Sexiness has been defined and redefined by fashion houses for decades. Billie Bhatia deciphers what it means in the wake of #MeToo
“I’m bringin’ sexy back”, I roared over a packed dance floor at Leeds University Students’ Union. One hand clutching onto a rail overlooking the crowds, the other flying over my head. My legs, clad in wet-look leggings, were participating in a high-knees competition as
I rhythmically stomped my ankle boots on a dance floor soaked with WKD. All while whipping my straightened hair across my face at such force that my false eyelashes were in danger of taking flight. I stopped the dancing for a minute to sweep my hair back to one side, adjust the buttons on my chiffon blouse (black lace bra slightly visible at all times) and reapply another chalky slick of Mac’s Ruby Woo. Just in time to rejoin the 1,000-plus gyrating students for the next chorus - because for the very first time in my life, aged 21, I truly believed I was bringing sexy back. Or at least my iteration of it.
My first interaction with the word ‘sexy’ came in 1998 when Britney Spears released her first single, …Baby One More Time. Overnight my perception of clothes changed. I, and millions of other pre-teens, had just had the eye-opening experience of seeing what it was to be sexy. According to Britney, that was hair tied up in fluffy pink pom-poms, an unbuttoned white shirt tied above the belly button, a pleated mini skirt, over-the-knee socks, a crop top and low-slung tracksuit trousers. This long list of ingredients were my earliest signifiers of sexiness.
Aged nine, the idea of being sexy was an entirely physical entity. Sexy was an aspiration, and one that could only be achieved through the way I dressed. However, as a fat child and a fat teenager this was not a look I was able to emulate, let alone recreate. So, like any other child in a sulk, I ignored sexy and focused on what I thought exemplified the opposite - good marks.
Law of Attraction
Sexy and me got reacquainted during my university years, when I encountered a new breed of woman. University girls wore brightly coloured bras under sheer tops, fishnet tights (often with rips), heavy eyeliner, red lipstick, gold hoops the size of bangles, bodycon dresses and sky-high heels - mostly of the patent variety. This was a fresh idea of sexy and I wanted in. But how?
The idea of flashing flesh made my stomach turn. I was used to swathing my body in oversized layers of clothing, concealing myself for fear of unkind remarks. I would frequently type ‘oversized’ into Asos and start my shopping experience there. There had to be a way of being sexy that didn’t involve a bodycon dress highlighting the ripples and rolls of my body.
The basis of sexy 2.0 was simple: be attractive to men. We were, after all, living in the era of Victoria’s Secret and the Hervé Léger bandage dress: sexy at its most stereotypical. In my understanding, the functionality of sexy clothes was to get you in bed with a member of the rugby team. Sexy was recreating Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty look for a night out with the girls. Sexy was buying an outfit with a thigh-high split à la Angelina Jolie for the Freshers’ Ball. Sexy was dressing up as Lara Croft for Halloween. Sexy was a male- focused expression of fashion, it was for them and not for me. I was terrified of this version of sexy, despite wanting to embrace it so badly.
I didn’t appreciate or realise that the true sexiness of the aforementioned women was entirely different to what I saw on the surface. For Christina Aguilera, it was her no-damns- given dance moves. For Angelina Jolie, it was her confidence in owning the red carpet through her fashion choices, and for Lara Croft it was her intelligence and athleticism that led her to become one of the most successful protagonists in gaming. Those characteristics were sexy.
In my final year of university, I lived with four beautiful women with buckets of sex appeal. There are pros and cons of living with intimidatingly good-looking people. As the least conventionally good-looking member of the group, you fall to the bottom of your (self-imposed) pecking order. But the bonus is that you have a wealth of resources to work out how to use fashion to be sexy. I came to realise that being your sexiest self could mean something more than just getting male attention.
Sexy was no longer unattainable. My friends taught me that working out the best parts of yourself, physically and beyond, were sexy. First was a lesson in how to show skin, but only the parts I felt comfortable with: shoulders, ankles, neck, a sliver of cleavage. Sexy, after all, isn’t just one-size-fits-all. After the wardrobe, it was lessons in confidence via a Pussycat Dolls exercise DVD that acted as our main tool of procrastination. I was a woman reborn. I was sexy.
All was well and good until the bubble of university life burst. Now I had to redefine what it meant to sexy in the sphere of the working world. I wasn’t chasing boys anymore, I was chasing jobs, respect and opportunities. Opportunities that surely wouldn’t come to someone whose pink bra straps were still visible.
The New Normal
Entering the world of fashion, I was hit with a wall of powerful, smart, truly brilliant and inspiring women. I joined the fashion industry at peak ‘normcore’, a fashion moment where the most revealing clothes were ankle grazing trousers or heavily starched white cotton shirts (with daringly rolled-up sleeves). I had finally found an identity in dressing and it definitely didn’t belong here. Christina and Britney did not belong here. In fact, the only mention of sexy occurred when we were discussing potential cover stars who had an overtly sexy aesthetic which we needed to steer away from in order to present them as ‘cool’. Fashion people didn’t entirely dismiss sexy, they just didn’t put it on the pedestal I had so eagerly let it dance on during my young adult years.
