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Sex, Drugs, and Other Vices in Fashion

Writing by Orane Bloch. Artwork by Sara Pocher.

Fashion shocks, fashion takes a stand and fashion constantly evolves, morphing from one stage to another in a cyclical transformation. Sex, drugs and other vices are heavily intertwined with fashion, as they appeal to the most visceral and instinct-driven aspects of every one of us. Yet fashion has also opened the door for marginalized communities to find their voice.

  1. DRUGS

Drugs and fashion go hand-in-hand. The world of high-fashion is known for its lavish parties and drug consumption (for instance, Alexander McQueen’s battle with substance abuse). We can see throughout years and trends how, throughout the discipline of fashion, drug portrayal varies, both in style and in message.

Marijuana, and ‘pot-culture’ à la Américaine has embedded itself in American pop culture. Seen as ‘hippie’ and then vulgar (for it was associated with ‘frat boy’ style), its various symbols are now making a comeback on the runways. For instance, Alexander Wang’s Autumn/Winter 2016 collection, has cannabis plants emblazoned across the outfits.

A playful take on ‘stoner culture’, Wang’s collection is far from controversial, as marijuana is now legal in 27 states across the United States. In the same vein, psychedelic fashion depicts on clothes the visual effects of LSD, mushrooms and other psychedelics. Funky prints, bright colours and surreal imagery are at the centre of the movement.

In contrario, a real issue arises when it is ‘harder’ drugs that are at the centre of a collection. Take provocateur Jeremy Scott’s designs for Moschino’s 2017 summer collection. It generated controversy as it was entirely themed around pills, a bold choice to make when marketing it in a country that is still suffering from a devastating opioid crisis. Known as the label’s redundantly named “capsule” collection, the motif of pills was everywhere, on the clothes, the runway and the accessories. Scott went even further, designing a phone case made to look like a prescription pill pharmaceutical bottle, claiming it was a nod to America’s addiction to prescription meds. The collection eventually had to be pulled from Nordstorm outlets as it generated a nation-wide outrage. Scott’s idea to centre a whole collection around pills, making them an aesthetic while at the same time reminding us of the current crisis in the U.S.A. is not without interest, but it ends up failing to be a profound and sincere depiction of said crisis, instead ending up being a slap-in-the-face, shock value and shallow attempt.

The older ‘heroin chic’, depicting waifish, ill-looking models and whose success is largely attributed to supermodel Kate Moss, the trend was appreciated by designer Calvin Klein, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. Following the footsteps of grunge and the movie ‘Trainspotting’ (1996), it is an embodiment, or a response of the politically-turbulent, rebellious and hedonistic 1990s. Low-rise jeans, kohl-rimmed eyes, oversize sweater à la Kurt Cobain, are used on the runways and in photography shoots as a sort of homage, or clin d’oeil to heroin addiction. Condemned as an insensitive and dangerous glorification of drug use (and of extreme thinness, a recurring and larger problem in fashion perfectly demonstrated by Kate Moss’ infamous “nothing tastes as good as skinny feel”), the trend crashed and burned amidst the ashes of the scandals and controversies surrounding it. Andrew Groves followed the concept but with a different drug: cocaine. In his 1998 fashion show entitled “Cocaine Nights”, models walked down a runway covered with white-powder as they wore dresses constructed of stainless-steel razor blades.

Drugs, as any other subculture, has an important place in fashion, and with media popularising and glamorising drug use, it is now hard to not cross the line between homage and vulgarisation. However, these trends have opened conversations between drugs addicts and the media, and sometimes even have given them a voice, as representation dramatises issues and makes them more accessible and human to the public.

  1. SEX

Fashion is an art form and in order to survive, it has to appeal to the general population as well as critics. In our post-puritanical, image-society, one factor never fails to elicit engagement and profit: sex. Sex has been present in fashion for centuries: from corsets, popularized in the 15th century by Catherine de Medicis in order to emphasize the female waist and cleavage while making the stomach flatter to Raf Simon’s erect penises on his jackets, sex has catwalked fashion’s runway for a while.

Sex and sexuality play many roles in couture and are depicted in different ways. Herve Lenger’s turn of the century bandage dress toes the line between class and vulgarity, a play on the ‘little black dress’ while being reminiscent of tight-fitting garments that we see more in casual settings, for instance athleisure.

Let’s talk about athleisure. It would be impossible to evoke athleisure without mentioning Rudi Gernreich’s (in)famous “Monokini”. Designed in the 1960’s, the reaction it elicited were of such proportions that Gernreich remarked to Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1964 that the public was acting as if he “invented nudity”. The two previous examples show how tight-fitting clothes are reminiscent of sex in the public eye as they play with the notion of sex-appeal by highlighting the shapes of the female body. On the contrary, some designers like Yves-Saint-Laurent and his ‘Mondrian’ dress opt for a more distinguished and delicate image of the female body, using cut-outs and loose shapes.

However, designers are not always so subtle in their renditions of sex and sexuality in their works. There is an important line between sex and arousal: what is made to be ‘sexy’ and what is made to be fetish. From BDSM to the appropriation of sex-workers’ garments, “the vulgar exposes the scandal of good taste’ said fashion curator Judith Clark. Tom Ford’s 2003 pubic hair advertisements, deemed ‘deeply offensive’ and ‘extremely harmful,’ by the public depicted a provocative shot taken featuring model Carmen Kass with pulled-down briefs that exposed her pubic hair trimmed into Gucci’s G logo. This was not Ford’s first scandalous ad to date: in 1997, for the Fall/Winter collection, he showed us three models engaging in a ménage à trois. The same year, he orchestrated another shoot where he played with the BDSM aesthetic, as models Carolyn Murphy and Angela Lindvall embraced each other in bondage-like dresses. Ford is not the only designer to use BDSM imagery: Mugler is one of the pioneers of the movement. In order to “propose astonishment, discovery, plural kinds of beauty,” as he said in an interview with Thierry-Maxime Lorio, Mugler gave us his Fall/Winter 95 show. With a heavy emphasis on latex and fetish wear, Mugler used BDSM reminiscent iconography and a performance by James Brown to shock and surprise the viewer.

Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Eve’ dress for her FW 1989-1990 collection goes right back to the original sin, bringing us a nylon flesh-colored bodysuit and a simple vine leaf around the pubic area. Known for using religious imagery in her clothes, Westwood toys with the concepts of nakedness and sin, presenting us with an image of nudity that is not made to be arousing or sexual but almost primal and instinctive, telling us the story of Eve’s shame as she realized her nakedness and tried to cover herself. Through this, she shows us the human body and sex is not always meant to elicit such strong reactions and dedramatizes the idea of nudity entirely.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that the use of sex in couture created a dialogue between marginalized or discriminated against communities and the public, via the fashion world.

Drag is now recognized as an art-form, with drag queens using camp-like exaggerated images of femininity, from the makeup to the accessories. The liberation of the female body, with Gaultier’s iconic conic bra for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition 1990 tour made her go from the status of pop-star to pop-culture icon. With such a harsh and angular shape that is the cone, Madonna asserted dominance, over both her body and her image, refusing to conform to the norm of soft and round female bodies. Stripper-wear, like high-heeled platform shoes and porn-wear are more popular now than ever, with young women wearing tube tops made of spandex as the ‘whale-tale’ of their thongs are seen above their low-rise jeans.

The questions to ask about sex in fashion now are: have women regained control of their bodies? And as clothes are becoming increasingly genderless, can we envision a future where sex-appeal and sexuality will be independent from the gender binary and the norms we attach to it?

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