Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Sex, so the saying goes, sells.
But for the last decade or so, that’s largely been forgotten by fashion designers. Think of the dominant aesthetics: the elegant “ceramicist with a private income” look of Phoebe Philo’s Céline. The XXL hoodies and oversized jeans of hypebeast queues. The Reformer-ready leggings of athleisure. The given-up-on-life trackies of WFH/lockdown (no judgement). The super-rich cosplay of long camel coats and precise polo necks.
It’s not prim exactly, but these aren’t clothes to get anyone hot under the collar.
Until now. It’s summer 2022… and things have changed. As front row critics have agreed, fashion is bringing sexy back. Collections include see-through dresses (Fendi, Mugler), lingerie (Prada, Coach), slinky LBDs (Nensi Dojaka, LaQuan Smith, Alaïa), even a dominatrix and her “client” (Richard Quinn), as modelled by drag queen Violet Chachki. Mini skirts – and specifically that belt-length Miu Miu skirt – are a thing again. Ditto high heels and over-the-knee boots. There’s more skin on show in menswear, too: short shorts, crop tops and louche, languid shirts appeared at S. S. Daley, Fendi and Ludovic de Saint Sernin, while the sexy, queer-focused Butt magazine was relaunched by Bottega Veneta this spring and Saint Laurent collaborated with the Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Celebrities’ outfits are getting steamy, too. See Gaga and her boob-cupping dress for the Critics Choice Awards, Timothée Chalamet and his shirtless look under an LV suit at the Oscars, Halsey and Kelly Rowland in transparent dresses at the afterparties, or Emma Corrin, and her balloons-for-breasts, at the Olivier Awards in London. Even pregnant bodies – typically out of bounds when it comes to sexy – are included, thanks to Rihanna, who brought a hot mama look to Paris Fashion Week, wearing a sheer négligée over her baby bump.
You might have also seen sexy dressing IRL, as caterpillars shed their trackies to become social butterflies on the razz after two years on the sofa. Shopping app Lyst reports that searches for “see-through” have gone up 63 per cent since 2021, while male shoppers’ desire for cropped items has increased by 21 per cent. The corset, meanwhile, may be the new hoodie. Thanks to Bridgerton and Adele, you can find them for sale everywhere from Asos to End.
Sure, fashion is cyclical, and it makes sense that a period of baggy clothing is being followed by one with not much clothing at all. But what is interesting is how these alluring clothes are dovetailing with something key: our sex lives.
In 2018, The Atlantic published an article on the “sex recession”. According to years of CDC surveys, American high school students were found to be having less sex. The percentage dropped from 54 per cent in 1991 to 40 per cent by 2017. The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that the percentage of Americans between 18 and 29 who’d not had sex in the past year had doubled between 2008 and 2018 to 23 per cent. Back home, The Guardian reported that there were 7.7 million single people in the UK in 2017, with this figure set to reach 10.7 million in 2039 – that’s one in seven people.
Some of the sex recession is down to circumstance. It’s harder to hook up when you’re living at your parents’ house, as many young people do, for example, in a punishing time of pandemic and inflation. Other factors include more women feeling able to say no to sexual encounters, rising anxiety and depression, and the fact that young people are prioritising other elements of life (friends, career, Depop).
Sex is also now just one of a number of human desires and needs catered to by modern digital culture. As Deliveroo solves your immediate hunger with the swipe of a button, OnlyFans or similar satisfies, to an extent, a different appetite. The same digital culture also mirrors how young people are feeling. On TikTok, the social media app with the youngest audience, a sexual abstinence movement is growing. At the time of writing, #celibacy has 63.7 million views.
But, after two years of very little physical contact, even the sex recession generation is craving – or fetishising, anyway – the feel of intimacy. Speaking about recent single Baby and its video, in which she writhes around in a leather bustier and fringed mini, Charli XCX said: “It’s about sex and sexuality and having good sex and just feeling yourself, essentially.”
This sums up a new mood, one that feels authentically sex-positive, more permissive, a bit messier.