In an attempt to fit in with my peers, I ditched the false lashes, straightened hair and wet-look leggings in favour of wide-leg trousers, cashmere roll necks and trainers. Sexy was not my priority. It dropped several places in my chart of Important Adjectives.
I wanted my clothes to tell a different story: smart, cool, chic, adult. Sexy, as I knew it, was no longer welcome. Sexy, in all its forms, was no longer something I wanted to be.
The normcore wave of bland but luxurious-looking clothes dominated my early days in fashion. Never had I wanted something more than a leather bag with no branding or an oversized cashmere jumper with no logo. The catwalk reflected those desires and presented them in the most lust-worthy way imaginable. Thigh-high splits and unbuttoned shirts were forgotten. Céline, Victoria Beckham, The Row, Stella McCartney and Joseph, the buzz brands of my formative years in fashion, were all spearheading normcore and, again, I wanted in. Was this sexy in the traditional sense of the word? No. Did this way of dressing make me feel like a grown woman who was in control of her life? Yes. Was that sexy? Absolutely. Did any of the men I interacted with during that time see me as sexy? Probably not.
So, I (and the rest of the fashion community) plodded along in platform skate shoes, nondescript black roll necks and androgynous jackets until we, as women, strode into a new light. It was a new world order that reflected the social and political climate. A world where Donald Trump was president, Hollywood’s Time’s Up declaration on sexual harassment had some earth- shattering consequences and women were unshackled from their own experiences via the #MeToo social media campaign. Women weren’t just standing up, they were making a bid to take back control. In this new world I had a lot of feeling towards sexy. Was there still room for it? Did sexy still mean the same thing? Did fashion still want to be sexy? Did I still want to be sexy?
The fashion industry gave their response at the a/w 2018 shows, the season that followed hot on the heels of #MeToo. There were two camps. On the one hand, you had designers who wanted to protect you, cover you in modest clothing and wrap you in giant protective layers to remain unharmed and untouched. Valentino, the house associated with classically feminine designs, went against its usual grain to recreate The Handmaid’s Tale’s chaste wardrobe on the catwalk. Even Gucci went ultimate maximalist by including balaclavas and headscarves in its line-up, with little-to-no skin. Givenchy, meanwhile, moved away from its previous incarnations of black and lace dresses which oozed sex appeal. Instead, the fashion house presented a collection characterised by strong tailoring and oversized coats.
Then there were the others who took the opportunity to bring sexy back in its truest, most primitive form. A number of fashion houses chose to return to their intrinsically sexy roots and to celebrate the female form in the most audacious way. Saint Laurent, a brand known for its overtly sexy aesthetic, moved away from the heavy boots and bulky shearling of the previous year and brought back its spindly heels, deep V-neck dresses and buttock-grazing mini leather shorts. Jacquemus, a designer always comfortable with sensuality, presented an a/w collection that saw models sashaying down the runway in dresses cut to the thigh and knotted across the waist.
Elsewhere, Christopher Kane presented a collection centred on the 1972 manual The Joy Of Sex with illustrations of women in the throes of desire emblazoned on feather-trimmed shift dresses. Black woollen dresses had their modesty disturbed when Kane slashed them from left to right, creating a fashion peep show of sorts. I flicked through the collection on my phone and had a burning desire to rip my sweatshirt from shoulder to shoulder, to set myself free and jump on the sexy bandwagon.
With the catwalk sending decidedly mixed messages, I asked my male friends what they thought of as sexy and the answers I received ranged from hysterically antiquated to refreshingly forward-thinking. While the predominant theme still centred on sexy being demonstrated in a physical way, there was a glimmer of hope in those who had come to realise that it was so much more than a skirt with a high split and the promise of black lace lingerie.
What this season presented was a choice for women. We could be overtly sexy if we wanted to be. We could be unwaveringly modest with just a glimpse of flesh. We could be both. It was up to us. Women were now the deciders of their own sexy fate and it was liberating. Sexiness had become more all-encompassing than we could ever have imagined.
When it comes to being a feminist and being sexy, many would argue you can’t be both. But why? Being sexy, whether that be an aesthetic or a feeling, does not detract from being a feminist, if anything it supports the ideal that as a woman I can choose to wear whatever I want to wear. Should I only dress modestly because that is what it means to have the same rights as men? No. Should I only be sexy because that makes men desire me? No. Should I choose how I want my body to be seen because I am the only person allowed to weigh in on my appearance? Yes.
To be desired does not make you less of a feminist. If I only ever sought to be desired for validation of my womanhood I would be concerned, but thankfully this is not what it means to be sexy now.
After spending the best part of ten years trying to figure out whether I had the tools to be sexy and, more importantly, whether I even wanted to be sexy, I have finally cracked the code. It’s a confidence that comes from owning your body. I no longer feel apologetic for not adhering to classic standards of what it is to be sexy. This is sexy on my terms, on my time and on my body.
Is there anything in the world more appealing than that?
Images: Getty / Rex Features