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Fashion communicates. Fashion defines. It is an everyday theatrical catwalk of displaying different individuals, a clear expression of an identity. Simply studying all the dresses in our wardrobe can create our autobiography in life. Fashion as a symbolic system, allows scholars around the world to explore its expression of sexuality. Mentioned by Valerie Steele (1996, pp.30), human sexuality is never just a matter of doing what comes naturally. It has always been a psychological construction where both fantasy and fashion play important roles. Moreover, adornments that fall on human skin can arouse sexual desires. With such close relation, all fashion clothing hold potential to allow human to feel erotically charged. Hence, it is impossible to deny that fashion was able to stimulate eroticism dominantly via the five main senses - sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste (Freud, 1953). As such, in this essay, investigation will be conducted with evidence from the past of erotic fashion and predict its leading future.
Fetishism is an international phenomenon, from private to catwalk. Erotic fashion belongs to a world filled with amusement. It almost seems bizarre when a pair of shoes can sexually excite someone. Through discoveries of unwrapping, the underlying meanings can surprise. Although such provocative fashion only appears on a distinct group of minorities, it has been already translated on the catwalk runways for decades. It gives individuals a character to play in, like costumes. Steele (1996) revealed that fetishism is able to show how "the sexual instinct and sexual object are merely soldered together." As one of the most controversial garments in the history of fashion, the corset perceived eroticism and gradually broke out to gain mass appeal. With erotic fashion's elevation in the industry, the question boils down to the upcoming possible changes.
On top of that, it is essential to understand the key intentions of women who adorned in erotic fashion in evidence to the past centuries. Although it is very difficult to conclude the reliability of the source materials, it will become clear with analysis from academic point of view. The fashion did occurred then, and the causes should be explored. Since nineteenth century, substantial changes have occurred in the position of women in society as their roles have been revised until Today. Process of liberation was reflecting in a changing physical expression, adorning fashion, either in opposition to the ideal or as an expression of it. In the works of Thesander (1997, pp.13), she also advocated how liberation of women's bodies connected closely with women's liberation in society. Social-influential powers can affect women's personal struggle of maintaining as 'aesthetic sex objects'. To fit in to the prevailing norms of physical aesthetics (as sexually attractive), female bodies result in modifications physically.
In Nancy Etcoff's Survival of the Prettiest (2000), she mentioned how heterosexual males are genetically programmed to be attracted to women with large breasts and a small waist above rounded hips. These physical characteristics identify females of childbearing age who are not yet pregnant. In conjunction to the research, Valerie Steele (1996) has previously provided supportive findings within the animal kingdom. Away from responsibilities of childbearing or lactation, male mammals can ensure the survival of their species by mating with as many fertile females as possible. Over the generations, genes had been passed down of the importance of the biological attractiveness of opposite sex, young females with maximum reproductive capacity. Consequently, visual oriented patterns of sexual arousal will display within human males because of the continuous alert of searching mating chances. A corset, for example, which accentuates the female body shape, will cause a powerful psychological attraction unto males. It is therefore difficult for corsets to be ruled out in the future of erotic fashion.
When explorations are carried out on the appeal for women of clothes that men treat as fetishes, we have to understand women view erotic fashion differently from men. From clinical studies of male fantasies, fetishism involves special stimuli to achieve sexual arousal. To each has its own, corsets; sexy lingerie and high heels are classic examples. However, in extreme cases, the fetish can takes place of a sexual partner. In the research of Steele's (1996, pp.12), it seems noticeably that references of pornography contain involvement of clothing fetishism with transvestism and/or sadomasochism, beyond heterosexual relationships. This indicates how fetishism frequently overlaps with different sexual variants. The line dividing what is being aroused and what causes the arousal is ambiguous.
Tight lacing allows fetishism to become a form of exaggeration of what is fashionably acceptable. Different levels of fetishism develop when specific characteristics are incorporated into common clothing like corset, jackets, or shoes. However, it is evident not to confuse fetishistic tight lacing to ordinary fashionable corsetry. Academic writers like to suggest that eating disorders can brings a small waist too. However, erotic fashion does not only revolves around physical sexuality, it can perpetuate power and perception. As a cultural discourse, it easily constructs sexuality, as it could come from anything that evokes erotic sensibilities or visual stimulation. People become the staged characters in reality.
