There are no rules.
Sexy dressing is back. “As the world slowly moves towards reopenings, people are looking forward to the return of parties and gatherings,” says Patricia Maeda, director of womenswear at trend forecasting company Fashion Snoops. “After over a year mostly spent indoors, they finally have an event to dress up for, and whether it’s a night out on the town or a Sunday brunch, people are ready to make up for the lost time.” According to Maeda, fashion is the perfect medium to express the mounting feeling of freedom and liberation and so, wearing sensual clothes has become a protest of confinement.
Maeda believes there is nothing more representative of this transitional moment from sweatpants to sexy dresses than “glow-up” challenges popularized by social media. The “Buss It Challenge” — named for the song “Buss It” by Erica Banks that serves as background music — went viral on TikTok with over 5 million users creating videos first dressed in a robe or sweatpants, then cutting to them fully dressed up in cut-out minidresses, colorful crop tops, and shrunken matching sets, dancing along with the song. The message: It’s time to celebrate the energy of clothes that show off, transitioning from a casual look to all-out glamour — accessories and bold makeup included — in just a few seconds.
Does sexy dressing mean something different than it used to?
Throughout history, sexualized images in the media have objectified women, passing judgment based on both their bodies and clothing choices. “Whether they are empowered or disempowered by looking sexy is a highly controversial feminist question,” says Maeda, explaining that for decades women have challenged societal standards through their fashion choices. “While many claim that wearing revealing clothing means succumbing to the patriarchy, this narrative misses the very moments when women took ownership of their bodies and sexuality by embodying ideas of empowerment and liberation.”
Maeda highlights the Roaring ‘20s and the rise of flappers as a prime example. “Ideas of freedom and liberation were bubbling up with women rebelling against societal standards and traditional expectations,” she says. At that time, they were conscious of their sensuality and unafraid of exercising their agency when it came to sartorial choices. “By the mid-1920s the hemline hit its all-time high ... to the kneecap, which was quite daring at the time.”
Though much has evolved over the last 100 years, it’s important to note that there are similarities to be drawn between the 1920s and today in terms of cultural shifts. The 1918 flu, like the current pandemic, was not only a public health crisis, but an experience with a distinct before and after. Those who endured the horrors of both World War I and the pandemic emerged into a new decade ready to celebrate life renewed. And, in many ways, that time also challenged typical male and female roles, with many women assisting in the war effort or nursing those who fell ill over the pandemic. Empowered to step beyond the role of homemaker and mother, women began to challenge the societal expectations placed upon them in terms of responsibility and dress.
So, why are women dressing sexy now?
Over the last century, women have endured hard-won fights on the path to liberation — from the free love of the ‘70s, to the power executive era of the ‘80s, and even the more recent #MeToo movement. But, the last year has again served as a seismic shift in routine and understanding of what is normal. “Part of the reason we’re embracing our sexy sides could be that we’ve learned to give less f*cks about what other people think about us and embrace what makes us feel good,” says Rachel Wright, sexologist and psychotherapist. Over the last year, as fashion choices shifted from keeping up with the trends to centering dress on comfort and protection, the celebratory appeal of putting on a sexy dress was put on hold. Now, as women give up their sweats for a more joyful wardrobe, they are finding that dressing up is an empowering act.
“If dressing sexy makes us feel good, what’s the harm?” she adds. “The movement of reclaiming our sexualities is huge and the way we dress is just one way to express that.” While jokes are made about the concept of “hot girl summer,” the truth is that shedding comforting clothing for something more celebratory is a mirror of the emotional shift women are feeling in their lives. Reeling in the burnout felt during the last year (a CNBC survey found that over 50% of women felt that their mental health suffered during the pandemic), the pendulum has swung fiercely towards taking risks and having fun with fashion. While “hot girl summer” is not a new term, today it holds a new weight — looking hot for yourself, full stop.
What does dressing sexy look like in a post-lockdown world?
Madea explains that whereas in the past consideration of the male gaze impacted women’s clothing choices, the shift has become much more about women defining their own sensuality that doesn’t necessarily have to be defined by anyone else. “Sexy is an attitude and sensual clothes can instill a sense of self-confidence that is so empowering.”
“I think this shift has been highly influenced by a new mindset in the zeitgeist that values individuality and body positivity,” Maeda says. “Gen Z, in particular, has been in the forefront of this movement, as true digital natives who have been exposed to all forms of expressions as far as individual identity is concerned.” She cites the inclusive underwear brand Parade as an example of this shift. Parade has celebrated all types of bodies in their campaigns and visual imagery, making inclusivity and celebrating your body a part of the brand's ethos from the outset — shifting the power from what lingerie suggests to others, to how it makes you feel when you put it on. Now, Victoria’s Secret once considered the primary arbiter of “sexiness,” is taking cues from Parade and similar labels with a more modern outlook, with CEO Martin Waters telling the New York Times, “we needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want.”
But in addition to the overall cultural shift centering internalized sexuality, the desire to dress up is also a push against the comfort of pandemic dressing. According to Maeda, the Nap Dress has been replaced with the “revenge” dress, whose iterations can include anything from a bodycon silhouette to intentional cutouts that make the design even more visually enticing. “As the world slowly moves towards reopening, a new sartorial mood is emerging,” she adds.
Laura Banas, founder of shopping platform for emerging designers Mall, seconds this. “With the restrictions finally ending, we have more opportunities to see and be seen,” she says. “It’s just fun to look and feel sexy around other people.” She also points to the return of many 2000s trends: “That was such a hyper-sexualized era in fashion.” But while at that time, the sensuality put onto women like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan was often not under their own control, but instead spun by paparazzi or managed by tight PR teams, women today are wearing the baby tees, miniskirts, and low-slung pants on their own terms.
While the horrors of the pandemic are not to be overlooked, the rise of TikTok during this time spent at home reflects the generational shift that celebrates creativity and centers a more inclusive and internalized definition of sensual dressing. “Today, with a new generation of women whose personal style is not restricted to a certain aesthetic, sexy dressing is likewise not defined by wearing sexualized clothes, but by feeling good in their own skin,” says Madea. As the internet has forced open the doors of the fashion industry — making space at the table for people who were traditionally ignored — sexiness is interpreted through a much more diverse lens that, in the end, allows women to make it their own.