A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness
—Robert Herrick

As well as telling us whether people are male or female, clothes can tell us whether or not they are interested in sex, and if so what sort of sex they are interested in. This information, of course, may be more or less disguised. Clothes worn on the job, for instance, are supposed to downplay rather than flaunt sexuality, and to conceal any specialized erotic tastes completely. In reality even the most sedate costume may contain erotic clues, but anyone who dresses for work as if he or she were about to go out on the town is likely to arouse unfriendly gossip or worse.

On social occasions, on the other hand, any relatively young person who is not dressed to attract will lose face. As a result, bright, “sexy” clothes are sometimes worn by people who want to be admired and even loved, but have little interest in getting it on with anyone. Occasionally certain details of costume suggest their true feelings: the cuffs of the raincoat are tightly buckled and the ends of the straps fastidiously tucked in; the crimson shirt open nearly to the waist reveals not only a gold chain but a plain, discouraging-looking white cotton undershirt or bra; the strings of the semitransparent gauze blouse or the laces of the fashionable soft suede shoes are tied in a hard double knot.

Antisexual clothes may also be imposed by an external authority. The Mother Hubbards supplied by missionaries to cover the nakedness of South Sea islanders are a classic example, and school uniforms even today—especially those of girls—often seem designed to discourage erotic interest. Prison dress may serve the same purpose. Frequently, as Rachel Kemper notes, the “elegantly turned-out prostitute, thrown in the slammer, is issued black oxfords with Cuban heels, ankle socks, plain cotton dresses, and underwear with bras laundered flat and useless.”1 Other prisoners, both male and female, may undergo the same sort of humiliation.

As Herrick points out, looseness and disorder in dress are erotically appealing. Soft, flowing, warm-hued clothes traditionally suggest a warm, informal, affectionate personality, and the garment which is partially unfastened not only reveals more flesh but implies that total nakedness will be easily achieved. Excessive neatness, on the other hand, suggests an excessively well-controlled, possibly repressed personality. Tight, bundled-up or buttoned-up clothes (if not figure-revealing) are felt to contain a tight, erotically held-in person. Hard, crisp fabrics—gabardines and starched cottons and stiff synthetics—also seem to deny sensuality, and so do grayed, dull colors. When drab-colored clothes are both unusually tight and unusually neat, observers will suspect not only sexual disinterest but impotence or frigidity.

A positive attitude toward sex can also be obvious or subtle. The young and naïve may appear in skin-tight jeans and T-shirts bearing the message HAPPINESS IS A WARM PUSSY; older and more sophisticated persons will convey the same sort of message in less blatant ways. And those whose erotic interests are unusual or even forbidden will send out sartorial signals that are invisible except to those who know the code.

Fabric, Fur, and Skin

The most sensual aspect of a garment is the material of which it is made. To some extent, fabric always stands for the skin of the person beneath it: if it is strikingly slick or woolly, rough or smooth, thick or thin, we unconsciously attribute these characteristics to its wearer. The man in the heavy, coarse wool pants and shirt, for instance, is assumed to be “thick-skinned” in the colloquial sense of the term: emotionally tough and perhaps callous. The man in the lightweight shantung suit is assumed to be “thin-skinned”: sensitive, possibly touchy.

One of the oldest sartorial messages is the wearing of animal skins. Primitive hunters dressed in the hides of the beasts they had killed in order to take on the magical nature of the bear, the wolf, or the tiger. Even today men and women in animal pelts are not only conspicuously consuming, they are also presenting themselves as animals. How seriously this claim is to be taken depends on the species of skin. To wear leather is not usually to assert that one is a cow, a calf, or a bull, though occasionally the latter meaning may cling to a pair of chaps or a fringed jacket. More often, cowhide merely suggests the idea of sensual contact with the skin of the wearer; depending on the way the hide has been treated, it may present this skin as slick and tough like a motorcyclist’s black leather jacket, or as soft and fuzzy like a suede dress. Less common hides may have more complex meanings. A deerskin jacket or vest, for instance, might suggest a wilderness romance; while one of alligator, snake, or lizard might predict an expensive, somewhat cold-blooded, and muddy encounter. Reptilian shoes and handbags, however, may convey nothing more chilling than excess wealth. But today the wearing of black leather garments is an accepted signal that you are “into” sadomasochism and interested in playing the part of master or slave either in harmless fantasy or dangerous reality.


Fur is more likely than leather to turn its wearer into an animal symbolically. Sometimes the message is simple: the Russian in his bearskin hat and overcoat is a Russian Bear; the girl going to her first dance in a new mouton coat is a lamb going to market. At other times it is unlikely that the fur-clad one wants to be credited with the characteristics of a particular beast. The self-centered viciousness of the mink, the obsessive industriousness of the beaver, the noisy maternal ardor of the seal, are not necessarily to be expected from women (or men) clothed in their hides—though cases of such mimicry certainly exist. For one thing, most purchasers of fur coats are unfamiliar with the behavior of the beasts from which they come: all they want to say is “I am a very expensive animal.”

The personality of some fur-bearing animals, however, is so well established in popular tradition that it cannot help but form part of the sartorial message. The timidity and philoprogenitiveness of the rabbit tends to transfer itself to those who wear coats made of rabbit fur, even when it is dyed brown or black and called “coney.” Women who wear such coats are often expected to be Bunnies in something like the Playboy sense: to be slightly (though charmingly) silly, sexually eager, and apt to have a great many children (or, given current medical and social advances, a great many pregnancies).

