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Shirts vs. skins

Dressing down women’s clothing at the McCord Museum

Francoise Sagan once said, “a dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to want to take it off you.”

Coming from a gambling-addicted, playboy-editor-dating, cocaine-addicted writer these words seem prophetic, to say the least. Yet it seems what was meant to be an anomaly in modern culture has now become the norm: our fascination with gawking at the scantily-clad has been replaced by respect for the courage it takes to ignore such ogling. So the question stands: where does our clothing end and raw sexuality begin? Is it possible to draw such a line, or has this grey area turned into a red one – with lace?

The McCord Museum has been running an exhibit since last February, entitled “Reveal or Conceal,” that continues until January 2009. Within a few slightly cliched displays, the equation of shortened fabric and increased sexuality is hammered in Herculean proportions. Underlying the various depictions of corsets, bathing suits, Dior gowns, and bikini waxes is the question: “does fashion actually drive the sense of heightened sexuality that causes moral outrage, or is ‘sexier’ clothing merely a symptom of changing social values?’’ It’s a classic chicken or egg problem – or maybe cock would be more apropos. To do the issue justice we need to look into moments in western history where heightened sexuality made its mark on the common dress.

The sexualization of clothing saw a brief peak in early 19th-century England; in this epoch, necklines on dresses became an elastic game of peek-a-boo. Afterwards, modesty of dress received widespread popularity again, until the onset of the roaring twenties. Flappers embodied this scandalous lifestyle, revealing their much lusted-after calves and knees. By 1946, the first two-piece bikini hit the stores. Frighteningly enough, it was not for another 24 years that the bikini wax was deemed a necessity by Cosmopolitan magazine and the modern woman. Finally, by the sixties, the miniskirt had become the daily must, thus completing the trajectory of modern woman’s clothing – turning the female body’s mystery into a punch in the face.

Even ignoring the feminist approach to this issue, one is still left baffled. When a man drunkenly streaks through a residence naked he is funny. Yet, when a girl shows too much leg or breast she’s a slut. How has society sexualized the female body so excessively, yet, desexualized the male body into a mere farce? T-shirt dresses. Padded bras. Showing thongs. Are these really the problem? Or has a hyper-sensitivity to the overtly sexual female body created a taboo where one should not exist? Or perhaps – pardon my bluntness – we’re just a culture of sluts.

I invite you to pay a visit to “Reveal or Conceal,” notice the clothing shrink over time, and ask yourself the question – should we really care? Maybe, just maybe, Victorian England had it wrong. After all, Eve wore her birthday suit. The emperor was just as satisfied with his new clothes. Reveal or conceal? Let’s get down to the bare truth.