Fashion, Venue

Sex sells? The return of Playgirl, the rise of Fenty, and fashion’s new gaze

‘Sex appeal’ has long been disgracefully two dimensional and exclusive: cis-gendered, slim and pre-dominantly white. The fashion industry’s concept of beauty (and consequentially their selling of sex), as derived from this appeal, is incredibly problematic. Today, however, we are travelling towards a more inclusive vision, a concept of beauty and sex appeal free from binaries and societal expectations. Although this totality is many years in the future, it is in progress. Fashion brands, in their imagery and online presence, are beginning to reflect this new desire for diversity.

Foundationally, the male gaze dominates the selling of ‘sex’: the male ‘ideal’ determines the female model; the model determines the broadcasting of fashion and, combined, these determine our societal perception of sex, beauty and ‘perfection’. As the Eurocentric beauty standard reigned, anything outside of it was deemed inferior. This connection between beauty and the male ideal generates unattainable standards which, ultimately, the beauty and fashion world benefit from. For many, clothes and beauty became a vehicle to unnecessary self-bettering in attempts to minimise the gap between the ideal and their inferiority. Psychologically, the traditional selling of ‘sex’ is damaging.

The impact of the male gaze is observable within the media, and we might look to the transgression of the Playgirl publication as an example. At its roots, Playgirl was female-led journalism famous for its stylish photography and thought-provoking spreads. The overriding message was one of self-ownership – a feminist reaction to the objectification of the male gaze, a declaration (through male nudity) of female autonomy and authority regarding sex and sexual identification. Yet as the online Porn industry grew, the selling of sex changed, and Playgirl voyaged into a reflectively tacky objectification of the naked body. As the accessibility of ‘sex’ grew, the power behind Playgirl wilted. The open-ended exploration was lost. Yet in 2020, Playgirl is making a return. Rebranding itself as a publication “desirable to anybody who’s interested in art and fashion”, as Jack Lindley Kuhns put it in an i-D interview, it aims at a cultured and tasteful presentation of nudity. Ultimately, this return reflects society’s changing taste: a reclamation of ‘sex’ and the naked body.

To view the body as art – as Playgirl now does – is to see the it in its full non-binary beauty. Our obsession with the unattainable is being replaced by a thirst for reality; fashion houses and collections gain respect no longer for their narrow sense of ‘perfection’ (think Victoria’s Secret) but instead for an all-inclusive open-mindedness. Gender, race, sexuality and body-shape are being diversified, their representation praised. Rihanna’s ‘Savage X Fenty’ is the ultimate role-model. Her 2018 debut at New York Fashion Week centred around inclusivity, the show’s models being perhaps the most diverse of any Fashion Week show. Showcasing models to reflect every body type, race, gender and sexuality, Fenty re-defined what it meant to be a lingerie model. Her vision of lingerie, quite rightly, became not a selling of ‘sex’, but a celebration of the human body and the universality of ‘beauty’.

Everybody needs to feel accepted and loved; everybody needs to feel seen; everybody needs to feel represented. The changing of fashion’s gaze, and its shift towards inclusivity is one we have needed for years. We cannot stop until the change is complete.  


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Hannah Emery

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June 2022
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