The fox, on the other hand, is in popular tradition wily, courageous, and independent, and the woman who wears its pelt is assumed to share some of these qualities—to be a “foxy lady.” This fur became popular during the 1920s, when the foxlike qualities were beginning to seem attractive in a female; it was in 1922, for instance, that David Garnett’s witty novel Lady into Fox became an international best seller. The current use of the term “fox” for an attractive woman also dates from this era. A few years later there was a vogue for cloth coats topped with huge fox collars that concealed most of the face: in them the Depression woman looked out on a dog-eat-dog world from a mask of fur like a hunted but clever and resourceful animal.

Two particular uses of fur in women’s costume deserve special mention. One is the practice, common in the 1930s and 1940s, of wearing round the neck one or more animal skins (usually fox, sometimes mink) complete with legs, tail, and head—with the sharp little teeth bared, the glass eyes beady. It is not clear whether the fox or mink represented the animal nature of the woman who wore it, or whether it was a kind of trophy, and represented the man or men she had captured, hung round her neck in the primitive manner, as in some portraits of Diana the huntress.

Another very symbolic furpiece was the muff, which became fashionable in the early nineteenth century and remained popular until the Second World War. At first muffs were made of swansdown or of expensive furs like sable, bearskin, and chinchilla. After swans had become a protected species, and all furs were expensive, the muff was more likely to be of lamb, sealskin, or mink. As is clear from the ancient vulgar meaning of the word “muff,” the woman who carried one was carrying a visible symbol of her private parts, which she represented as furry, soft, delicate, and warm. On a cold day a favored man might be invited to place his hand in his companion’s muff, encouraging him to hope for a similar but less symbolic opportunity in the future.

The Decorated Body: Tanning and Tattooing

In addition to wearing the skins of animals, men and women can alter their own hides to increase (or decrease) their sexual charm. First, they may change the color of their skin, bleaching or darkening it to suit current standards of beauty. For many centuries a tan was the sign of someone who worked out-of-doors; it therefore indicated lower-class status. Ladies and gentlemen had pale complexions; indeed, the whiter a lady’s skin was, the more beautiful she was considered to be. As a result women and even men took pains to avoid exposure to sunshine: the Victorian bonnet and parasol, for example, were not only decorative and symbolic, they also served as sunshades.

By the early twentieth century, however, many low-status jobs involved working long hours indoors, with only two weeks’ vacation each year. A deep overall tan implied that you had the time and money to lie in the sun. If you lived in the northern United States, Canada, or Britain, it was especially prestigious during the winter months, since it suggested expensive southern travel. A tan was also considered erotic, partly because it suggested healthy outdoor exercise, which in this century has usually been a turn-on, and partly because of the British and North American folk belief that people with darker skins (Latins, Arabs, blacks) are more highly sexed.


The suntan as a fashion, according to social historians, was invented by Gabrielle Chanel in 1920, and the first fashionable tans were acquired on the French Riviera. Within a few years almost no romantic hero was without one. Heroines remained divinely fair for a while longer, but by the 1930s many of them, too, had a golden or even darker skin, like Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934), of whom it is reported that “her back, a ruddy, orange brown, set off by a string of creamy pearls, shone in the sun.” In the southern United States and the British colonies, however, suntans never really caught on. When you have a hot climate, a large dark-skinned laboring population, and a rural economy in which most physical work takes place out-of-doors, there is no status advantage to a browner skin.

When the Beautiful People of the Twenties and Thirties oiled themselves all over and lay scorching on the sands of Nice, Miami Beach, or Santa Monica, they did not realize that in thirty or forty years they would be cracked and wrinkled and aged before their time like old turkeys, or that they were greatly increasing their chances of getting cancer of the skin. As these turkeys came home to roost in the Sixties and Seventies, very deep tans became less fashionable, and today a medium beige is the preferred color.

A more painful but potentially less harmful method of altering the skin is by tattooing. Traditionally, this art is practiced mainly on working-class men, especially sailors; but a surprising number of women—even on occasion aristocratic ones—turn out on close acquaintance to have a rose or butterfly engraved in some private spot. Besides the initial pain, the main disadvantage of tattooing is that it blurs with time, so that the design begins to look like a colored ink drawing held under a faucet. It is also difficult to remove if you enter another stratum of society or break up with the person whose name, surrounded by hearts and flowers, is inscribed upon your body. Small visible tattoos on a middle-class person suggest a wild and adventurous past, often service in the navy or merchant marine; many men and women, according to my research, find them sexually stimulating. Larger and more elaborate designs, especially those Japanese-style tattoos that cover most of the chest or back and contain many interlocked figures, are less popular. One of my informants remarked that it was like making love to an oriental rug.

Paint and Powder

The easiest way to decorate your skin is with cosmetics. In previous centuries it was not uncommon for men as well as women to use them discreetly; today only females are supposed to paint themselves, though the late Earl Mount-batten was observed to use rouge and a blue rinse. More conventional men may smear their skins with grease or astringents, or choose to smell like leopards or old leather; or rather, like an idealized version of these smells, as anybody will realize who has ever been in a stable or the lion house at the zoo. To counter-act the suspicion of effeminacy, male cosmetics are always sold in a very macho manner, as Robert Brain has noted.

