In my early teens, I remember having dinner with a friend and her mom at a restaurant that displayed an eclectic collection of postcards near the door. While we were waiting for our food, my friend and I got up to look at them. We giggled self-consciously at one in particular — a black and white photo of a woman lounging horizontal in a skintight dress with a plunging neckline. When we brought it back from the table to show my friend’s mom, she glanced down and said, with just a hint of an eye roll: “Yep. Sex sells.”
The link between style and sexuality is both obvious and inextricable, not only in terms of the tension between what is revealed and what is not, but also because of how thoroughly these threads are woven into the tapestries of our identity: a merging of the physical (clothes, bodies) with the emotional (power, desire, self-expression). Cultural norms dictate many of the ways these two worlds intersect, but a number of designers at New York Fashion Week have been offering up refreshing alternatives.
Take Chromat, for example, whose Spring/Summer 2019 collection was inspired by wet T-shirts: “We wanted to reclaim the experience of hiding under a giant T-shirt at a pool party (when you’re too embarrassed to be seen in your swim) and make it a garment to wear proudly,” the brand shared in a release.
Chromat’s latest show, which was unequivocally one of the season’s most diverse in body size, skin tone, ability, gender orientation and religious background, arrives on the heels of their announcement that they are extending sizes to 3X. Models of all proportions strutted down the runway in oversized tees, soaked with just enough water that the colors of their swimsuits — and the contours of their bodies — showed through.
The same tender combination of vulnerable “hiding” and ebullient pride was evident on Vaquera’s Spring/Summer runway as well. Set inside a high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the show’s interplay with its surroundings was somehow both on-the-nose and irreverent at the same time. Following a brief interlude of the Harry Potter theme song, a series of characters made their way around the classroom, some at breakneck speed and others painstakingly slow: a punk engaging in what looked like a reverse “walk of shame” (heels on feet, sneakers slung over shoulders), a semi-enthusiastic cheerleader shrouded in an enormous sweatshirt dress, a football player in a body-hugging mini dress replete with shoulder pads and a hot pink cape, a nerd in a mini skirt and a cropped polo scrawled with the words, “HIGH STANDARDS.”
The blurring of stereotypes sent a pointed message about the cost of reducing people — especially young people in the throes of discovering themselves — to one-dimensional tropes. (When a valedictorian dressed in an enthralling avant-garde crinoline closed out the show, I thought of myself in high school, desperate to reconcile the “me” who was interested in fashion and the “me” who wanted to be taken seriously.)
If I had to sum up the show in a single word, “sexy” is the first that bubbles to the surface. And I don’t mean that only in the term’s most literal sense (although there were plenty of nearly-naked buttocks, underboobs and flashes of powerful thigh), but also in its more complex iterations. By allowing awkwardly threadbare tanks and gawky gates to intermingle with impeccably tailored ruffles and elegant strides on the same stage, Vaquera put forth a new definition of sex appeal, one in which personality (of clothes and/or the human inside them) is the most seductive thing in the room.
In a recent Fashion Week dispatch for The Cut about the industry’s hunger for a distinctive voice, Cathy Horyn addresses this season’s particular flavor of sex appeal through the lens of Eckhaus Latta:
For all the seeming squareness and drabness of Eckhaus Latta’s clothes — or perhaps because of it — they have an unmistakable sex appeal. And I don’t mean just the transparent looks. I suppose that’s because Latta and Eckhaus have a knack for making things seem self-confident and just a little bit weird, and at the same time plainly wearable and well-made. They’re masters of the restrained detail that delivers a punch, like those pink-dipped pants or a turquoise dress print that looks like an abstract star or plane motif.
“Self-confident and just a little bit weird.” Now that’s a variety of sexiness I can get behind. It’s a timely one as well, considering how our culture’s understanding of female sexuality has expanded over the past year with essays like Cat Person and Janelle Monáe’s song “Pynk,” — each in their own way a product of #MeToo’s ripple effect and the continuing conversation about ways women are labeled and diminished because of their gender. If you’re skeptical that fashion, a world where literal labels abound, can succeed in peeling one off, consider this: Maybe the answer isn’t fewer labels, but a wider variety — more stickers to stick to ourselves and more agency to choose them, more perspectives on what sex appeal means for different people with different bodies, more vehicles for self-confidence, more interpretations of “weird.”
Ultimately, there’s nothing sexier than being exactly who you are and wearing exactly what you want, no matter how you look or what other people think. I hope fashion keeps trying to prove that.
Feature image by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images. Photos via Vogue Runway.