A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness.
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Copyright © 1981 Alison Lurie.