[Manufacturers] tend to appeal to the warrior, the he-man, in selling cosmetics to men; scents and creams and aftershaves are advertized by boxers, footballers and cricketeers. Men are told that the products will make them feel bold, brash, rugged, commanding, vigorous, brisk and stimulating.2

This boldness, brashness, and so forth is artificial in every sense. As has often been pointed out, cosmetics and perfumes and soaps actually cover up or wash away the natural odors of the human body that once served as sexual signals. We are being conditioned to reject the very smells that once turned us on, and to demand that human beings exude a vegetable or chemical odor.

Female makeup is conventionally thought of as a means of disguising age and imperfections. In fact, it only does this partially; its main effect is to create the appearance of erotic arousal: the wide eyes, the swollen, reddened lips, the flushing of the skin. Makeup has also been used to give the illusion that a face conforms to the current ideal. As a result, a large majority of Twenties women appeared to have pouting, beestung mouths. When fashions matured during the Depression and the Second World War women showed their sophisticated skepticism by narrowing their eyes and permanently arching their eyebrows. In the Sixties, when the world began to change again, eyes grew unnaturally large and round with surprise, an effect increased by the dark shadows and long, sticky lashes that surrounded them. As fashions became more freaky, lips turned pale brown and then pale pink or white, finally disappearing almost entirely; for a while women were simply all eyes, like the pathetic children and clowns of sidewalk-show art. Under the influence of the back-to-nature and women’s liberation movements of the Seventies many women abandoned makeup altogether. Today it seems to be making a comeback, though it is still scorned by some of the young and by almost all serious feminists.

The Hairy Ape and the Plastic Doll

One of the most common signs of an active sexuality has always been the display of hair. Among men, though the hairstyle is primarily a political and social indicator, it often has a secondary erotic meaning. Monks and priests have traditionally shaved off most of their hair or cropped it short as a sign of celibacy and self-restraint. Perhaps that is why a shiny bare scalp has seldom been found erotically attractive, even though we are told by scientists that male baldness is associated with a good supply of male hormones. Luxuriantly fuzzy or silky beards and loose, Byronic curls, on the other hand, are often associated in the popular mind with a passionate nature. The deliberate exposure of male body hair (especially on the chest) is also considered a sign of sexual vigor, though not all women (or men) are attracted by the Hairy Ape type.

In most societies the fact that adult females have hair on their bodies is taken for granted and even appreciated. In Britain and North America, however, such growth has traditionally been strongly disapproved and rigorously disposed of by shaving, waxing, and electrolysis. (Even public hair has been seen as undesirable: John Ruskin, the Victorian art historian, is said to have been repelled to the point of impotence when, on his wedding night, he discovered that his wife was not as smooth as a marble statue.) To contemporary feminists this attitude is a form of patriarchal oppression, part of the male demand that women transform themselves into painted plastic dolls. Supporters of ecological action, organic gardening, and herbal medicine are also very likely to view body hair as a natural crop. Today, therefore, it is not uncommon to see women whose underarms and legs show a flourishing growth. By checking the rest of their getup it is possible to classify them as either (a) foreigners; (b) serious feminists; or (c) supporters of the counterculture. Ladies with stubbly armpits and prickly legs, on the other hand, if not in the process of transformation into one of the above roles, are considered simply careless and untidy.

Rapunzel and Co.

Long hair has always been an important, indeed a legendary attribute of femininity. It is a characteristic of fairytale heroines, including Rapunzel, whose locks were so long and so thick that witches and princes could climb them like a gym rope. Long, loose, luxuriant hair is the traditional mark of the sexual woman in most countries and times. In Christian art, for example, Mary Magdalene is usually shown with hair down to her feet.

In the European tradition long, loose hair has almost always been associated with youth, and often with virginity—real or presumed. As a child a girl wore her hair down, sometimes in braids. When she reached adulthood or was married she would put it up according to local custom. She might braid it into a crown as in many peasant communities; she might cover it with a wimple or a lace cap, erect it into a powdered eighteenth-century fantasy, or puff it out into an Edwardian pompadour. She would seldom, however, cut it off. In the privacy of the marital (or extramarital) bedroom the cap would come off, the rolls be unwound, and what the Victorians called “woman’s crowning glory” would be released for the delight of man.

The fashion for short hair in women dates from the 1920s, though there were brief instances earlier. In the beginning it meant freedom and independence, often including erotic freedom and independence, and for a while the old rule was reversed: a girl who bobbed her hair was more rather than less likely to be sexually available. By the 1940s, though, traditional meanings had been re-established, and the glamour girl had at least shoulder-length hair, while the conservative college student, career woman, or housewife wore hers in a close, stiff permanent wave. Only artistic and bohemian women had really long hair, and they tended to twist it into a chignon or tie it back in a pony tail.

In the Sixties and early Seventies, however, young women began to wear their hair long again, now usually parted in the middle. Fashion demanded that it be straight; if it was not so naturally the curls could be ironed out by a friend or (with more difficulty) by their owner. Such a hairdo was compatible with—even an inducement to—the loss of virginity and marriage, just as it had been in past centuries, but it was not acceptable on the job market. My long-haired students, when it came time for them to graduate and look for jobs, were often in great conflict as a result.

