Picture the scene: it`s New Year`s Eve in Hollywood. A leggy brunette strides into a local club, cigarette in hand. She`s wearing a pair of sheer silver flares with a matching high-necked crop top. Underneath she`s wearing a set of simple black underwear with big hoop earrings. It`s the epitome of iconic 70s disco, a super-injection of Studio 54-worthy sex appeal. But, in fact, said brunette is not Bianca Jagger and the year is not 1974- it`s actually Bella Hadid, ringing in 2017 and beckoning the return of one of fashion`s most timeless and traditional muses: sex.
Of course, it hasn`t been gone for long, sex and fashion go way back. The 60s was its starting point, an era where miniskirts shrunk to thigh-high lengths, the make-up was piled on and sex appeal really started to sell. Brigitte Bardot and her I-just-woke-up (-in-someone-else`s-bed) tousled hair, pillow lips and winged eyeliner promoted a feline, elusive sensuality whilst a waif-thin, saucer-eyed Edie Sedgwick cultivated vulnerable sexiness (something a teenage Kate Moss would later encapsulate alongside Mark Wahlberg for Calvin Klein).
Then came the 70s, with its heady scents of hair spray and rebellion. Vivienne Westwood, the new queen of punk, opened a boutique on the Kings Road and christened it Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die. Two years later, it was renamed SEX, marrying fetishes and fashion via the catchphrase ‘rubberwear for the office.’ Meanwhile, doe-eyed beauties like Farrah Fawcett revolutionised club-wear via plenty of backless gold lamé.
The 80s arrived and sex appeal was doubled and dialled up. Brooke Shields was 15, beautiful and the face of Calvin Klein Jeans, shirt unbuttoned and proudly announcing “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing”. Alongside her were Marie Helvin and Jerry Hall, leading the gang of IT girls to first be labelled “supermodels”, all scantily clad in skin-tight strapless gowns. Michelle Pfeiffer became the latest icy blonde icon of the silver screen, capturing the hearts of millions of cinema goers in her shiny spaghetti strap dress in Scarface whilst Kim Basinger became a femme fatale pinup in 9 ½ Weeks via tousled hair and smudged eyeliner, all to the soundtrack of Olivia Newton-John`s “Let`s get physical”.
And then came the 90s, a whole new period of uncensored provocativeness. Headed by Klein, Mark and Mossy in the now iconic jeans campaign, it was the beginning of borderline pornographic advertising. Kate Moss lying naked on a couch for Calvin Klein`s Obsession cologne. Eva Herzigova in the “Hello Boys” Wonderbra commercial. A naked crotch being washed over by a wave for Donna Karan Hosiery. A topless Helena Christensen with Alex Lundqvist for Versace Jeans. The list goes on. Sex well and truly sold in the 90s.
The 2000s have had their fair share of sizzling advertising campaigns, topless editorials and sex sirens (Herve Leger bandage dresses, Gucci`s logoed pubis in 2003, a naked Sophie Dahl for Yves Saint Laurent`s Opium fragrance…) along with brands like American Apparel and Abercrombie and Fitch using shirtless male models, innuendo and explicit poses to create sexualised brand images. Repetitive and somewhat predictable, sex and fashion lost its sparks together. But come 2017 and sex appeal was back on the catwalks revamped with a whole new attitude.
Take Anthony Vaccarello`s latest line for Saint Laurent. At first glance, everything about the collection screams sex. Gleaming, glossy PVC, the dresses are minute in length, the necklines are plunging and the swathes of soft velvet beg to be touched. Skirts are ripped at the hem as if having previously been torn off the wearer`s body and last season, Binx Walton sashayed down the catwalk with a single diamante pasty placed delicately over her left nipple. But among all the sex, there were symbols of strength. Shoulder padded shirts straight out of an 80s working wardrobe. Heavy-duty boots paired with studded jackets. Sharp silk tailoring. Then, over at the Balmain show, it wasn`t the sex appeal of the snakeskin, the corsets, the bare breasts you picked up on first, it was the power exuded by the girls as they paraded down the runway, hair slicked back, bound up in leather and alligator-like “armour”. It`s quite fitting then, that Rousteing refers to his warrior women as the #BalmainArmy.
Back in New York, Alexander Wang also embraced strong shoulders, pairing them with a sexy nipped-in waist and bejewelled cut-out detail. Newcomer Ivka juxtaposed see-through blouses with a defensive pose from the model who folded her arms over her bare chest, protecting her decency and taking control over her sexuality and her body. Fellow Russian designer Kseniasaraya contrasted a completely transparent gossamer gown with a chunky black boot, allowing the model to march down the catwalk, transforming a girly, floaty garment into a tough, don`t-mess-with-me ensemble.
The difference is that for the last few decades, sex in the fashion industry has long been marketed for men, for their enjoyment, their appreciation. Wonderbra could not have demonstrated it better than with their “Hello Boys” 90s commercial, using Herzigova`s sexuality to attract a man`s attention, to invite the male gaze. Equally, in the past, sex has been of a vulnerable nature- a rail-thin teenage Kate Moss straddling a muscular Marky Mark springs to mind. More recently, a wide-eyed, child-like Dakota Fanning sat with a flower-shaped perfume bottle between her thighs for Marc Jacobs’ Lola- sexual suggestiveness contrasted with naïve vulnerability.
2017`s sex appeal is nothing like that. This season, the collections were awash with traditional sensual motifs- lace, corsets, sheer gossamer fabrics and bare nipples, miniskirts and micro shorts… but for once, they created an image of something so much more than just desirability for the male viewer. 2017`s girl is sexy- but not before she is powerful, strong, confident, tough, formidable even. She is so much more than her long legs, her breasts, her lips. Her sexiness is just another string to her bow, another weapon in her arsenal.
This season, strong and sexy go hand in hand. It`s time for the kiss-and-tell allure to toughen up its act.
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