A History Of What's Considered "Sexy" In Fashion

Ostensibly, clothing exists to cover up nudity. But really, it's way more complicated than that.

Throughout history, we've use clothes to alter our bodies: to enhance parts we love, minimize the ones we don't, or even alter the way we move to fit a more feminine ideal. And, of course, fashion has a way of changing what we find sexy through the parts it hides or bares.

From the miniskirt mania of the '60s, to today's off-shoulder obsession, this is a history of erogenous zones — and the fashions we use to reveal and conceal them.

Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Ankle
The myth about Victorian-age people being so sexually repressed they even covered the legs of their pianos has long since been debunked. But 19th-century women's bodies were subject to elaborate rules nonetheless. Arms were never uncovered in the daytime. Bonnets were expected on the street. Ladies and gentlemen both wore gloves in public at all times — skin-on-skin contact between an unwed man and woman was considered most risqué.

And not only were women's skirts long, but there were elaborate rules of etiquette that governed how a lady was to lift her skirt when, say, crossing a muddy street: The skirt was to be held with just one hand, and lifted only as much as necessary to clear the ground — any more was considered "vulgar."

It wasn't until bicycles became popular in the late 1800s that women's legs began to be a little less taboo.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Back
You need only look at summer dresses at Free People or Reformation to realize we're in the midst of a major sexy-back moment.

There's something irresistibly "carefree festival girl" about a flowy dress with a wide-open back, and the sexier examples feature all manner of criss-crossy straps that somehow have the effect of enhancing the bare look. And, ladies who need support, don't worry — there's a bra for that.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Breasts
You may think boobs have always been taboo, but that's not the case. Breasts were long depicted in painting and sculpture as a symbol of beauty and fertility, and even as late as the 18th century, it wasn't unheard of for society women to be painted with a nipple peeking out of their dress — most famously in this portrait of Princess Marie Louise of Savoy, a consort of Marie Antoinette.

Of course, in addition to their primary purpose, breasts also function as an erotic symbol, which means they're subject to moralizing and censorship, even in non-sexual situations like sunbathing or breastfeeding. It's that double standard that Austrian designer Rudi Gernreich challenged in 1964 with his revolutionary breast-baring monokini. In a world that was still pearl-clutchy over bikinis, it's hard to overstate what a stir it caused. Meant to challenge notions of the female body as shameful, sadly it was too ahead of its time. Not only did it not catch on, but Peggy Moffitt actually received death threats for modeling it.

Luckily, campaigns like #Freethenipple and Micol Hebron's brilliant "male nipple pasties" continue to challenge sexist double standards around nudity today.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Butt
When Vogue declared last year (last year!) to be "The Dawn of the Butt," the general response was "Excuse me, but are you brand-new?" The butt has always been a highly charged symbol of a woman's sexiness and power — and yes, many women and men like 'em strictly on a "the bigger, the better" basis.

We count pencil skirts, yoga pants, and freakum dresses as great moments in ass-embracing fashion, but our personal fave is the hot pant. Back in the day, they were strictly for a romp at the beach, but Daisy Duke, disco, and the 70s in general made the high-waisted short-short a summer staple for time immemorial. Now, no cool girl is without her cutoffs, and most people are unfazed by a little underbutt. It's a glorious thing.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Décolletage
The 1700s had a surprisingly libertine attitude toward showing a woman's shoulders and bust. In France's and England's royal courts, women's tops were worn so low, many used makeup to add a blush to visible nipples. But by the Victorian era of the 1800s, necklines shot up, and bare arms and shoulders were considered appropriate only at night and at a private function — never in day or in public.

