Style and Sex

Dita Von Teese. Photographer unknown.

Fashion is about eventually becoming naked.
––Vivienne Westwood

Westwood says, in one sentence, what I wanted to say in an entire essay. Style and sex are natural bedfellows, and most forms of dress draw out or comment on human sexuality in some way. Even modest dress, as worn by Christian clergy and Muslim women, has a sexual component.

Clothes can draw the attention to different parts of the body, such as the lips, breasts, hands and nails. Your hairstyle can emphasize the shape of your face, your youth, or your maturity. And your makeup, or lack thereof, draws attention to different parts of your face.

The first clothing worn by humans had a very strong sexual component. Loincloths and pubic shields, worn by early humans across the world, were probably warn to prevent infections, injury and disease from spreading to the sex organs. Early societies were constantly threatened by extinction, from droughts, floods, wild animals, diseases and other threats they did not understand. Many children did not survive to age 10. Both men and women, therefore, seeked to reproduce as much as possible; part of this was protecting their private parts, since a person who could not have sex was unlikely to bear children.

Sexually suggestive photographs, like this one, use dramatic color, a direct gaze, and tightly-laced undergarments to stimulate erotic desire. Photo by SuicideGirls.

In many cultures, a restrained display of sexuality is a mark of good breeding, while lascivious displays are seen as primitive, barbaric and lower class. The little black dress suggests; the tube top urges. Since wealthier and higher status people are, presumably, less threatened by disease, hunger, and freak storms, they do not have to be as fertile or sexual to pass on their genes. Therefore, understated sexuality can be seen as an expression of wealth.

Speaking very generally, women choose their partners carefully, since there's always a risk that they might get pregnant and have to take care of the baby. Heredity counts, and a baby with a fitter father is more likely to be fit as well. Men, on the other hand, only need to pass on their genetic material, so they look at more superficial aspects, such as youth (a sign of fertility), beauty, symmetry (good genes), health and so on.

The differences between male and female fashion reflect these differences in sociobiology. All across the world, wealthy and successful men wear variants on the Western business suit: a three-piece dress-up suit, which shows that they don't have to work with their hands, and that they have enough money to buy such a suit. Women and gay men, on the other hand, change their "looks" often, perhaps to satisfy the male desire for novelty, to stand out from the competition, or just out of some instinctual, semi-conscious urge. This article is too short to get into male vs. female sexual desire (which are legion), but I encourage you to learn more, and above all observe other people.

The Paradox of Curiosity

Until the 19th Century, many Judeo-Christians assumed that clothes were born from the shame of Adam and Eve for eating from the tree of knowledge, when they "knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons" (Genesis 3:7). Clothing, in other words, arose from sexual shame. This isn't true, as far as anyone can tell: early humans probably adorned themselves for warmth, protection from grime, ceremonial significance, displaying the skins of their (animal) kills, and so on. In fact, the Indians of Orinoco felt a deep sense of shame at the idea of wearing clothes.

Christian missionaries sometimes found that introducing clothes to primitive societies worsened morals, since they stimulated "a nasty curiosity which never before existed" (Batterbery and Batterberry, 4). Worse, clothing encouraged dirt and grime, which led to infections and diseases, requiring a change in hygiene habits.

This "nasty curiosity" is obvious in many eras, especially ones with strict and repressive sexual codes. Victorian dress, for example, shows an almost comical enlarging of the bust and hips, with the waist narrowed and cinched to an impossibly small degree. Compare this woman to the flapper, a "liberated" woman, with almost no bust, no waist and no hips. At Catholic schools, teenage girls wear tartan skirts with short-sleeved white shirts––now cultural shorthand for a good girl longing to go bad. The "sexy librarian" fetish shows how restrained sexuality can excite the imagination rather than dampening it.

An Egyptian advertisement urging women to wear a niqab, a traditional Muslim garment.

Similarly, critics of Muslim modest dress (e.g. the hijab, the niqab, the abaya, and so on) contend that it is just another way to objectify a woman. Concealing a woman's hair, arms and legs to make her "pure" implies that these parts are somehow "impure." Since men don't have to "veil their lollipops," or be chaste, modest dress holds women responsible for male harassment and even assault, instead of holding men accountable for their own actions.

Anecdotal reports suggest that modest dress is no barrier against sexual harassment, assault and even rape. As Farnaz Seifi says:

In Iran there are women who wear the chador—which is all black and covers a woman from head to foot except for her face—and they're still harassed, even in the streets! I've met many men in Iran that tell me being covered up makes you even sexier.
Style and sex are intimately connected, especially when the aim is to repress sexual desire, rather than liberate it.

Other people's opinions matter, whether we want to admit it or not. Many a person has been restrained from expressing their sexuality for fear of what their friends (or relatives, or neighbors, or just random people in the supermarket) might think. Sometimes we dress to meet with the approval of fellow members of a group, to avoid becoming an outcast and feeling shame.

Style and sex are inescapable parts of daily life. What you wear, and how you do your hair, may attract or repel sexual attention, but there is no such thing as a "sexually neutral" outfit.

At first this realization might be grating. The idea that strangers are evaluating your "reproductive fitness" is gross. But guess what? We all do it! Have you ever seen a good looking person on the subway, and found your eyes lingering a little longer than was polite? It's not something to be ashamed of, it's just human nature.

Related Reading:

Dita Von Teese Gallery

Modest Swimwear

A Brief History of Lipstick

Learned Ugliness (The Ugly Duckling Syndrome)

Style and Money

Style and Evolution

Style and Class

The Looks Book


"Style and Sex" is one of our Essays on Style.

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