On TikTok, #celibacy is dwarfed by #kinktok, which currently has 10 billion views, while the woman of the moment is former dominatrix Julia Fox, who wears the waistband of a pair of jeans as a top and discusses sex work on her podcast, Forbidden Fruits. There’s also 2022’s most influential TV show, Euphoria, where ill-advised sex happens in strip-lit bathrooms at parties, with young women wearing BDSM-friendly accessories and microminidresses. The HBO drama “is literally the moment right now,” says Charlotte Bayes, who has written about sex for THE FACE. “The way Cassie, Maddy and Kat specifically dress in this overt, tits out, midriff on show, satins and cashmere [way]. I love it.”
Designers love this vibe, too. In 2018, Christopher Kane started More Joy, his merch line that uses the typeface of legendary 1972 lovemaking manual The Joy of Sex. Products include T‑shirts, socks and cups with the word “sex” on, and a vibrator. “Sex is part of life and it’s important that it’s celebrated and talked about,” he says. “Pleasure brings joy.”
For Kane, sexy dressing in 2022 is, crucially, inclusive. “As body positivity and diversity is becoming rightfully more prominent in fashion, I feel that the interpretation of sexy dressing has changed for the better. The term ‘sexy’ itself is subjective and a complex one: anyone and everyone can be sexy, it’s about that innate confidence.”
This sex- and body-positive point of view is echoed by others. Alexia Elkaim, the woman behind Miaou, the corset brand loved by Fox, Bella Hadid and the wardrobe department of Euphoria, is frank about her inspiration. “I love my body,” she says. “I just have a lot of love for it and I feel really empowered by it.”
Perhaps – we can hope, anyway – the fact that more women feel more able to rebuff unwanted sexual encounters means they are more confident in wearing sexier clothes just because they feel like it. This reading sees the feeling of wearing these clothes as empowering, with the effect they might have on others almost an irrelevance. Nensi Dojaka, who pioneered the so-called “naked dress” trend, says there’s a change in gaze. She describes her aesthetic as sensual rather than sexy, “because I think it’s not about the male gaze, which sex would be more associated with. The whole idea is to make women feel good and confident in their own skin. They have the power, they feel powerful, they own their own body and their own image, and they dictate how they’re seen.”
This ethos is also seeping into unisex clothing and menswear. Ludovic de Saint Sernin, who has been sponsored by Pornhub, says part of his steamy collections, including one with models wearing only towels, celebrates a different idea of male sexiness to the hench mainstream ideal. “I wanted to have a body that I either wanted to get for myself or a body that’s healthy, but not exaggerated,” he says, “that’s kind of like mine, where it’s a bit more fluid. I just embrace the fluidity of it.”
This questioning goes right to the top and covers all sorts of bodies – and their transformations.
“Right now I’m really into pushing the idea of sexy,” said a heavily-pregnant Rihanna in an interview with Refinery29.“When women get pregnant, society tends to make it feel like you hide, hide your sexy, and that you’re not sexy right now [but] you’ll get back there and I don’t believe in that shit.” The star has since covered Vogue – with bump – in a red Alaïa lace catsuit. This is all par for the course for Rihanna. With her lingerie brand Savage x Fenty, she has championed different types of sexy, with diverse casting in her shows and ad campaigns. In 2018, she even featured a nine-months-pregnant Slick Woods, who apparently gave birth soon after walking in the show, wearing nipple pasties, stockings and strappy knickers.
Brenda Otero, Communications Manager at Lyst, says this thinking marks a crucial shift. “There is a new type of sexy dressing that is not about other people’s gaze, or about traditional gender roles,” she says. “It’s a bit more [about] self-expression and body empowerment.” See the new wave of designers who want to dress women beyond the size zero model cliche – Karoline Vitto, Sinéad O’Dwyer, Michaela Stark and Ester Manas – or brands like Casey Cadwallader’s Mugler, Telfar, de Saint Sernin and Collina Strada that encourage an anything-goes approach when it comes to ideas of what desirable, sexy and cool look like.