When not laced, bound, stretched, pierced, or tattooed, erogenous zones that are usually concealed or only partially exposed attracts sexual attention. In the influential study of Flugel, The Psychology of Clothes (1930), he observed that bare flesh is boring. Male curiosity is sustained by veiling the erotic site, by covering and exhibiting it at the same time. In the West, clothes perform this function, for they conceal while drawing attention to the erotic site. There were several examples from the past where heavy skirts concealed European women's legs for centuries, while colorful or decorated petticoats directed the eye to the feet and ankles. This ploy was so successful that Victorian men became fainthearted at the sight of a well-turned ankle. Then legs lost their sexual allure when hemlines rose after World War I. Female legs were exposed for the first time in centuries and the erogenous zone moved elsewhere, to the back in the 1930s and the breasts in the 1950s.
In fact, it was a dress historian, James Laver, who first discussed 'shifting erogenous zones' in the 1930s. He used this concept to explain fashion or rapid changes in female dress. Influenced by psychoanalyst Flugel, Laver argued that women are born exhibitionists whose social subordination forces them to acquire male protection. Consequently, women dress mainly to attract men, and in order to do so they emphasize their erogenous zones by means of their attire. Male sexual curiosity is, however, highly unstable. Men quickly tire of a given erogenous zone and move on to other feminine body parts. Women must follow and adopt a new form of dress. This explains why while corset may have gradually disappeared from women's fashion in the early twentieth century, it has retained its potency as an erotic garment and still represents one of the most significant fetish objects today. (Entwistle, 2000) The historical evidence suggests that the transformation of women's fashion was directly associated with a change in the physical ideal that rendered the corset obsolete. Over the following decades, the corset was transformed, first into girdles, bustiers and brassieres; and then it became internalized through diet, exercise and maybe medical improvements such as plastic surgery.
The instability of male sexual curiosity too means that women's dress is in a constant state of flux. In contrast to women's dressing to highlight their erogenous zones, Roland Barthes argues that there are no such zones. In Where garment gapes, he clarified:
"Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no "erogenous zones" (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance. "
(Fashion Theory, 2007, Ch.48, pp.601)
The whole excitement takes refuge in the hope of seeing the sexual organ or in knowing the end of the story (novelistic satisfaction). Supported by various writers, historians have assumed that enthusiasm for undergarments was the result of sexual prudery about the naked body. It also implicitly alludes to the act of undressing as a preclude to sexual intimacy (Kern 1975:10; Perrot 1981:150). Yet that was far much but an oversimplification. Steele (1999) disclosed, from Casanova to Freud, experts in sexual psychology have testified to the erotic attraction of concealment. By delaying the sight of the naked body, clothing arouses sexual curiosity, holding in promise the thrill of exposure.
Although it is difficult to draw a conclusion on the existence of erogenous zone despite academic studies of past evidence, it is still possible to come to terms on how certain level of concealment do arouses the level of eroticism. Steele claimed, 'by concealing the body, clothes excite sexual curiosity and create in the viewer the desire to remove them' (1985: 42). Nakedness is uninteresting, not 'sexy', while clothing adds a mystery to the body that makes it all the more provocative. Entwistle (2000) continues by stating how imagination is an important component in sexuality and clothing which keeps parts of the body hidden can stimulate fantasy and increase sexual desire: indeed, striptease depends upon the mystery of clothes and the imagination of the viewer which are negated once all is revealed. Fashion clothing then is linked to eroticism if it has been taken to be an aspect of inner experience as contrasted with animal sexuality' (Bataille 1986: 29). In other words, it would have to be referred as feelings and passions of the imagination. Animals may have sex but they do not eroticize; only humans with their imaginative qualities do so.
Clothing and adornment come to a play in articulating sexual desires, orientation and finally, identities. Perhaps it was due to emergence of post-modern aesthetics where women has changed their roles in the society, different types of fashion are adorned on dramatically. However, with the help of capitalism and modern technology, it seems like the society still portray the same message where women needs to be desirable-looking. Growth of modern society may have broken down class barriers and lead to pursuit of individuality. However, it is a misconception that women can escape from social and aesthetics demands, mass media and fashion industries will still force upon certain level of stress. Kunzle (1982) stated that it is mutually reinforcing yet inherently contradictory cause-and-effect cycle: hips and breast swelling and agitated legs tied together - thus sexual invitation and sexual denial simultaneously, the ultimate in provocation. With or without the theory of 'shifting erogenous zones', women would still put on clothes that emphasized the curvy silhouette that seemed to be imprinted into them since birth. With all factors provoking sexuality, it is more than status of wealth, men's enforcement, social provocation or private gratification that causes women to change their roles, like their fashion.