Today waist-length manes are uncommon except among the young. But longer-than-average hair, in every age group, has its traditional meaning: romantic views, emotional warmth, and often sexual readiness. A sudden and drastic haircut implies rejection of these qualities, and contemporary women are therefore often under pressure from their husbands or lovers to stay away from the hairdresser. At the same time they experience pressure in the opposite direction from current or potential employers, setting up the classical conflict between Love and Duty.

Blondes, Brunettes, and Redheads

Tradition has always associated hair color and texture with personality, especially in women, without any apparent justification—although the effect of being treated from early childhood according to a stereotype cannot be underestimated. Blondes, we have been told, are preferred by gentlemen and (perhaps as a result) have more fun; brunettes are more deeply emotional; redheads are fiery and passionate. Definite colors indicate a forceful personality; drab, muted colors (ash-blonde, mouse-brown) a more retiring one. Straight-haired persons are serious, sometimes solemn; curly-haired persons are lively, possibly frivolous.

For centuries rippling golden hair (neither too straight nor too curly) was thought to be the most desirable for women. Roman ladies in both classical and Renaissance times bleached and dyed and crimped to achieve it, and it was a conventional attribute of the princesses in fairy tales. In the nineteenth century, however, when a deeply emotional nature was highly valued in women, most of the beauties in popular art had long, dark brown hair. In fiction too there was a preference for brunettes. Blondes were apt to be portrayed as “light-headed”—naïve, frivolous, or worse. In George Eliot’s Middle-march (1871-1872), for instance, noble, self-sacrificing, dark-haired Dorothea is contrasted with the shallow, selfish, pale blonde Rosamond.

Red hair, in the popular imagination, indicated passion and a quick temper; it was a disadvantage for a man and a serious misfortune for a woman. The best-known redhead in Victorian literature is “sandy-haired” Becky Sharp, the ambitious, unscrupulous antiheroine of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848). This prejudice continued into the twentieth century. The eponymous heroine of Anne of Green Gables (1908), a tremendously popular children’s book that is still widely read today, declares that “nothing could be as bad as red hair.” She therefore tries to dye hers black, but succeeds only in turning it green; the implication is that nothing can disguise a redheaded nature.

In this century red or yellow locks are no longer a disadvantage, but the traditional associations remain. Blondes are more often the heroines of comedy or melodrama, brunettes of mystery and tragedy. Curls suggest humor, and a redhead is expected to be tempestuous. What is new is the existence of options. Technical advances in coloring, curling, and straightening make it possible for anyone who has the time and the money to change her hair as she would a hat. If she chooses, a woman can be in turn a bubble-headed blonde, a sleek, sophisticated brunette, and a way-out redhead; or she can maintain permanently whatever color and texture suits her personality. As a result, the stereotypes have been reinforced, and even if you do not alter your hair you are likely to be judged by it and dealt with accordingly.

Men have the same freedom of choice, but they exercise it less often. It is no longer necessary to be dark as well as tall and handsome to be a hero, and male personality is not thought to change dramatically with hair color as it does with hair length. Very light blond or red-gold hair (especially if curly) is a handicap for men professionally, however; since these colors occur most often in small children, they suggest immaturity and impulsiveness.

Sexual Signals: The Old Handbag

Today, as in the past, certain details of costume convey a direct sexual message. Bright red clothing, the exposure of more than the usual amount of flesh, and the wearing of revealingly tight garments are universally recognized signs. A simple, sometimes crude statement is made by the shirt unbuttoned to the waist, the extrashort miniskirt, the thin sweater that shows the nipples, and the bulge in the trousers which, as Mae West put it, indicates that a man is glad to see you. At times there have been other accepted indications of sexuality. In the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, the woman who wore her bonnet well forward, blocking out her view of the world on both sides, was assumed to be modest and shy; one who wore her bonnet pushed toward the back of her head was assumed to be “fast”—that is, immodest and perhaps wanton. More recently, in the 1950s, a well-bred woman wore gloves—usually short white cotton ones—whenever she might expect to be introduced to strangers. If she forgot or misplaced them and had to touch the hand of a strange man with her own bare hand, she was aware of having made—inadvertently or not—a sexual gesture.

The most universally recognized sexual indicator in women, however, is the purse or handbag. Freudians may have been the first to state the connection directly, but the use of the term “purse” for the female pudenda dates from the late sixteenth century. The common phrase “old bag” for an unattractive, aging woman is about a hundred years old, and may be subliminally responsible for the female readiness to discard even a slightly worn purse. As a result, secondhand shops are full of old bags, often expensive leather ones, which though perfectly functional and in good condition have been rejected by their owners.

Sex is not all that is communicated by the handbag, of course. Its contents, for instance, may represent the contents of the mind, or serve as a portable identity kit and repair kit. At the same time, however, the bag conveys erotic information, if only in the eyes of the beholder. According to my male informants, a tightly snapped, zipped, and buckled purse suggests a woman who guards her physical and emotional privacy closely, one whom it will be difficult to get to know in either the common or the Biblical sense. An open-topped tote bag suggests an open, trusting nature: someone who is emotionally and sexually accessible. A handbag may also be small or large (I contain multitudes?), stiff or soft, and brightly colored or dark. It may have many compartments, suggesting an organized mind, or a woman who plays many roles in life; or it may consist of only one compartment in which everything is jumbled together. The handbag may also be extremely “feminine”—soft, flowered, and fragile-looking—or it may resemble a man’s briefcase. The executive woman who carries both a handbag and a briefcase appears to have two contradictory sexual identities; perhaps for this reason, wardrobe consultants strongly advise against the practice.

