Amanda Fortini Asks: Whatever Happened to Sexy?

Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

I grew up in a house full of sexy, glamorous women—no men. My parents divorced when I was six, and from then on it was my mom, who raised me and my two younger sisters alone, and a small cast of female boarders who lived in the downstairs room she rented to make ends meet. There was Chris, who had feathered blond hair, full hips, and a penchant for bruise-colored eye makeup. There was our cousin Robin, who lounged around drinking beer and listening to Bruce Springsteen records in silk camisoles worn under shaker-knit sweaters. And there was Debbie, with her mile-long legs in Chic brand jeans and salt-and-pepper frosted hair. She’d met my delicate, redheaded mother on a singles-only ski trip, and though she didn’t ever live with us, she was at our house so much that she might as well have.

Some of my most distinct childhood memories involve watching these women, all in their early thirties at the time, dress to go out at night. In our upstairs bathroom, at a long countertop before an equally long mirror, they shaved their legs (balanced on one foot, like storks, the other foot pressed against the counter’s edge), curled their hair piece by layered piece, then swiped on eye shadow and lipstick from gold Estée Lauder compacts and tubes, before slipping into clothes and heels. They wore miniskirts with sheer black hose that emphasized the contours of their calves, oversize tops arranged to expose a slim shoulder dusted with bronzer, bejeweled belts cinched at the waist. (Remember, this was the ’80s.) On these evenings, a bit too much wine was consumed, and arguably too much makeup applied.

From the bathroom doorway, I watched, and I eavesdropped. Their conversation floated up like birdsong while they primped: talk of the regulars they met “at the bars,” the men they had crushes on, and the ones who had crushes on them. As a girl of seven or eight, I had only the haziest notion of what any of this meant. All I knew was that the unguents and aerosols and accessories, the pantyhose and perfumes and paints worked some sort of magic. Now, as an adult, I understand that on the most basic level they were getting decked out to meet men, but I also know that they were enjoying themselves as seductive, attractive women.

Whatever happened to sexy? In the so-called old days, as anyone who has watched a noir film or an episode of Dynasty knows, women preened and prepped with an eye to seduction. They wore makeup, flashed a little cleavage or thigh, swayed along in spiky high heels. They knew that they could turn up the volume on their femininity by dramatizing their hips, legs, breasts, butt, eyes, and lips, if you want to be anatomical about it. For their male audience, the turn-on came not only from beholding a shiny feminine facade, but also from an awareness of the strategic efforts behind it—and the backstage pleasures at which they hinted. Aristocratic and bourgeois women in eighteenth-century France so keenly grasped the titillation of artifice that they allowed visitors in the boudoir for the final stages of their toilette.

Today, however, fashionable young women dress not for sex but for style, chasing trends as they appear. They wear the infantilizing rompers and unflattering drop-crotch pants celebrated and satirized by the Man Repeller blog; they pile on so many layers that they resemble human collages. If they dress up at all. Much of the time, Lululemon pants are daywear, cutoff “mom jeans” are worn out at night, and doing one’s hair consists of wadding it into a ball and shoving a rubber band around it. In this lackadaisical climate, arraying oneself seductively tends to be thought of as tasteless, coarse, déclassé, or trying too hard—the stuff of insecure teenagers in padded bras, or desperate singles hoping to land a husband.

For women like me, women in their mid-to-late thirties who came of age at a time of date-rape awareness vigils, strict policing of sexual harassment on campus, and reading about our president’s semen on a certain intern’s blue dress, sexy became a confusing way to be—and certainly not an effective route to being taken seriously. As a result, I’m bad at sexy. I don’t know how to affect that pose, but when I think back to my mom and her friends, I wish I did. When I do wear something provocative, I’m ill at ease, pulling at myself and readjusting, wondering if I’m attracting too much attention. As for glamorous makeup, forget it. I apply it with two left hands and feel as bewitching as a clown.

Maybe the lack of come-hither dressing reflects an underlying reality: Young people, broadly defined, are not very interested in sex. According to one large study, those born between 1965 and 1985 have “substantially” fewer partners than those born in the years before or after—likely because we’ve been made so aware of the perils of AIDS and STDs. And though the data show that the cohort we call the millennials (roughly, those born between the late 1970s and early 1990s) are sleeping around more than Gen-Xers, many argue that they’re not exactly into it. “Sex is antithetical to the way they socialize, disruptive to the larger plan, a gateway to chaos in a digitally ordered world,” Nate Freeman, a then 23-year-old journalist, wrote in a New York Observer article titled “Sexless and the City.”

It’s also possible, as Freeman suggests, that we are witnessing a side effect of technology. Once upon a time, you broadcast your availability—by darkening, enhancing, or revealing sexual characteristics so they could be noticed across a room—then threw yourself into the crowd. Now you can simply go online in your sweatpants. “The Internet,” Erica Jong wrote in a New York Times op-ed titled “Is Sex Passé?,” offers “simulated sex without intimacy, without identity and without fear of infection.” And without fear of face-to-face rejection, I’d add. All positive, perhaps, except that when so many women have ceased to delight in the erotic power of clothing, makeup, and accessories—when they don’t realize that dressing sexily can make them feel sophisticated and commanding, even alter the way they gesture and speak—shouldn’t we ask whether something has been lost?

This fall, thankfully, Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada are bringing sexy back. At both his eponymous line and at Louis Vuitton, Jacobs sent down the runway models who were either half-dressed or half-undressed, depending on your perspective. Prada styled her clothes with a suggestive nonchalance, showing décolleté frocks undone to reveal an expanse of collarbone and chest. This state of being partly clothed is what the French call dishabille—and in these shows, it was manifested in looks that evoked the night before or the morning after, clothes to toss on for a naughty assignation in a hotel or a brazen walk of shame.