In many ways, society is now hypersexualised. An episode of Love Island can bring a viewing of an under-the-duvet fumble to a Monday night in; an idle scroll on Instagram this afternoon gave me a close-up of Kourtney Kardashian’s bum. But this is the acceptable, no-women’s‑nipples, largely heteronormative depiction of sexy. It’s of a select group of honed and toned celebrities. They look abstractly sexy, perfectly so.
The new take on sexy discussed here has its roots in fashion imagery and art that pushes against this manicured, waxed and perfectly lit version. There’s artist Reba Maybury’s work, Isabella Burley’s online erotica bookstore Climax and Gut magazine. Launched in 2018, its most recent issue, which came out at Christmas, features sexy Santas, devils, elves, a diverse selection of models and a kind of end-of-the-pier spirit. “It’s just my personal style,” says founder Ami Evelyn Hughes. “I like transgressive imagery and more visceral things, and I guess sex is one of the most visceral things that humans do.”
In her recent book The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan writes that “sex, which we think of as the most private of acts, is, in reality, a public thing.” Discussing sexy clothes isn’t like discussing a trend for, say, green, or fringing. It covers the territory of our wider cultural conversations, including gender politics, race, LGBTQ+ rights, sexuality, body image and more. What women, in particular, wear is policed, with slut-shaming never too far away. There’s also the question of which bodies are “allowed” to look sexy, with trans bodies, queer bodies, bodies of colour, differently-abled bodies and plus-sized bodies constantly judged.
Sexual imagery that is challenging to mainstream ideals, like that seen in Gut, is about exploring and celebrating all types of desire, but it’s also a resistance to a monoculture and a narrow idea of what sexiness is. The Instagram account @homoeroticcowboi4.0 focuses on how fashion has explored erotic and queer culture in menswear and how this has been squeezed out over time. The founder (who wishes to remain anonymous) has watched as Tumblr banned porn and OnlyFans tried to. On Insta, his account has been blocked four times (hence the “4.0” suffix to his handle).
“It’s an indication of how much censorship has been happening. Last year, [I had] a photo of two men kissing removed from Instagram and I appealed. They rejected the appeal and said it was against their guidelines for sexual content. And then in the meantime, you have Britney Spears posting a naked photo,” they say, referring to the pop star posting a photo of herself largely nude, with strategically placed diamond emojis.
Hughes agrees that there is a double standard. “I have had sponsors pull out every year for the last six years,” she says. “I’m obviously a very out-there person compared to a mainstream person, but I do find it really mad [that there’s a problem with] a boob or a penis on Instagram or inside an art magazine in 2022. It’s like we’ve gone backwards.”
In another way, we have – ironically, at least. The “bimbo” aesthetic uses clothes to push against accepted ideas around sexuality and gender politics. Huge on TikTok, the look is all-pink-everything type of sexy, influenced by the early Noughties ’fits of Paris Hilton and friends. At first glance, it signals an empty-headed male fantasy first popularised in the Eighties, one that would cause serious eyerolls from some feminists, who have spent years doing away with such pigeonholing of female identity.
But the playful take on these clothes is aiming to weaponise them. The bimbo presents the toxic look of noughties femininity – compliant, cute, size zero, often in pink PVC with a yard of midriff – but turns it on its head. In place of compliance, she has irony and anger similar to Courtney Love’s take-up of pretty pink dresses, usually stained with lipstick and worse, in the ’90s. Here, the male fantasy figure hoodwinks anyone who thinks a bimbo is an easy conquest. As “Queen Bimbo” Chrissy Chlapecka says in an explainer video on TikTok: “I don’t do this for the misogynistic male gaze, I do it for my gaze and, damn, my tits look good!”
This year isn’t, of course, the first time sexy clothes have been in fashion. Since Victorian times (when chair legs were covered for being too racy), every decade in Western history has had its own consensus on what was sexy: flappers in the 1920s, a dinner-jacketed gentleman in the 1930s, the wasp waist in the 1950s, skinny indie boys in the 1990s.