Phallic Clothing

Psychologists say that the walking stick or rolled umbrella is a male symbol when it appears in dreams; and in waking life men can often be seen using these symbolic objects to poke and prod or to signal for taxis in a way that bears out this interpretation. Walking sticks are now rare except among men who really need them, but the umbrella remains popular. As might be expected, the male version tends to be large and heavy, and to gain prestige from a capacity for instant deployment. A shabby, small, or—worst of all—illfunctioning umbrella is a source of shame which often seems excessive unless some erotic meaning is presumed. Of course, when the umbrella is actually unfolded it assumes a less phallic shape—which may be why upper-class British males often keep theirs tightly rolled even in a heavy drizzle.

The male hat too has been considered a sexual symbol. As James Laver points out, periods of male dominance have coincided with high hats for men, among them the tall-crowned hat of the Puritans and the top hat of the Victorians. “With the advent of the New Woman in the 1880s,” he remarks, “many men adopted the boater, which might be thought of as a very much truncated top hat. And towards the end of the century men began to wear, so to speak, the very symbol of their bashed-in authority: the trilby hat.”3 If this theory is correct, the recent growth tendency of the cowboy hat may be significant.

Other details of male clothing have had a recognized sexual—and social—meaning. In the nineteenth century the amount of shirt front showing indicated a man’s position on the scale from virtue to vice: the more linen that was exposed, the more unreliable he was. A discreet, buttoned-up look distinguished the proper gentleman or respectable tradesman or clerk, on whose honor a lady or even a poor working girl could depend. The somewhat undependable sporting chap showed more shirt front; the downright cad who would take advantage of any erotic opportunity displayed even more, and often wore too much jewelry. Today excess jewelry on either sex is a lower-middle-class or nouveau-riche indicator; but it also still has overtones of sensual laxity.

A man’s tie may also be sexually symbolic, especially if it is brightly colored or in some way unusual. James Laver remarks that the tieless Catholic priest is “symbolically castrated,” while the old-fashioned British evangelical clergyman always wore a white tie, “as if to indicate that he was potent but pure.’4 Following Laver’s lead, it might be proposed that the narrow woven cord or leather-thong ties often favored by elderly American men suggest a withering or drying up of the passions. Another possible clue is the kerchief worn in the outside breast pocket of the suit by well-dressed men. According to an acquaintance of mine, a casually burgeoning paisley scarf, especially if red, announces “I can get it up.” At the other extreme, neatly folded white linen implies temporary or permanent disinterest in sex, and should be interpreted by women as a flag of truce.

Outer and Inner Selves

The information or misinformation we want our clothes to convey about status, age, occupation, opinions, mood, and sexual tastes may make it hard for us to decide what to wear. What often happens in such cases is that the outer layer represents the external or public person and the inner one his or her private self. When both layers are visible the message, though contradictory, is easy to read. The woman in the sensible gray wool suit and the frilly pink blouse is a serious, hard-working mouse with a frivolous and feminine soul. If, on the other hand, she wears a curvy pink silk dressmaker suit over a plain mouse-gray sweater, we suspect her of being privately preoccupied or depressed no matter how charming and social her manner.

Many combinations of outer and inner message are possible. A costume may be childish without and adult within, like the bright ruffled apron over the severe dark dress which informs guests that a serious career woman is only playing at cooking. It may be casual and countrified without and citified within, like the tan cord suit of the architect that is worn with a business shirt and tie to reassure his clients that their buildings will not overrun the cost estimate or fall down. Or it may be high-status without and low-status within—as with the elegant Italian suit of the rock star, beneath which a T-shirt printed with the image of a sweating beer can assures his fans that he is still at heart a tough, oversexed working-class kid.

Even when the styles of the inner and outer layer are the same, there may be a significant difference in color. Someone whose visible underlayer of clothing is red, for instance, may be telling us of the heat and passion beneath his or her subdued exterior. When a color combination is already conventional, however, its meaning is conventional rather than personal. The wearing of a white shirt with a dark suit does not mean that you are outwardly serious and inwardly honest and trustworthy, merely that this character type has always been considered desirable in business and the professions. The reverse outfit—the gambler’s white suit and dark shirt—suggests someone whose character and motives are somewhat shady, whatever the lightness and charm of his manner.

Intimate Apparel

Sometimes, of course, the inner layer of clothing is covered by the outer one, and only those who are lucky or privileged will ever see it. One of the most interesting moments in any incipient love affair—or in any public dressing room—comes when someone whom we find attractive takes off his or her clothes and reveals a new message written in underwear. Often, indeed, it is not until we see this private costume that we have a real clue to its wearer’s erotic identity.

Asexual underwear, both male and female, is immediately obvious. It is usually white, drab, unadorned, and made of nonsensual materials like broadcloth; often it is somewhat too loose. If clean and fresh, it may indicate virginity, permanent or temporary chastity, or a mild embarrassment about physical matters. When such underwear has a grayed or yellow tinge, and an exhausted look about the elastic, it is not merely asexual but antisexual. It actively repels eroticism, and may be intended to do so; it implies dislike of one’s own body, possibly of all bodies. Persons who persist in making advances to the owners of such garments are asking for trouble.