Coming to terms with, it is understood how women in the past tight-laced to show distance from labour, and dedication to conspicuous leisure. Flugel (1930) examined such process of using clothes as fetish objects to differentiate changing social roles between the sexes. Apropos of such adornment, boundaries of 'standard beauty' will be discussed in the later parts of the essay. Additionally, Steele (1999) also brought another interpretation where throughout most of the nineteenth century corset was perceived as a necessity if a woman was to be decently dressed. "The English conclude if your dress is loose, that your moral are also." Was it more than status of wealth, could it be men's enforcement, social provocation, private gratification or a combination force of all factors stated? Having said that, it is impossible to ignore the controversies stroked by corset and some other provocative fashion adornment.
The corset is a garment that has brings about influential associations with sexuality and eroticism in both past and present culture. More than any other pieces of feminine attire, it has galvanized considerable disputed: seen as an instrument of physical oppossion and sexual objectification by Veblen (1953) and Kunzle (1982) and others as a garment asserting sexual power (Entwistle, 2000). Steel (1996) documented that women's addiction to the corset habit was a 'mystery' that 'no man can understand,' except reference to the "proverbial feminine craze for emulating one another and arousing envy by excelling in some extravagance of dress, no matter at what cost." Most women in the nineteenth century did wore corsets - and it is absurd to assume that everyone were slaves to fashion, masochist, or fools. It is at least worth considering that they chose to wear corsets on their own willing account as they did believed that corsets "enhance" their figures and hence, contributing to an illusion of greater 'beauty'. Since beauty may be captured as an objective and universal entity does not exist, the question now revolves how the corset did its magic.
The corset was intimately implicated in the nineteenth-century conceptions of female erotic beauty. Further explained by Steele (1999), corset could have been interpreted as a machine for the erotic production of seductive femininity. Corset functions as sexualizing device by emphasizing the sexually dimorphic curves of the female body: the breast and the ratio between the waist and the hips. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff (2000) presents evidence that human ideals of beauty are the product of evolutionary biology. Heterrosexual males are genetically programmed to be attracted to women with large breasts and a small waist above rounded hips, because these physical characteristics identify females of childbearing age who are not yet pregnant.
The motivation behind dress cannot be reduced to a single explanation: at different times we dress for different reasons and on some occasions women may dress for status and men to attract admirers. Fashion for women, Laver (1969) argued, displayed a concern with seduction where he named it the 'Seduction Principle'. Given that the focus of fashion is the body, it is no surprise to find fashion almost obsessed with sex and sexuality. Enwistle (2000) added that fashion obsession with the sexuality of the body is articulated through particular commodities which are constructed as sexual. Fashion imagery in magazines and in print advertisement plays at the boundaries of contemporary mainstream ideas about sexuality.
During the 1990s, fashion photographers such as Sean Ellis and Juergen Teller increasingly focused their work on dark themes, which spoke of the underside of consumer capitalism. In common with fashion designers, in particular Alexander McQueen, they sought to challenge images of perfect models, and instead display the female body as bruised and decaying. It analyses imagery by Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton and Bob Richardson in the 1960s, and connects these photographers' pursuit of photographs that would show eroticism, desire and anxiety to the work of 1990s practitioners. It draws on a range of ideas from Simone de Beauvoir to Jean Baudrillard to interpret the significance of the often gothic and fetishistic fashion imagery of the 1990s. Perhaps the most obvious illustration of the connection between adornment and sexuality in fetishism, where objects themselves become a focus of sexual excitement. While fetishism carries some stigma of 'perversion', it has enjoyed an interesting relationship to fashion since the 1960s or so, when fashion designers began to plunder underground sexual subcultures. Fetishism was brought into the public area and made more readily available by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's shop SEX where punks brought overtly 'kinky' clothes in the 1970s.