X-Rated?

Eleanor Birdsall-Smith and Megan Husain explore how clubbing attire for women is increasingly becoming sexier and more revealing

Photography: Ella Benson Easton

Recently the fashion team has been increasingly interested with the taboo on everyone’s lips, sex. Sex is back in fashion, in a way it never has been before. Sheer lace, nipple tassels and leather have been seen on the YSL runway, but while that may be disregarded as the showmanship of the catwalk, there’s also been a sudden arrival of all things sheer, mesh and netted onto the clubbing scene. Club pictures are dominated by statement bras showing through clothes, slip dresses which look like lingerie, and at times lingerie itself being displayed, tucked into jeans or over other tops. This movement doesn’t only rear its head in the midnight hour—we’ve seen it all over celebrity Instagram’s from Lily Rose Depp to Gigi Hadid. However, the nature of going-out adds new levels to the connotations of sex and expectation.

In conjunction with our fashion shoot this week we decided to interview the models about their experiences of clubbing and opinions about this type of fashion. We found that one of the biggest issues is the relationship between the pressure to bare all in an attempt to be accepted in society as an attractive woman compared to the agency of women in reclaiming their sexuality and embracing more revealing clothing as a source of empowerment.

Despite the separate opinions of each model, something that we could all agree on is that to dress up in this way feels ‘good’. While potentially a simplistic sentiment, feeling good about yourself and your body can be quite a ground-breaking achievement for young woman. We are still in a society which pressures girls to self-deprecate, especially when it comes to their physical appearance. Francesca draws from her experience performing on stage to reinforce how fulfilling the sensation of being in control is: “So when you’re on stage everything about you is sassy and confident, and that is part of the illusion…I’m like me 220%, I’m like me squared. [This type of clothing] gives you that sense of being a slightly different person, and a more confident person. I don’t think that in itself is a bad thing, I don’t think that’s vain, I don’t think it’s anything other than a healthy exercise of presenting an identity you don’t have during the day.”

This freedom to value and show off your own skin is not just about having fun in clubs and on stage however, after years of being taught to feel ashamed of your body growing up, being able to express yourself through clothes can be incredibly empowering. Liv tells us about growing up with her larger bust, and feeling the need to cover up, while all her slighter friends who were still working with pre-pubescent bodies dressed as they pleased for parties. She also related an anecdote about being shamed by persistent catcalls and beeping while wearing a bikini top outside a water park when she was 13. Now she can embrace and enjoy her body, ignoring comments and showing as little or as much as she likes. Fliss agrees “I felt very vulnerable going through puberty, realizing that my body would be something subject to the male gaze”. Now she has more control and body-confidence her attitude has changed “I feel like in some ways it is a way of taking control of the male gaze yourself, you know they’re going to look at you, because they’re probably going to do that anyway, so you might as well own it.”

Nicole, however, questions the motives behind wearing such revealing clothing, highlighting that perhaps the main reason women are dressing up in this way is simply to please someone else and attract the opposite sex: “Everyone wears crop tops, everyone wants to show a bit of cleavage, everyone wants to show a bit of a stomach, that’s just become the norm…And because it’s become such a norm, we don’t actually see through that. I think the lines are blurred between what is empowering and what is just revealing.” When the clothes are this revealing it can become hard to discern where the line between self-empowerment and self-objectification due to internalised misogyny lies: “We are kinda being objectified, guys are interested in us, guys like it and we get confused.”