Those ideas about what a lady does or does not do was one of the reasons John Singer Sargent's 1884 painting "Portrait of Madame X" caused such a scandal. Although the model's outfit wouldn't have been out of place at a ball, her defiant attitude and pose, and the fact that she was originally painted with one of her dress straps fallen over her shoulder, were all considered highly shocking and even vulgar. Sargent repainted the strap in the upright position, but the damage was already done to his career, and to his model's reputation.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Feet
For non-gender-specific body parts that serve no reproductive function, feet are highly charged. Many people find them universally repellent, while many others really, really like them. Women's feet are fetishized most of all, which is why you can type literally any actress' name into Google and it auto-completes with "feet." (Fun fact: Type a male actor's name, and it auto-completes "salary." Oy.)

Foot-binding is the most infamous example of a highly ritualized form of feminine fashion meant to emphasize a woman's delicacy and social status — because only the truly filthy, idle rich don't need to walk. High heels serve a similar function, making the foot appear smaller, slimming the leg, and supposedly contributing to a sexier gait (if you do it right).

For much of modern history, high heels were of the low and thick, fairly walkable variety. But by the 1950s, heels were getting taller and skinnier — a change that coincided with their becoming a fixture in erotic art. These days, no matter how many women swear their Louboutin 100mm heels are "the most comfortable thing ever," to wear heels at all sends powerful signals about what you're willing to give up in comfort for the heady combination of height and sexual power. And it also reveals you've got a healthy cab budget.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Genitalia
Most fashion coyly dances around the edges of revealing secondary sex characteristics such as breasts or hips. But none of that for Rick Owens: For his fall '15 men's show, he fully went there, sending male models down the runway in long tunics with cutouts and sheer panels right where, one could argue, they need them most. Shocking, for sure — but an amazingly refreshing antidote to putting women's bits endlessly on display.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Hips
Women put on weight in their hips during puberty, marking this body part as a potent symbol of fertility and femininity. Thus, fashion has long employed tricks that emphasize the hips, from the 1800s' hoop skirt, to Christian Dior's 1947 New Look, whose nipped waist made the hip look larger by comparison, and defined silhouettes for a decade.

These days, hip-highlighting takes a different form, with strategically placed bathing-suit cutouts, and last year's strange-but-true trend: the pelvage dress (for the record, we liked Keke Palmer's best).
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Legs
There's some debate over whether mod fashion icon André Courrèges or British designer Mary Quant invented the miniskirt. In reality, neither did — short skirts had always been worn for sport by female tennis players, figure skaters, and dancers. But what those two designers did was transform miniskirts into streetwear, and into enduring symbols of Swinging London and the Youthquake movement.

The previous decade's defining style, the pencil skirt, made walking in mincing little baby steps a must (they were called "wiggle skirts" for a reason). Once women felt the freedom of movement miniskirts provided, there was no putting the cat back in the bag. From miniskirts, it was micro-minis, hot pants, and beyond.

The style also, of course, put legs on display as never before, leading designers to create colorful and patterned tights as a fashion statement, while the most daring wore 'em bare-legged and proud.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Midriff
For the past few years, crop tops have most certainly been having a moment. But, really, they've never gone away. The waist is an eternal symbol of youth and femininity, so it makes sense that crop tops would make an appearance in almost every decade: Think the short polo shirts sold at every Abercrombie in 2005; Kelly Kapowski's teen-queen crops, going all the way back to '40s pinup girls; and Old Hollywood glamour shots.

Though it was acceptable to show Atomic Age women's bare stomachs, there was an unwritten rule that belly buttons were verboten, which is why crop tops were always paired with a high-waisted pant or skirt (and why Jeannie's costume looked like this). It wasn't until the bikini revolution that the navel came out of hiding.
Illustrated by Minni Havas.
Shoulders
Between the return of boho, and Rosie Assoulin's influence, the past few years have been a bonanza of off-shoulder tops and dresses (Reformation has practically built its business on them).

The off-shoulder look may seem carefree but, in truth, it's tricky to wear — holding up a sleeveless top takes some serious know-how, and may require an undergarment upgrade. But there's no more ladylike way to show off your shoulders, collarbone, and upper arms all at once — or to keep from shvitzing.