Attractive underwear is harder to describe, since it depends so much on personal taste. For example, both sexes are in disagreement about what makes a pair of male underpants erotic or even decent. About all that can be said is that middle- and upper-class men over fifty seem to prefer boxer shorts in white, blue, or tan, plain or striped. They consider anything else low-status, even vulgar, and believe that jockey shorts are bad for their sperm count, which they have a horror of diminishing even if not ambitious for fatherhood. Conservative men under fifty prefer standard white jockey shorts. They consider boxer shorts old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy, and think brief or colored shorts vulgar. Less conservative men, if they have reasonably flat tummies, may wear low-cut jockey shorts, also known as “briefs” or “slips,” often white but sometimes brown, red, green, or blue. For with-it types such briefs are now available in many brilliant colors and exotic patterns. There are also those who wear no underpants at all—a practice regarded by some women as thrilling, by others as disgusting.

Most women under fifty seem to like colorful—but not way-out—briefs, as long as a man has the figure for them. To others, however, sex is associated with some other sort of underwear (possibly what their fathers or their first or favorite lovers once wore), and anything else is a turn-off.

In the matter of undershirts, too, there is little consensus. Some dislike them on principle, others demand them. The sleeveless white singlet associated with laboring men is admired by those who think of sex as working-class, or of the working class as sexy. Conventional white T-shirts have their fans, and so do colored ones. There are even people who heat up at the thought of fish-net or thermal underwear, which to most Britons or North Americans merely suggests Scandinavian origin or determined outdoorsmanship.

Lingerie: Pure, Romantic, or Passionate?

Anyone who has walked through that section of a department store lately knows that when they buy lingerie, most women prefer white. If they choose another color, it is often for practical reasons, to avoid the appearance of a ghostly bra or slip under a semitransparent blouse or dress. They like lace and frills, but in moderate amounts: what they want in their private lives is to look innocent, fresh, and pretty. Some lady jocks prefer underthings which are white but plain and tailored, free of all decoration. The erotic implication of such underwear (you cannot call it lingerie) is that sex is a body-contact sport, a way of getting a good workout. If their jock underwear is startlingly functional (running bras worn on a date, for instance) they may think of making love as a kind of competitive activity—one in which, as Kinsey and his followers have warned us, the man is apt to come in second.

Since lacy white lingerie is readily available and avoids the problem of matching colors, many women usually wear it, adding a black nightgown or a red bra or a flowered slip from time to time, often because some man has given it to them. If they do not like him very much, they wear it less often. Consciously or unconsciously they know that such gifts may be sexual messages as well as sexual tributes—hints that they might be more experimental or more aggressive or more demure in bed.

Tan, beige, or ecru underwear makes both pale and dark skin look rosy, and is therefore flattering. Its meaning is elegant and refined; it is the choice of the woman of any age who feels too old or too experienced to wear white, and too much of a lady to wear black or any definite color. Often she likes to think of herself as cosmopolitan, possibly Parisian, since French women are reputed to wear lacy tan or brown lingerie.

Pink and rose, with a good deal of lace, are favored by women who think of love as romance, and of themselves as romantic heroines. The way to their private parts is through their hearts, and the man who neglects to take this road, even long after the wedding night, is apt to be received with hurt looks and half-suppressed sighs—if not rejected with headaches and tears. When the woman who seldom wears a pink nightgown puts one on, she may be silently asking for, or magically invoking, a sentimental experience. Pink or rose-hued lingerie should not be confused with the sort which is called “peach” or “flesh” although it resembles no known fruit or human skin. Underwear of this color is a bad sign unless it is worn by a dark-skinned woman, since it makes a fair complexion look yellowish, flawed, and grimy. The woman who wears it is either colorblind or visually insensitive. This is not of course a contraindication for making love, but on the other hand it is no recommendation, and should be taken seriously if you are considering setting up housekeeping together, even in a nonsexual relationship.

Black underwear, in the popular imagination, is always erotic. When tailored and discreet in cut, however, it may also indicate a practical nature, since black always looks fresh and does not show dirt easily. Such simple black underthings are often worn by thoughtful, intellectual women who take sex very seriously. Lacy and revealing black lingerie, on the other hand, is sophisticated, daring, and occasionally wicked in its implications. Women who prefer it are more likely to become bored with partners, places, and sexual positions; and they are less likely to sit up in bed exclaiming tearfully “Oh, this is awful What am I doing?”

The rare woman who customarily wears red bras and slips and panties will not say this either, but she is apt to be a handful in other ways. Often she will be passionate; but she may also have a temper, and may actually enjoy jealous scenes and prefer the sound of doors and plates slamming to the music of Mozart.

Though white, tan, pink, black, and red (and the egregious flesh) are the most common colors for lingerie, others are frequently available. They are usually bought or worn to express a mood, however (receptive blue, dreamy violet, cheerful yellow, jazzy orange), rather than to give erotic information. One can also buy underthings in patterns, usually floral ones, which, as in outerwear, represent a delicate or a blowzy femininity according to the size of the blooms. Another favorite design is the jungle print, which imitates the pelt of a leopard or, less often, a tiger. As the name implies, this design announces that its wearer is a carnivorous wild animal. Threatening as this sounds, research suggests that these nylon leopards and tigers are less dangerous than they look, and if properly handled may turn out to be pussycats.