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Fliss on the other hand sees this as the most empowering thing about these new movements in fashion; women can demonstrate they are interested in sex, and not shy away from attracting men. A big issue in people’s perceptions of these kinds of clothes seem to stem from the prejudiced idea that women don’t enjoy and desire sex, which is certainly not the case. In fact then this wider range of choice in clothing gives women greater freedom and sexual agency. Fliss suggests “I feel like we’ve embraced what would be considered the masculine idea of going out to pull. Now my friends will support each other and be like yeah do it, go back with someone, have fun, it’s funny.” Francesca agrees and stresses the sense of power behind the feeling of being attractive: “It feels massively empowering and it becomes empowering when you can do something and invite a certain interest from someone if you want it.” Perhaps this fashion is opening peoples’ eyes to female sexual desire through giving young girls more freedom to talk honestly about it. Fliss berates the way culture at the moment views sex from a male point of view : “I found that, before my friends from college, I never really talked about girls feeling pleasure, I don’t think I ever heard anything about it the whole time… that’s the kind of culture which makes people more objectified than anything that you can wear, when girls are participating in sexual activity with guys, and the guys are the only ones that anyone thinks about …Sex education in schools just makes me so angry because it just feeds into all the misogynist narratives, it’s just terrible.”

While this kind of clothing does enable women to take the reins to an extent, and be proud of their bodies, the models were also aware of the negative body pressures it produces: all the potential positives do not overshadow the ever present notion of the ‘ideal’ body to which everyone should ascribe. Francesca explains that “fashion is now more to do with how to accentuate your body than it is to do with the garments themselves, it’s all how to look good, how to make your waist look tiny and your boobs look big as opposed to anything else… you’ve got clothes now moving towards being body elitist, and the lack of choice in fashion at the moment means that if people don’t have the ‘ideal’ body they can’t get involved, and the ‘ideal’ body currently is hypersexualised.”

Liv agrees, and explains that the pressure to wear the new ‘sexy’ trends isn’t always healthy: “I really don’t like it though when people talk about the new sexy or the new confident because for me, I would never wear that kind of thing—does that mean I’m not fitting in to the new sexy look, because I’m refusing to buy one? By labelling it as this new thing, it always seems to target what you as woman must do to be feeling confident, which kind of defeats the point.” Fashion may be pushing the boundaries with these revealing garments, but are they just cashing in on a feminist trend and creating another set of pressures for young girls?

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Ultimately of course the place for this type of clothing is on a night out clubbing. Our models have conflicting views on this space. Speaking especially from her experience of clubbing in London, Nicole highlights the superficiality of the entire thing: “Clubs have become this business, they’re just used to having the same kind of girls coming along and letting the same kind of girls…With high-end London clubs I feel like it’s always going to be a thing, image is everything, without the image there is no club.” She gives anecdotes of dressing up for a club as a group, and being ranked in the queue outside in levels of attractiveness: “We have kind of become passive puppets to clubs and just conform.”

For Liv on the other hand the club is a space of increased freedom: “I actually feel more comfortable with it in a club environment, because I’m feeling more confident anyway, but also when you’re on a night out people can be more experimental with the way they dress. I actually feel far less confident in things like basic t-shirts because they make my boobs far more obvious, and I’m far more conscious of that than I am in a mesh top and bra, especially as the sexualisation that then happens is even more annoying because they should just be on staple parts of your wardrobe, rather than something you have put forward on your own terms.”

Clearly there are conflicting views on the sticky dance floors, but Fransesca importantly highlights the singular nature of the clubbing space. The sexualized clothing has far more power in a club because it is naturally a hot-bed of sexual tension, as “there isn’t that much interaction with people verbally, it is another kind of performance. You go into that club space and it is a kind of stage, you’re dancing, you’re interacting with people non-verbally, you’re using visual cues…it is a weird space which suspends societal norms and rules which means that not only can people dress in this weird thing, but they behave towards each other in a very different way.” The experimental clothing that is adorns Cellar goers is certainly part of this ‘performance.’

It is clear to see that the main issue when it comes to these topics is freedom. Even with a select group of four models it is clear that opinions and experiences of club fashion and increased sexualisation in fashion differ widely. While the conclusion that women should be able to dress as sensually or modestly as they please should not be a revolutionary one, it seems to be the outlook most needed. For some the lace bralette is a source of empowerment, for others, it is simply a bowing down to pressures from the fashion industry and society. No new trend, garment or shoot can be named categorically empowering or even feminist, but one thing we can do is open up the conversation, consider the implications of these changes and above all push for greater freedom for women.