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Interactive timeline: 100 years of sexual expression
February 19, 2023
What is sex? I refuse to describe it as just two beings getting together and trying to reproduce, or even as simple as fooling around for pleasure. Although, both of those obviously exist, and I am sure that they are the first things that came to your mind when I utter the word; it’s a word that we oftentimes avoid using due to its once perceived as dirty connotations. Sex is much less simple than the natural phenomenon that we see it as. It is a fantasy, an illusion, a state of being and most importantly, a piece of everyone.
Sometimes when having a very serious conversation about clothing amongst my peers within the fashion studies department, you might hear one of the funniest words in the English vocabulary, “sexy.” As a product of the early 2000s, this word is a pretty prominent word in my vernacular. The word sexy implies that something about what you are describing is visually appealing, but also has a certain sex appeal to it that cannot go unnoticed. It is like when you see black fishnet stockings paired with a simple black heel; something about it just exudes sex.
Sexual expression through clothing is used in many different ways and is a subtle nod to the wearer’s persona and comfort with their own sexuality. In recent times, it has become more acceptable for sexual expression, including nudity, to be an open part of society. Especially in fashion, sex is an integral part of design and aesthetic.
Within only the last 100 years, society has made leaps and bounds towards where we are now and where we are going. There were many different ways to radiate sex with the aid of apparel, and there were many different times that these designs and styles took center stage, guiding ourselves away from sexual oppression and into sexual liberation. (Read more below.)
In the 1920s, trailing away from Edwardian Art Nouveau designs, women’s hemlines drew up to the knee midway through the decade. This might seem like a rather modest look now, but in that time, it was considered a very new and progressive way of dress. The sight of stockings was not something that had been acceptable in modern society in quite some time, especially in this manner.
The dresses were never snug around the hips or even in the breast really, but they had other sexual elements to them, especially in evening and formal dress at the time. Many times these ensembles called for a bare shoulder, or even a chest, seeing away with the dove breasted covered looks and hello to collar bones and perhaps even a bit of cleavage. With heavy amounts of beading and some elements of chiffon flow, these dresses were genuinely sexy.
The end of the 1920s came and escorted a new aspiration of sexual expression to the public, and that is through Hollywood films and their movie stars. Hemlines dropped again, but the sexual appeal did not disappear. We saw more fitted garments, especially with new actors and actresses in movies being the ones who popularized them. The vision of Jean Harlow wearing only a tight silk gown exudes sexual expression at this time.
Although sex was still not a topic to be spoken about in mixed company, we had plenty of men and women in the limelight who stirred up feelings both in the cinemas but also within ourselves. Due to this, we now have sex icons like the incredible Clark Gable, who with one look, still to this day, can make any seat wet, or the the even more heightenendly sexualized Mae West, who tickled audiences pink with her less than subtle, sometimes filthy, sexual innuendos that she was notorious for all the way into her 80s. With this new introduction of film and media of the sort, we saw a surge in sexual enlightenment through entertainment, and fashion was there to help that.
The beginning of the 1940s was a rough time for fashion as Europe had been at war for a bit of time, and the United States was about to join the fight. Fashion was less about showing off and flaunting sexuality at the time, but more about conserving and living. Rations played a big part in the slowing down of fashion during his time, and many styles of the previous decade followed in.
Pants, of course, had been worn by men for centuries, but prior to this time, pants worn by women were considered un-womanly and immodest most of the time. Although the intention of bringing pants to the limelight was not to express sexual statements, this opened a door so that it could. There are times of both masculine and feminine, and a lot of the time they coexist, but the 1940s had many very powerful hyper masculine fashions. The shoulder pads in women’s wear resemble the large shoulders of a sexy man, the pants going straight up to the waist, all looking very Katherine Hepburn and being effortlessly sexy.
World War II ended in 1945, and the men that survived came home to their wives and unapologetically took back their jobs, taking women out of the workforce and back into the home. Women’s dressing went from having masculine inspiration back into a hyper femme look in the 1950s. Although most mainstream designs were cutesy and frilly, they had a sense of sensuality to them.
Although things were still modest outside the home, standard garments like slips and dressing gowns of the time were sexy and decadent. Pin-up style became popular but really only within the bedroom. Actress Betty Paige was notorious for her rather scandalous for the time pin up photos of her wearing lingerie, tight clothing and even bondage ropes in some. Sexy styles of femme fatale-esque ensembles carried through the late 1950s and into the 1960s.
This height of homemaking created a height of sexual exploration through dress in the 1960s, and it was really starting to take effect on most people’s everyday wear. By this time, sex was starting to really become unstigmatized, and even spoken about in mixed company for some, but also on television. Media at the time was starting to loosen up compared to recent years, and sexual expression was not only being shown through dress, but also in art and photography.
A good example of sexuality through the media of the time is the infamous gentleman’s magazine, “Playboy.” Although the company originally started in 1953 and was famous throughout the rest of the decade, in the 1960s, Playboy started a philosophy column where they covered many different hard hitting topics of the day, including LGBTQ+ rights.