Fashions in Anatomy

Though the reproductive process has not altered much over the years, what men find attractive in women seems to change regularly. The psychologist J.C. Flugel was the first to propose a theory of “shifting erogenous zones,” according to which first one and then another part of the female body is uncovered and found exciting. The feature chosen need not have any natural connection with sexuality: the mid-Victorians were thrilled by plump, white, sloping shoulders; in the 1900s there was tremendous agitation over a glimpse of a well-turned ankle; and in the 1930s the back was a focus of erotic attention.

Some of these fashions in anatomy seem merely arbitrary, the result, as Flugel suggests, of boredom and over-familiarity with other parts of the body. Others may have a practical explanation. The medieval focus on the rounded belly, for instance, was functional in a period of high mortality, when constant pregnancy was necessary to keep the population stable. In the Twenties and Thirties’excitement over the female leg celebrated the fact that women had become more mobile and independent; and the exposure of the breasts under translucent or clinging tops in the early Seventies was accompanied by a renewed interest in breast-feeding. Since fashions, like dreams, are often multiply determined, it may be significant that these see-through or semi-see-through clothes, which were worn occasionally by men as well as women, appeared concurrently with the fashion for intimate self-exposure—or semi-exposure—in encounter groups.

Sometimes the currently thrilling bit of anatomy is only exposed in impolite society. In respectable circumstances it is elaborately wrapped up, and often exaggerated in the process. During the late Victorian period, for instance, interest centered on the rear end, which was exposed in the final gesture of the can-can and exaggerated by the bustle. After a period of eclipse, the rear came into favor again during the Second World War, when a back view of the film star Betty Grable in short shorts was the favorite pinup of enlisted men. It then vanished again from fashion and was replaced by the breasts and suppressed by the girdle for almost twenty years. In the 1970s, however, girdles became a sign of age or prudery, and the buttocks reappeared as a focus of erotic interest while the bosom diminished. Today C-cup or larger breasts are regarded as a disadvantage, and Woolworth’s sells both “minimizing bras” and “natural-line” elastic panties which allow for or create rear cleavage. Blue jeans for both men and women are cut so as to call attention to a rounded behind rather than compressing it into a flat unirear. What all this may mean is difficult to say. One very interesting writer on fashion, the anthropologist Robert Brain, has however remarked that in animal species the “swelling and coloration of the backside is particularly conspicuous in those species which have the most aggressive and quarrelsome males.”5

Not only different parts of the body, but different body types, go in and out of fashion. By modern standards the Edwardian beauty was disgustingly pale and fat; Twiggy, the ideal child-woman of the Sixties, now looks to us like a victim of anorexia. The styles of most eras are designed to flatter the woman who conforms to the current ideal, and to allow the woman who falls a little short of the ideal to approximate it more closely. Anyone whose natural appearance is far off the mark, however, is likely to be positively uglified by fashion. The sophisticated, intricately cut and stiffened New Look clothes of the post-Second World War period were becoming to tall, slim women, but they made short, plump ones look like barrage balloons. Today square shoulders and an athletic frame are in style, and the woman whose small stature and rounded figure would have made her a Victorian beauty has difficulty finding a dress that does not make her appear to be wearing football pads.

Occasionally a style develops which does not really flatter anyone. In the late 1950s women wore bunchy, boxy, square-cut or A-line jackets and dresses which, unlike the sculptured gowns of ten years earlier, did not seem to have an artistic and emotional life of their own, yet refused to shape themselves to their wearers. Instead they enclosed one like ill-fitting cardboard costumes in a grade-school pageant. The only advantage of these clothes was that they made one look pregnant whether one was or not, simplifying the life of baby-boom mothers. It was an appropriate outfit for the years of the Feminine Mystique, when all women were supposed to fit into the standard mold of Happy Housewife.

In Seeing Through Clothes, Anne Hollander points out that the human body as portrayed in painting and sculpture changes its shape to fit the fashions of the time; that “all nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the ghosts of absent clothes—sometimes highly visible ghosts.”6 Photography, rather than liberating our perception of the body, has helped to tie it closer to fashion. Through a biased choice of models and poses it seems to offer scientific proof that we are—or ought to be—the right shape for contemporary clothes. When posing for photographs, late-Victorian nudes protruded their behinds like bustles; Twenties’ nudes adopted a debutante slouch, and nudes of the Forties tucked in their tummies and hips and stuck out their chests to produce the flat-bottomed, melonbreasted figure then considered most desirable.

Human anatomy does not always conform to current fashion; but then, fortunately, neither does erotic taste. As a result, women with flat bottoms and men with full beards, or whatever physical idiosyncracy is out of favor at the moment, can usually find someone for whom they represent perfect beauty.

The Wilder Shores of Love

Minority sexual interests are well represented in costume. The nineteenth-century fascination with childhood, for example, has survived into the twentieth century. Respectable Victorians sentimentalized over the charms of children, especially little girls; less respectable ones, as Steven Marcus informs us in The Other Victorians, went out and bought them. Today childishness in dress is out of fashion, but children are still the focus of sexual interest for a small and necessarily secretive minority, and there is a larger minority who like to imagine themselves or their lovers as children. Such interests are probably responsible for some of the more infantile fashions one sees, especially in nightwear. Even a naturally proper style, like the shepherdess or “Laura Ashley” look still popular in Britain, occasionally plays on this interest. A recent addition to this costume is a laceedged petticoat which is deliberately allowed to hang down several inches below the skirt; besides making consumption conspicuous, it imitates the unconscious seductiveness of the little girl who doesn’t know that her pretty white underwear is showing.

