In Victorian times, women didn’t dare bare an ankle, but nowadays slut fashion is celebrated. How did we get from there to here? We take a look at how our anatomical parts play a role in determining what’s on trend. From the midriffs of seasons past to this spring’s bare shoulders, we’re examining erogenous zones throughout fashion’s history and revealing how to bare skin without being obvious in a way that works for every body.
In the early 1800s, flaunting your bosom was fashionable. “Some ladies of high fashion went so far as to (discreetly) reveal their nipples,” wrote NJ Stevenson in Fashion: A Visual History from Regency & Romance to Retro & Revolution. But, by the Victorian era, this was no longer deemed appropriate. From the metaphoric bra burning of the 1960s to Madonna’s iconic 1990 Gaultier-designed cone bra, trends in décolletage have fluctuated throughout the years. “In different cultures and in different periods, the impulse has been either to call attention to the breasts—sometimes by baring them completely—or to disguise them to the point of denying their existence, and forcing clothed women into a form of androgyny,” wrote Colin McDowell in The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do.
Breasts shouldn’t have to be hidden (unless they’re yours, and you’re choosing to hide them), but keep in mind your environment. What looks sexy for a hot date or a girl’s night out may not be proper for the workplace. Vertical necklines, such as V-necks, are generally flattering for everybody’s bustline; they elongate and narrow the torso.
And, of course, no part of our anatomy has seemingly inspired more anthems than the butt, the badonkadonk, our humps. Throughout history, the derriére has inspired men and women alike. “There was a period in the fifteenth century when a combination of tight hose and a very short jacket (for men) was such a popular fashion that both churches and governments tried to ban it,” wrote McDowell. The S-shape silhouette of women in the Edwardian era emphasized both a large bust and bottom, created with corsets, bustles and toosh-lifting high heels. And who can forget the low-rise jean/exposed thong trend of the early 2000s that inspired R&B artist Sisqó’s Grammy-nominated “The Thong Song”?
Whether you feel “Bootylicious” or if you think you have “2 Much Booty (In da Pants),” there are ways to make your rump look better, too. The smaller your waist looks, the rounder your bum will look by comparison, so go for bottoms and dresses that fit snugly at your natural waist, and pair them with tucked-in tops and cropped jackets. Choose bottoms and fabrics that either draw attention towards or away from what you do or don’t want noticed.
This spring, shoulders are the new midriff—the new unofficial official erogenous zone. Shoulder cutouts and off-the-shoulder tops were recurring themes at all the major runway shows, but why? Is there a fashion illuminati, and, if so, how much control do they have on what we wear? If modern culture and media is obsessed with celebrity, and designers cater to the famous in order to promote their brands, then isn’t the answer simple? Money. Stores need a reason to convince us to buy a new dress or a fresh pair of sneakers. If styles didn’t change from year to year and season to season, we’d be much less likely to shop. As writer Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
We also need to recognize designers for their creativity, and, of course, the impact of the world around us. Fashion itself is a reflection of social, economic, political and cultural changes. McDowell credits youth and personal expression with fashion’s evolution: “It was the rise of the teenager and the rock and roll generation that signalled the emergence of a new visual language in which personal appearance could be an effective political gesture. Young American teenagers turned their backs on the glamour dressing of their parents in fashion’s first large-scale rejection of dressing as well as one could afford.” He goes on to cite trends like mods, hippies and punks as examples.
So, what is the shoulder-baring trend about? Maybe it symbolizes a weight lifted. We’ve reached a point where we no longer have to define ourselves as harlot or holy. Let’s be honest, most of us are trapped somewhere in between, anyway. Fashion is meant to be fun, and we should explore our options—treading lightly on trends and focusing more on personal style.
Emily Davidson Nemoy is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn. When she’s not at her computer or on her yoga mat, she can be found at live music venues happily spending her excess cash on concert tickets.