Updated: May 10, 2019
No, it's not your imagination, clothes really are becoming more risqué as society evolves. Underwear deemed as socially acceptable as outerwear? Check. Body-con clothing so organ-compressingly-tight it defines every lump and bump with HD definition. Yup. Fabric so sheer, absolutely nothing is actually left to the imagination anymore? You get it.
The link between style and sexuality is both obvious and inextricable, not only in terms of the tension between what is revealed and what is not, but also because of how thoroughly these threads are woven into the tapestries of our identity: a merging of the physical (clothes, bodies) with the emotional (power, desire, self-expression). Throughout history, cultural norms have clearly dictated the intersection of these worlds and as society has developed through time, it has demanded increasingly liberal fashion trends reflective of sexual appeal. Arguably, the progressive shifts in womenswear have been far more transformative than that of menswear over the last 100 years. Possibly, an indication of societies ongoing advancement towards men and women’s equal rights coupled with the frankly, simple fact that men enjoy looking at women and women know it. Let’s take a look back at some of the pivotal moments in modern fashion history that have helped define the sexed-up wardrobe some women wear today and how exactly we might feel about it.
Historically, women were prescribed what to wear and even discouraged from having an opinion on self-expression through fashion. Curve-defining cinched waists from corsetry was about as sexy as it once got and revealing the ankle was enough to make the Victorian man aroused. Fishnet stockings began creeping in around the turn of the century too, embodying the fascination with the eroticism of the interplay of the seen and unseen. As the decades rolled on, hemlines began to rise and we observed how the sexual revolution of the sixties (cue the introduction of birth control), promoted the mini-skirt to be a staple item in every young woman’s wardrobe. Clearly, over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, society felt most at ease allowing women’s legs to make their debut first over other bodily parts.
Fast-forward to the eighties and boundaries were being pushed further with midriffs making their entrance thanks to the racy crop-top, (a nod to the aerobics craze and the popularity of the movie, ‘Flashdance’). By the late nineties and early noughties, hugely popular music artists; Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera popularised the garment so much so, that the crop-top achieved mainstream altitudes amongst teeny-boppers, causing schools to expressly ban the exposure of the midriff from their dress code. Anyone else remember rebelling by tying their school shirt up to navel revealing heights after school whilst reciting ‘Hit Me Baby, One More Time’, into a hairbrush, alone in their bedroom with as much sexual prowess as a twelve-year-old can muster? Just me?
By 2006, fashion went back to contour, a look so favoured a century earlier via corsetry. Figure-hugging body-con dresses became a go-to look for a night out as they specifically enhanced the feminine hour-glass shape; a clear visualisation of silhouette, useful for mating selection purposes to the male species within the nightclub territory. ‘Body-con’, short for ‘body-conscious, (not contour), clothing had been around since the late eighties, originally attributive to the invention of the ‘bandage dress’ by Hervé Leger but hadn’t gained momentum until 15 years later.
Nevertheless, the speed at which sex appeal has exuded through fashion has accelerated like no time before it over the most recent last two decades. By 2010 we had become desensitised to visions of excess flesh and dresses that vacuum packed our bodies to proudly reveal our physiques. Designers scratched their heads. Where could sex-appeal in womenswear go next? Brands advanced by designing items of clothing that had never been seen before by sending runway models down the catwalk in underwear to be worn as outerwear, and the world followed suit, audaciously driving social and sexual limits in clothing to uncharted terrain. All of a sudden a ‘lacy bralette’ became something every girl owned, while cunning brands marvelled with glee for simply throwing a suffix on the situation by adding ‘-lette’ to the end of ‘bra’ to distinguish it from actual bras.
But after all this pioneering graft work, where does this leave us today? Ironically, as women have fought for the liberation of sex appeal in their wardrobes over the years, it appears they have simultaneously slipped into the tricky business of objectifying themselves. And as we find ourselves amidst what has been labelled ‘The Third Wave of Feminism’, undoubtedly accentuated by the likes of the #metoo movement and high power celebrity women such as Beyonce and Lady Gaga, we appear to have hit a stumbling block amidst our journey. Popular opinion today states that women should be allowed to dress however they wish, provocatively or otherwise, stipulating that clothing that exudes sex-appeal creates a layer of armour that makes a woman feel empowered, cue the recent #bossbabe movement. Yet, on the other hand, the very people that place such value on this opinion complain of the media sexualising women through clothing, therefore treating them like objects, protesting that such images give women a false impression of what they are supposed to look like. Patriarchy! There seems to be some confusion.
While society makes up its mind on this one, it might be safe to assume that one aspect that does appear to trend between the two opinions is that women are making a stand to no longer be objectified. Yes, some women may want to feel noticed and to prosper from the feeling of power that comes with that, but we do not want to be solely valued on our image, to the neglect of other aspects of who we are, such as our thoughts, feelings and desires. Therefore, we may start to see the future of sex-appeal in clothing lies not in the next shockingly sexualised trend, but more so the overarching acceptance of how we all choose to self-express, be it scantily-clad or donning a burqa, and to know that some find empowerment in revealing their body as much as others do in modesty and that these choices do not define women as individuals.