At Marc Jacobs, in jewel tones of garnet, amethyst, and sapphire, there were sweaters, suit jackets, and men’s pajama tops paired with bare legs and no discernable bottoms. At Vuitton, in a palette that was moodier and more floral, the dominant look was that of a statement coat thrown over a lace-trimmed slip—a combination memorably worn by Elizabeth Taylor at the beginning of BUtterfield 8, when she wakes up in the apartment of her married lover, discovers her dress was torn in the previous night’s festivities, and borrows his wife’s mink coat in order to leave. At Prada, the wasp-waisted silhouettes brought to mind film noir heroines, such as Kim Novak in Vertigo or Grace Kelly in Rear Window. But what remained risqué subtext in such films was here made explicit—the models’ hair was drenched, as if they’d just showered après-sex, and many toted oversize bowler bags, perfect for the woman who’s never quite sure where she’ll spend the night.

As possibly vulgar and hard to wear as all this might sound, none of it was. These clothes were elegant and grown-up, as true sexiness usually is, since it springs from a confidence in oneself and an assuredness about one’s desires. It was difficult to imagine young women in their early to mid-twenties with slouchy, uncertain postures and arms self-protectively crossed over their chests in Jacobs’ gossamer slipdresses or sequined gowns that looked like a disco ball had been melted and poured over the models’ bodies. The loose, draped fabric emphasizes nipples and curves by cascading over them rather than by providing any structure or support.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images

In all three collections, there were plenty of more coyly sexy looks to wear to the office the day after a dalliance. For Jacobs, this meant snug sweaters over trim pencil skirts, ladylike suits, and strappy retro heels. Prada showed mismatched ensembles (e.g., red leather skirt, orange shoes, green clutch) that looked like the rushed early-morning outcome of a woman scooping up whatever’s lying on her bedroom floor and wearing it with élan. Yet these collections made you want to forget about the workaday world and take your adult pleasures: Pop a Valium or smoke a joint with someone you like, hang out in the bedroom, listen to music, and do things better left unspecified. In other words, the clothes felt decadent. What could be more decadent than tarting up to stay home?

By evoking the bedroom, these clothes remind us that sexy implies something private, hidden, offstage—not posted on social media outlets for everyone and her mother to read. Hence the legendary sexiness of, say, the intensely intimate love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in the classic 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now. They get ready to go out for a postcoital dinner—she buttons up a tight silver sweater, pulls on red knee-high boots—and only the audience knows their secret.

The clothes from Jacobs’ fall show also remind that sexy frequently entails a marrying of opposites: a bra beneath a structured greatcoat (Vuitton), or an upscale dress layered over a casual cardigan (Prada). Sexy occurs, to borrow Samuel Johnson’s quote about the metaphysical poets, when “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Think of fashion icon Tina Chow: Her dramatic, minimalist style brought together East and West, masculine and feminine. Or of Kim Basinger in 9½ Weeks, her curves disguised in baggy sweaters and men’s trousers.

Not to get too cerebral about this most primal of topics. Sexy is, above all, sensual, never abstemious: a thick steak and a glass of red wine, not green juice and toned yoga arms. Sexiness is not perfection. It is overcoming flaws with blinding gestures. Because of this it can often seem slightly dangerous or unhinged. It’s Bianca Jagger in her Studio 54 days, looking kooky but chic in a turban and velvet choker, or perched on a white horse in a red jersey that Halston slit up to there. It’s Iman, always, whether topless in vinyl hot pants or poured into a white evening gown, David Bowie at her side.

To define sexy is to understand why it’s become as rare as a Siberian tiger. We live in a trying-to-fit-in, always-at-work culture that idealizes being natural, healthy, and integrated—the opposite of tricked-up and artificial. We are bizarrely preoccupied with the judgment of our peers: garnering “likes” and appearing to “have it all.” The idea of spending time and energy on seduction seems like veering off track, losing focus. And in this fragile economic moment, few among us can afford that. Nor can we afford to stick out, and sexiness is the definition of sticking out, risking gossip, making yourself a target. It is instigating drama that may disrupt a delicate workplace ecosystem.

Furthermore, unlike 50 or 60 years ago, men and women are now in many cases professional equals, which means we’re not required to dress sexily, as secretaries and stewardesses once were.

From a purely fashion viewpoint, I blame street-style blogs for ruining sexy. They induce people to adorn themselves ever more ridiculously to get photographed, whereas sexiness emanates from within. The rise of such blogs also has encouraged a transparent, consumerist following of fashion, and an attendant desire to announce one is wearing it. But a gigantic metallic logo glinting from your shoes or purse is so not sexy.

Finally, where are you going to dress sexily these days? Restaurants like the ’21’ Club or Spago are as over-the-hill as their patrons, and those of us past 23 tend not to go to clubs. We can stay at home, of course, the ultimate sexy domain. We can go to Las Vegas, which is like a faux-sexy theme park, where women hobble along in stripper heels and napkin-size dresses in a caricature of sexy. Or we can wait for Halloween, when everybody tries to get their sexy in for the year.

Although neither of these examples offers anything in the way of style—sexiness is mystery and sophistication, not the shortest skirt you can wear—they are instructive. Clearly, there is a collective appetite for sexiness and glamour: Women want to look, act, and feel seductive. And then, sexiness is a costume, a mask. It’s a role you might like to play from time to time, to experience, or reveal, a different aspect of yourself. “Never fear being vulgar, just boring,” Diana Vreeland once said. Sexiness is never boring. As unpredictable as its outcomes may be, you can count on that.