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Op-Ed | Sex Doesn’t Sell. Voyeurism Does.

‘Look, don’t touch’ is the ethos that pervades fashion’s exhibitionist post-pandemic look, argues Eugene Rabkin.
Retailers are getting on board, snapping up bodycon dresses, mini-skirts and sheer tops from brands including Nensi Dojaka.
Retailers are getting on board, snapping up bodycon dresses, mini-skirts and sheer tops from brands including Nensi Dojaka. (Courtesy)

In recent years, the evolution of culture has challenged the marketing adage “sex sells.” A new generation, so the dominant narrative goes, sees traditional female sexiness as objectifying and exploitative. Exhibit A was the decline of Victoria’s Secret, still the world’s largest lingerie player, but dethroned as a cultural leader after sliding sales and a series of scandals culminated in its fashion show, once a major televised spectacle, being deemed so outmoded that it was swiftly killed off.

Dressing to attract the opposite sex was at the very core of brands that rocked fashion in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s, from Mugler to Versace, Dolce & Gabbana to Tom Ford’s Gucci. But look at today’s Gucci under Alessandro Michele, and it’s anything but sexy. There is barely a hint of sexiness at Demna Gvasalia’s white-hot Balenciaga, while Maria Grazia Chiuri’s blockbuster Dior has put feminism at the heart of its message.

And yet, at the same time another cultural current has been gaining strength. Showing off one’s body has become almost de rigueur. With the rise of wellness as an upper-middle-class obsession, a fit body has become a desirable status symbol.

Today, more likely than not, the uniform to which many women aspire is an Alo Yoga sports bra and leggings, worn with a Bottega Veneta bag and a hot body to complete the outfit. On Instagram, countless fitness models with huge following put their bodies on display, straddling the line between wellness and sexual suggestion.

In New York this summer, after pandemic restrictions were dropped, women spilled into the streets in various states of undress. Trend forecasters picked up on this new ‘Summer of Love’ and it soon influenced fashion. Look at photos from last season’s runways and you will see lots and lots of skin. Even Miu Miu, which has always traded on the attractive-but-intellectual girl, showed revealing cut-offs.

Meanwhile, Mugler’s semi-sheer leggings are selling like hotcakes and Nensi Dojaka, whose pieces are designed to reveal the body just so, won this year’s LVMH prize. Retailers are getting on board, snapping up bodycon dresses, mini-skirts and sheer tops.

But this new incarnation of “sexy” is missing the erotic impulse. “Look, don’t touch” is the mantra. See today’s fashion advertising imagery: gone are the come-ons of iconic Calvin Klein underwear ads; instead, there’s Rihanna modelling her Savage X Fenty lingerie line with confidence that signals she’s not here for the male gaze.

Replacing a prelude to sex with a kind of empowered exhibitionism fits today’s cultural climate, which cleanses itself of the sexual act, yet retains a certain voyeuristic allure.

Fourth-wave feminism encourages women to view their sexuality as agency, instead of downplaying it to highlight their wider personhood, but in the wake of the #MeToo movement, sexual relations have become more ambivalent.

Then, there’s the rise of digital media, where sexuality is a performance meant to be consumed as imagery, not actually consummated in the real world.

A new paradigm is here: it’s no longer sex that sells, but voyeurism.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine.

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