When times are changing, fashion is often just another tool for social commentary, regularly utilized as a mirror that reflects the spirit of the times. And one prevailing theme throughout history is the position of women and their struggle for sexual liberation. Enter the evolution of "slutty" clothes. From the scandalous shins of flappers to the lingerie on-display looks of the '90s, each generation has had something specific to say about the position of women and their bodies in society at large.
The ways "slutty" clothes have been perceived and reclaimed over time prove that women have always been stuck between a rock and a hard place. A woman can be looked at as a virgin, or a whore. And whichever they choose, they'll usually be simultaneously loved and hated. Hence the need to reclaim slutty clothing. The fact that women showing skin have long been deemed inappropriate is emblematic of a war for control — and one that shows the importance of breaking out of the "virgin-whore dichotomy." "Be chaste but never prude." "Be a hot tamale, but not too much of a hot tamale," we're told while society struggles to rein us into boundaries with the lashing of "slut."
But each decade, there have been women who have been willing to face the social consequences of being branded with a scarlet "A" and wear what so many people like to call "slut clothes." Here is how they evolved through the decades, and what they meant about the generation of women that embraced them.
1. 1920s: Flappers Ditched Some Layers
The flappers were arguably the first rebellious daughters of our nation, regularly sneaking off to gin parties and smoky jazz clubs as mom and dad probably slept in the room upstairs. They shrugged off the Gibson Girl image that their mothers held in such high regard — the "fragile lady" who was the crème de la crème of upper crust society — and instead took on a more flashy, defiant role.
Even the name "flapper" hinted at their excitingly bad rep, coming from the old Northern British slang meaning "young prostitute." These women became synonymous with Tommy Guns and vices, cigarette smoking sirens, and illegal dance halls.
While a raised hemline and bare shoulders might not seem like scandalous stuff compared to our hot pants and bralette tops of 2016, just imagine what the Gibson Girl wore only a handful of years beforehand. Within a decade, women went from wearing heavy ankle-length gowns to shimmying knee-length dresses: shocking slutty stuff.
To put it into perspective, Dr. Ann Dupont, fashion-merchandising specialist, told the University Of Texas, “A lady’s ankle was pretty shocking stuff. To the point they often had separate men’s and women’s staircases in Victorian houses in order not to risk the person walking behind a woman getting a glimpse of her ankle.”
The flappers' style was all about embracing vices and frivolity, but why? To break it down, the 1920s style reflected a change in women’s attitudes. The flappers were the daughters of the Suffragettes, and with their right to vote, their fashion arguably mirrored their rebellion against traditional lifestyles and their new and fierce independence.
But also linked to their newfound freedom was the aftermath of World War I. Watching boyfriends, brothers, and fathers head off to war and often never return again, the younger generation likely felt a need to break ties with the dreamer-like ideals of their parents that the war had taken away from them. According to Eric Burns, author of The Spirits Of America, women seemed to have "been infected with an eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die spirit which accompanied the departure of the soldiers to the training camps and the fighting front."
It was becoming obvious that life was short, and flappers were in revolt against returning to the type of life that was about following convention and morality in lieu of hedonism and a giddy sort of happiness. And the perfect way to express that was with shocking ankles and immorally bare shoulders.
2. 1930s: The Flappers Retired Their Feather Headbands
What brought on the end of the Jazz Age and the gin-soaked hedonism that came with it? The short answer is that the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression started. That wild, high-spirited attitude was no longer acceptable as men started gathering at bread lines and life moved into shanty towns. With that, the glitz and glamour began fading away.
To buy flashy dresses that sparkled, you usually needed money, and there was no longer enough to go around. Instead, campaigns like Make Do And Mend encouraged people to get as much wear out of their clothes as possible, and the hardships of the Stock Market crash forced on more conservative trends, whereby "skirts became longer and the natural waistline became a more important part of dresses as society began to move back toward a more traditionally feminine look," according to historical research site RandomHistory.com. With hardships often comes difficulty to express yourself and to fight for things outside of basic survival (like bread on the table). So the liberating and sexualized dresses were folded away and retired.
3. 1940s: Sweater Girls Flaunted What Mama Gave Them
When you think of the 1940s, you might not necessarily think of sex on a stick. But women started to dabble with their sexuality again after the upswing of the Great Depression and Second World War. And one of the go-to moves to toe the line between modesty and wantonness was to channel your inner "sweater girl."