But things get interesting when societal debates explicitly get caught up with the associated clothing. Think of the 1950s, when men like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard shook their hips while wearing tight suits and make-up, signalling scandalous sexual energy – of all persuasions – to audiences still mired in postwar respectability. The 1960s, with its supposed sexual revolution (one touted as being for all, but chiefly benefitting men, really) and associated mini skirts. The 1970s, with its sexually permissive disco glamour, and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, providing an escape from a backdrop of grey weather, strikes, power cuts and political upheaval. The 1980s, when power-suited women were meant to be breaking the glass ceiling, but still required Melanie Griffith in Working Girl to have a “head for business and a bod for sin”.
The most recent era where this clash was evident for women was the Noughties. In this post-Girl Power era, the idea of what constituted sexy was a thin, white, cis blonde in low-rise jeans and crop top, with a Brazilian wax and a weekly pole dancing class. It was a look touted as proof of gender equality: women were now so on a par with men that they could embrace their own objectification. For feminists looking back on the decade, however, it doesn’t quite ring true. As Natasha Walter wrote in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism in 2010: “When we talked about empowerment in the past, it wasn’t a young woman in a thong gyrating around a pole that would spring to mind.”
The Noughties is, of course, the era being revived now. So, in a way, a sexy look coming back could be seen as part of a wider resurgence. But the version we’re seeing is moving on from the one-dimensional original to “you do you” rhetoric, with inclusivity and equality at its heart. Of course, word and deed are very different, and fashion’s reality has a long way to go when it comes to tangible inclusivity and equality. But a crucial statistic says a lot here. In 2001 Gallup poll, only 25 per cent of women considered themselves to be feminists. By contrast, in 2019 the Young Women’s Trust found that the figure had jumped to two-thirds.
As with the bimbo aesthetic, there’s a sense of a new generation taking inspiration from a bygone era, but tweaking it with a feminist gaze.
“Some people have linked [sexy dressing] to Y2K but I think it’s bigger than that, because Y2K was more constricted and I think this is a little bit more fluid and experimental,” argues Otero. “It’s more empowered now. I think younger people are removing the toxic element of that [1990s/early 2000s] aesthetic and making it more inclusive and broad.”
“I think [back then] we had these ideas, these beauty examples of women. And it was like: ‘You have to look like this,’” says Elkaim. “But I think today, it’s like: ‘Wear this and you can feel really good and you can do it in your own way.’” She gives an example of how she wears her designs: “When I put on a corset, I don’t really put make-up on. I’m like: ‘This is good.’ I can wear sneakers, I still feel really good and sexy.”
The “feeling yourself” take on sexy has also come about through the pandemic. If, beforehand, there was a level of artifice about Being Sexy, that has fallen away somewhat.
“I would hook up with my on-off guy, who usually I would make a stupid amount of effort for pre-pandemic,” says Bayes. “But if we were meeting up during lockdown – illegal, I know – I might not have had a shower for a few days. I would meet him just like that and he didn’t give a single fuck. I took that with me for the next two years, and so did lots of my friends… I love getting dressed up and doing make-up but now only if I feel like it. It isn’t a requirement.”
This could be seen as part of the famous vibe shift, mooted by The Cut recently and connected to the revival of the distinctly messy, debauched Indie Sleaze look of the Noughties, one that contrasts with the very crisp, filtered look found on most feeds in the past five years. Brenda Otero says the rejection of glossy perfection for a more sexually charged “take me as I am” nonchalance could be the changing of the guard across generations. “The previous aesthetic, what I would call millennial, was very classy, but it wasn’t very sexy. I think this is a bit more hedonistic.”
In her book, Amia Srinivasan argues that the way to true sexual freedom for all women may be to “look at our bodies, our own and others, and allow ourselves to feel admiration, appreciation, want, where politics tell us we should not”. One could argue that the celebration of sexy dressing on your own terms, in theory, anyway, aligns with this thinking. There’s an insistence on the right for anyone to wear what might be deemed sexy if he or she or they so choose. It’s about taking LBDs, mini skirts, high heels and even bondage bodysuits, trying them on anew and enjoying yourself.
Whether or not this means we’ll all be doing the nasty a lot more remains to be seen. And at the end of the day, who cares? Just like what we wear, that’s nobody’s business but ours.