In the past only that minority of homosexuals who wanted to resemble members of the opposite sex were easily identifiable. Most straights therefore believed that all gay men wore markedly feminine styles and all gay women dressed in menswear. Today, when they are out of the closet, it is apparent that most homosexuals dress like everyone else, at least when in mixed society. Many gay men, in fact, have now adopted the “macho look,” and to the casual observer seem more masculine than most heterosexuals. They wear work clothes (especially when not at work): plaid shirts, jeans, athletic shirts, coveralls, and heavy work shoes; they also favor western gear, particularly cowboy hats and boots. To complete the image, they often grow large bushy mustaches and exercise for hours in the gym to develop their muscles.

In order to facilitate an active and diverse erotic life, many gays employ a sartorial signal system. Those who wish to play an active or masculine role wear a bunch of keys or a single earring or a bandana in their back pocket on the left side; those who prefer to play a passive or feminine role wear one or more of these indicators on the right. If they are “into leather” (sadomasochism) the same signals apply, but the activities they invite are somewhat different.

There are of course some men, both homosexual and heterosexual, who deliberately dress in women’s clothes. Peter Ackroyd has distinguished three types, each of which has a characteristic costume. First, there are the transsexuals, who feel themselves to be women in men’s bodies. For them dressing as a woman is psychologically satisfying rather than exciting, and they usually wear the sort of clothes that a respectable woman of their own age and station would normally wear. Second, and far more common, are the transvestites, most of whom are heterosexual and married. For them the wearing of female clothing is sexually thrilling, and the outfits they choose are often exaggeratedly female and erotic in an oldfashioned unliberated way. To the keen observer, however, as Ackroyd points out, the transvestite does not really look feminine, since usually “he will, unconsciously or surreptitiously, leave clues to his male gender…. A transvestite never forgets—and never allows us to forget—that he is a man in women’s clothes.’7 Finally, there are the professionals or amateurs who dress in drag, and are usually homosexual. As Ackroyd says, the drag queen “parodies and mocks women.”8 The typical drag costume is at best a ciever caricature of mediastylized female appeal, and at worst a cruel travesty of female ugliness.

Lesbians, most of the time, are indistinguishable from other women, though since today they are usually strong feminists they tend to use little or no makeup and to favor pants and comfortable shoes. A few, however, have adopted extremely short haircuts and prefer to wear men’s rather than women’s shirts and jackets and coats. Though there are occasional female transsexuals, female transvestites are rare; as Ackroyd remarks, “male clothing has no ‘erotic value’ because of its ready availability for women within our culture.”9 A female impersonator of men or “drag king” is almost unheard of today, though in the late-Victorian era, when women were still forbidden by custom to wear male dress, they were common on the stage. Interestingly enough, women who wear men’s clothes usually dress like gentlemen, or even like aristocrats, whereas men who dress in women’s clothes, unless they are transsexuals, seldom look like ladies.

Beyond these recognized minority styles of erotic appeal there are many more that have attracted only a very limited audience. Probably there is no garment ever worn that has not figured in the sexual life of someone, somewhere. In Britain today, for instance, there is a society devoted to the wearing of rubber rainwear of the sort associated with A.A. Milne’s John, who as you may recall had great big waterproof boots on, a great big waterproof hat, and a great big waterproof mackintosh. For those who are interested, great big waterproof jerseys, pants, gloves, and face masks are also available.

In the larger British and North American cities many other peculiar sorts of clothing designed to encourage a diversity of erotic experiences are for sale. For example, it is possible to buy edible underwear, marketed under the name of Candypants and available in strawberry, raspberry, orange, lemon, and lime; there is also a licorice-flavored bra named Teacups. If clothes were words, these would be like talking with your mouth full.

Many readers will feel a certain sticky discomfort at the thought of wearing such garments, or some of the others described here. They may recall Thoreau’s advice that we should distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes. Indeed, whenever a new garment comes into our lives by purchase, gift, or barter, it is worth asking what we, or its donor, intend this garment to say about us that cannot be said by the clothes we already own. A similar question might be asked about the clothes we throw away. But thinking seriously about what we wear is like thinking seriously about what we say: it can only be done occasionally, or we should find ourselves tongue-tied, unable to get dressed at all.

More generally, the idea that even when we say nothing our clothes are talking noisily to everyone who sees us, telling him or her who we are, where we come from, what we like to do in bed, and a dozen other intimate things, may be unsettling. To wear what “everyone else” is wearing is no solution to the problem, any more than it would be to say what everyone else is saying. We all know people who try to do this, but even if their imitation of “everyone” is successful their clothes do not shut up; rather they broadcast without stopping the information that this is a timid and conventional man or woman, and possibly an untrustworthy one. We can lie in the language of dress, or try to tell the truth; but unless we are naked and bald it is impossible to be silent.

Copyright © 1981 Alison Lurie.

This Issue

October 22, 1981