According to Rosemarie Ostler's Dewdroppers, Waldos, And Slackers: A Decade-By-Decade Guide To The Vanishing Vocabulary Of The 20th Century, the original sweater girls were busty movie stars who wore clingy cardigans and matching cashmere sets, with the new soft fabrics of angora and cashmere clinging to the shape of their bullet bras, turning their busts into torpedoes that would make you do a double take.
While, as Ostler noted the original sweater girl was Lana Turner (who wore a cashmere sweater in the 1937 movie They Won't Forget, creating a new style as she briskly walked down a city street in a pencil skirt and pointy bra), the origin story of the vaguely aggressive silhouette goes back to Dior and the house's "New Look" in 1947. According to Dior's website, this era saw the creation of a standout piece called the "Bar suit," where Dior accented the waist, added volume to the hips, let calves peek out, and emphasized the bust into points.
And why did women eat up this '40s version of unhindered sensuality?
With the end of World War II, it was time for a change, and many women wanted to be "extravagantly feminine" again, as Vogue reported. Some of them did it with their busts. It was all about straddling the image between pinup sensuality and a Lolita-esque type of innocence, becoming "all about sex, but without sex."
But not everyone was on board with this subtle act of accenting the hourglass figure. For many, it signaled the usual moral decline of a new generation: "Women walk the streets, their curves accentuated by their dresses," Superintendent of Police Harvey J. Scott told the Brooklyn Eagle in 1949. "But our real problem is with bobby soxers. They are the sweater girls — just kids showing off their curves and apparently liking it. What kind of mothers and wives are they going to be?" Even with a subtle dalliance with sexuality, women were still shamed back into place.
4. 1950s: Bosom Mania & Pinup Girls
The '50s were all about "bosom mania," — with hourglass vixens like Marilyn Monroe lighting up the silver screen, the first issues of Playboy hitting newsstands, and the pinup girl becoming popularized, there was a fascination between both men and women over a well-defined pair of bubbies.
But the pinup look especially brought forth an interesting narrative about the binaries of "sluttiness" and "Virgin Madonna."
According to gender studies researcher Lachrista Grec, "It's interesting to note that, initially, pinups were meant for women, as well as men. The pinup created a fantasy realm for women (specifically housewives) — a place they could go to play 'pretend.'"
While pinups were popular to keep boys company in barracks, they also let women explore what was called the Madonna-whore complex, which offered women two limited ways to construct a sexual identity: As either a virgin or a whore, according to Florence Denmark's and Michele Antoinette Paludi's Psychology of Women: Handbook of Issues and Theories.
But through pinups, women were offered more options, which is arguably why the look became so popular regardless of its "sluttiness." In the 1940s, when the Second World War was still raging and many women had to take on more masculine roles by putting on the pants in their families both literally and figuratively, they were encouraged via pinups to own their sexual autonomy, as Maria Elena Buszek PhD, reported for the Spencer Museum Of Art. Why? Because for the first time they were able to step outside of their roles as wives and mothers.
According to Maria Buszek PhD, author of Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, "In this environment, where sexually active young ladies were no longer necessarily 'tramps,' but 'victory girls,' women constructed new and positive ways of publicly expressing and representing their sexual agency." With these new images depicting throwing saucy and knowing looks over bare shoulders, women were given the permission to take control of their own sexualities, as well as combine the old, conservative ideals of femininity with their "new attributes of strength, independence, and bravery."
Women were able to reinvent themselves through the pinup — that is, until they couldn't.
Once the war ended and the boys came home, this newly liberated, "sluttier" side of women was immediately shut down. As Buszek explained, "Thus began the 1950s era of the 'eternal virgin' and 'dizzy blonde bombshell,' in which popular culture re-inscribed the ideal female as desirable either for her asexuality and domestic potential or for her naïve, yet overt, sexuality."
But after having a taste of self-awareness and sexual expression, not all women were willing to go back to their old expectations. Which leads us to the swingin' '60s.
5. 1960s & 1970s: Viva La Liberación Sexual
The likes of hot pants, mini skirts, and teeny tiny polka dot bikinis were often blamed for a general moral decline in society and the death of the All-American girl next door, but was fashion the cause or just a reflection of the changes in society?
There was a boom in "slutty" clothes in the '60s, with hem lines shrinking, nipples being liberated, and anything that hinted towards a sexual revolution welcomed with open arms.
Mary Quant was arguably the pioneer who introduced women to the mini, offering a "heady mix of messages... miniskirts telegraphed a tongue-in-cheek girly innocence and playful attitude, all the while packing a rebellious punch to the repressed post-war generation of the ‘50s raised on no-frills utilitarian designs," as the BBC reported.