In fashion, like we saw only 40 years earlier, hemlines rose, but this time for the youth of the world and those who lived for fun; it kept rising past the knee and right to mid thigh or even higher. The miniskirt became popular, and it was fabulous and extremely sexy. Paired with a high leg boot really drawing out the limbs, the miniskirt started here and is now staple in most folks’ wardrobes.
Hair went from subtly feminine, and evolved to this divinely feminine look, as if there were mounds and curls of hair sprouting from the heads of women all around.
Bohemian designs and lifestyles were starting to take shape by the late 1960s, and ushered us into something a bit more groovy in the next decade.
In the 1970s, women’s dress became a bit more reserved in everyday wear and mens became a bit more casual, but tighter. Masculine sex appeal became noticeable in mainstream fashion again. Tight jeans and corduroy dress pants pulled up to high heavens, accentuating parts of the man graciously in the back but friskily in the front. Early in the decade, silk was a popular fabric for men’s shirts, left unbuttoned a bit to give a peek at whatever chest hair they had going on.
Later into the decade, clothing became more revealing yet relaxed. Strapless tops and Daisy Dukes were fashionable, and there is no denying that there is something about a pair of denim short shorts that is just plain sexy. Sex icons of the time were going for natural beauty looks, like the incomparable Farrah Fawcett and her luxurious waves. You can’t help but think of that swimsuit when she gets brought up can you?
A quite daring and sexy style was to come during the 1980s. With extremely futuristic ideals and designs, garments of the 1980s were something of another time with its over excess. Leather became a popular textile in all areas of fashion, but now in a less utilitarian way and more of a high fashion sexy way. Punk culture made its way from the underground of the 1970s and into the homes and closets of many people around the world. Sex symbols of the time, like Madonna, wore things like bustier tops and chain-link belts.
This idea of hyper femininity is very prevalent through the fashions of the 1980s, as hair once again grew in size and strong makeup accentuated the cheeks and lips. Shoulder pads grew and added a bit of masculinity to the time, especially with such flamboyance that was seen in pattern and color. A resurgence of 1940s-esque silhouettes came about, but only this time with a great deal of over indulgence compared to rationing times.
The 1990s was a downright sex filled time of fashion. High fashion looks of the time were tight, low cut in any way they could and revealing. Sheer garments became popularized and worn on red carpets by celebrities. Pulling inspiration from 1950s slips and under-garments, many dresses were small, tight and a bit erotic. Some designers made dresses in this manner, such as the late Gianni Versace, but many people opted to thrift them from decades past.
We are now today seeing a resurrection of many of these designs being sold again and becoming popular on fast fashion sites like Shein or Fashion Nova. This style became relevant again through music artists wearing what could be considered as classic pop star looks from later in the decade and into the new century.
The early 2000s were jam packed full of sexualizing clothing. Sexy was wearing low rise jeans with the tan line of a playboy bunny, or a visible Victoria Secret bustier as a shirt. Sassy baby shirts with funny phrases written across the chest became popular, always saying something like “Born to shop, forced to work.” Bikinis were itty bitty, and that was the point; you could get away with not having to cover up, or had the luxury of wearing whatever you wanted basically.
Men’s fashion was sexual in a different way. There is nothing better scarred in my eight year old brain than staring at one of those huge Abercrombie and Fitch posters in the mall and counting the muscular abs as if I were sitting in my kindergarten classroom. The clothing being modeled of course was pretty standard men’s clothing, but the way that it was advertised was extremely sexual.
By the 2010s, sexy fashion was things like the Band-aid dress and tight garments with cutouts in the front, the back or the side; let’s just say that cutouts were popular. Lace garments became relevant again, and we were living the Lana Del Rey fantasy. Fashion into the teens of the decade as we all remember got pretty cheugy, and then started up this whole 1990s resurgence of tight everything, silks, strappy sandals and hair clips.
We are at a place in fashion now where sex and nuance of it is just a standard part of the design process. With barely any pressing social rules in what is fashionable and what is pornographic, we are far more likely to see movie stars and singers half naked on the red carpet. Micro trends come and go very quickly, setting the stage on what is up to date in today’s fashion.
Something that has become extremely popular as of the past few years, and that I expect to keep inclining is the wearing of fetish gear. At what point do we say, “is this sexy, or just sex?
Down the runways recently, we have seen plenty of leather goods, some such as harnesses, chokers, collars and many more risque ensembles and accessories. This look and aesthetic is often associated with the punk community as they pulled much inspiration from military wear and fetish wear. Many of these designs are high end, but they really aren’t anything that you couldn’t get from your local sex shop.
So tell me, how did we go from skirts just at the knee being a sign of change in the past, to the dominatrix uniform being a sign of ours now? It took 100 years to get here, but in terms of what is acceptable in public, did we go too slow or too fast?
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