distinguished through body decoration inaccessible for those who belonged to the lower social strata. In the 18th century, the wealthy loved their fine clothes – the embroidered silk waistcoats and delicate slippers that separated them from the poor. 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 […]”

Very often color was used to distinct the posh from the plain. The prime example is the color purple which was more expensive than any other color produced in the history of fashion. A lot of time, energy and man craft were used to crush murex to create purple. Only rulers could afford it. In the Elizabethan era Queen Elizabeth I only allowed her close relatives to wear the color purple. However, the industrial revolution changed its status. In Victorian England, the teenage chemist William Perkin created a new purple dye while experimenting with synthesize quinine. Perkin started his own company, and as a result, the 1850s en 1860s got their nickname the “mauve decades”. Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie de Montijo wore mauveine dresses, and consequently made hoop-skirts dresses with purple silk the rage in the middle class parlors all over the world. Perkin launched the industrial dye industry and fuchsia, violet and a variety of blue and green colors followed.


Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The concept of Western sexuality, as we know it, is not that old (19th century). Sexuality is not a natural but a social and artificial construct. Foucault revealed in “ Histoire de la sexualité” , the power relations that are involved in our perception of sexuality. What counts as erotic or demure, is time and space determined and always contextually bound. In other words: the link between fashion and erotica is culturally coded and arbitrary. In that sense, fashion can be used as a powerful communication tool. The go to example is high heels and sexuality. Countless articles and studies  have been devoted to the subject to grasp its meaning. Amy Winehouse discussed them quite concisely too, of course – who doesn’t understand the idea of “Fuck Me Pumps”?

The attractiveness of a body and how it is emphasized is bound to the time and space it occupies. In the roaring 1920s hemlines became shorter and revealed women’s legs. Madeleine Vionnet liberated the female body from corsets and created elegant, flowing fashion. It was an evolution in which a new ideal of beauty, which the athletic woman (among other Chanel and Poiret) was accepted. A couple years later, only floor- length gowns with back cleavage were the standard, and so on.


Throughout history women were subjected to different styles, such as long lacquered nails, petticoats, bustles and crinolines. The difference in culture played a role as well. Lotus feet were an ideal of beauty in Japan, but not in Paris. Fashion in India and the UAE is inspired by the climate and the diverse religions. Women wear modern versions of the sari and the abaya. Cultural expectations determine our possibilities. Clothing and fashion can support cultural constructions and reproduce them, so we see this confirmed and accepted as reality. There is no natural link between, say, a skirt and femininity. It is an arbitrary link between the garment as a material object and the value that is given to it.

The theory of the shifting erogenous zone by James Laver summarizes this view together: each period has a fascination and therefore an emphasis on a particular body part. In the Renaissance, a woman might have showed a glimmer of her calf or ankle and might have sparked a scandal while at the same time she could bear her bosom and received a certain admiration.

This statement is not without problems:theory cannot explain why these shifts occurs – although Suzy Menkes tried to illustrate the correlation in fashion and finance.  Alas, theory is often too simplistic and too restrictive: clothing would merely have arisen because it offered a means for promoting attractiveness. Valerie Steele used underwear as an example: “a person in underwear is simultaneously dressed and undressed” Underwear has both the function of coverage and emphasis, we must consider that our way of looking always is determined by our culture and in some cases may be invisible to us because of the conceptuality of it. Even the Victorian era, the so-called era of chastity and prudishness, had erotic elements. Back In 1879 Mary Eliza Joy Haweis wrote in her 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.”

Here we see the ambivalence – the tension between what is normal and what is ‘perverse’, both the production and the revolt. This is reflected in elements of the punk subculture that originally revolted against bourgeois values. British fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren sold in their store ‘Sex’ fetishistic attire and accessories of the sadomasochist underground culture.  These days Westwood still goes against dominant fashion although she is seen and accepted at the same time as an influential fashion designer.  Of course, punk in itself was a commodity brand to begin with: punk is dead and punk is forever, but that’s beside the point. Fetishwear – punk attire included — is a conversation between sexual power and contextual acceptability.

In her book ‘Fetish’, Valerie Steel reveals how in the last three decades, elements of this fetish culture have been adopted by the mainstream fashion and speaks of a popularization of fetish culture. “Once fetish fashions achieve a certain ‘style factor’ among trendsetters, they are picked up by internationally famous designers. All whose work is then ‘knocked off’ by mass-market clothing manufactures”

Gianni Versace was equally inspired by the sadomasochist culture and created his bondage collection back in 1992. More recently, the fall collection (2011) from Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton infused different elements of the fetish subculture with mainstream fashion, e.g. sheer blouses with leather. One master of transgressions of fashion standards is Alexander McQueen. Just like McQueen, designers Zana Bayne and Jac Langheim brought the image of the powerful, strong woman who could be threatening and dangerous . Self-taught Bayne made a name for herself with her leather harnesses inspired by bondage. Langheim mostly uses rubber and latex in her work and her designs show the versatility of the material.



Versace on left, Zana Bayne on right.

The status of fashion is highly ambiguous: you can love what it offers but hate the hoopla, the exploitation, the complexity of the reactions and entitlement of the discussion around your clothes. One the one hand, fashion is regarded as superficial, frivolous, spurious and trivial but on the other hand we have the ability to display the inner form and express ourselves. That isn’t a superfluous quest, is it? Clothing and fashion play a crucial role in giving meaning and social exchange thereof, in forming self- awareness and self-understanding, when acceptable and presentable making the self for self and others, and in positioning itself in the world.

The role of clothing in your life doesn’t have to a sobering point of practice, though. It is in the end, a game to participate in. It is a fantasy of fabric. Fantasy, has as Steele points out, an important psychological function. “We may protest that “the pervert is always someone else!” but our fantasies betray our hypocrisy. What is a ‘normal’ erotic fantasy? Fantasy or imagination is inevitably about the forbidden and the impossible.”

Sexuality and the taboo around the naked body and the sense of shame that it causes continues to haunt us. These tensions and contradictions around the body are expressed by fashion.

We are social individuals: we want to be unique and belong to the group. We have to find a certain balance, we want to construct ourselves as individuals and not just blend into the group and imitate, but we do not want to deviate too much from the group, because it has exclusionary effects. Through the paradox of fashion, we can make our own inconsistencies and express our ambivalences. Just because fashion is both frivolous and profound, both high and low art, business and beauty, both deception and expression, we can make our own ambivalent attitudes to gender, sexuality and social positions.  Because evidently, there’s no clear seduction strategy anymore. Perhaps there never was.

Header images from the Kyoto Collection and

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