Once again, slutty clothes emerged as an answer to the repression of the last generation. And many people were not pleased. Society doesn't like being challenged, after all, and, in an interview with British Vogue, Quant recalled how "middle age businessmen would beat on the window and shout, ‘It’s obscene, it’s disgusting.’" But to those who wore the mini, it was a way to express their sexuality in an unashamed manner.
Along with Quart's mini skirts were also Yves St. Laurent's sheer blouses that were meant to be worn sans bra, and were "less about pleasing the onlooker, and more about asserting equality between the sexes," according to Dazed.
And if you think freeing the nipple would have been enough of a shock, Saint Laurent took the liberation of slutty clothes a step further, making Baby Boomers grasp at their chests in outrage. In 1971, he debuted a 1940s-inspired collection, one where "many of the clothes — a giant green-colored fur coat, dresses tightly fitted at the hips — were inspired by the styles worn by prostitutes during 1940s." And the response to it was harsh, where "Eugenia Sheppard of New York Post dubbed it 'completely hideous, the ugliest collection in Paris,' while The Daily Telegraph labeled it nauseating,'" AnOther Magazine reported.
While harsh, the Youthquake generation ate it up because it reflected their liberating agenda.
6. 1990s: On-View Lingerie
The on-view lingerie trend of the '90s was a bit sexually wanton without actually being so. It mixed vulgarity with style and presented "an exuberant personality that proclaimed sexuality as the basis of our lives," as the Los Angeles Times reported. And that it was.
An article from the '90s at The Independent read, "If there is one word that sums up '90s attitudes to sex it is the ubiquitous term 'shag.' Sex may have lost some of its mystique, but it has also lost most of its romance. Making lurve is passe; shagging is all about the here and now." So is it any wonder women wore their knickers on the outside?
Many women now felt able to be upfront about wanting a relationship that was just about having a good time, and the clothes reflected that — what with the introduction of slips as dresses, visible bras and panties, "clothing with thin straps and adjustable slides like those traditionally used in lingerie," and sex-bomb outfits.
It seemed like everything in the '90s was about the noir life — Versace's so-called "bondage" dresses looked like something inspired by S&M clubs," the LA Times reported, slip dresses á la Courtney Love were reinterpreted as day-wear, and bra straps peeked out from underneath clothes for the first time. So what led fashion to point of unashamed sexuality?
Women no longer had to depend on men financially in the way so many previously did. It was an era in which just as many women and men showed up on train platforms to get to the office in the morning. Getting your own bank account spurred on the liberation of bra straps and slutty-chic trends. By stepping into breadwinner, self-sustaining roles, independent and sexually aggressive women began to be seen as attractive, and those same characteristics came into their wardrobes.
7. Today: Everything On Display
From cleavage to legs, tummies to backs, nipples to butt cheeks, many of us want anything and everything on display. There are women in more liberalized and developed areas who can now head outside with freed nipples or let a flash of cheek wink from underneath Daisy Dukes. Crop tops have been on-point for more than a handful of summers while backless dresses are often considered just as sexy (if not more than) plunging necklines. So why are so many women embracing these stereotypically "slutty" trends?
Because it's no longer acceptable to tell an autonomous person that they can't, even if we still have people who try. According to Lexie Kite, PhD, and Lindsay Kite, PhD, media and body image scholars, there's "far too much emphasis being placed on arbitrary standards that are harming females from a very young age and keeping us fixated on females as bodies alone." While most of us identify as sexual beings, our sex appeal isn't the only thing we have to offer. And by pushing modesty as the "moral compass" of an acceptable woman, we're arguably taught that our "bodies are vice-inspiring and there for the ogglement of others, especially men who just 'can't help but look,'" as Kite and Kite reported.
According to the Kites, "This privileges the male gaze, in a backward sort of way, and puts females at a disadvantage for being the ones in control of what others think or feel when seeing their bodies." By telling women to cover up, cultural norms are telling them that they're responsible for the actions and thoughts of others, thus allowing archaic, misogynistic thinking off of the hook because "you wore hot pants and asked for it."
By reclaiming "slutty" clothes, many women are taking back the conversation. By not covering up for the sake of helping others control their leers, such humans are saying that they're not just sexual objects that need to be covered up.
By wearing slutty clothes, women are saying that their worth isn't tied up to their bodies. So the next time you find yourself wanting to judge a short hemline or a surprising flash of skin, please pause. And think about why the woman might be choosing to do it. As well as how your reaction might help or impede her cause.
Images: PBS (1); Warner Bros (1); Quant (1)