Sexy is an odd word. Somehow there’s a slight whiff of something dated – perhaps an odour of mid-2000s ‘I’m bringing sexy back’ style sentiment. In fact, it’s got a long and rich history. The OED dates one of the first uses back to 1896 – when it was charmingly spelt ‘seksy’ and referred to things considered risqué or bawdy. The way we tend to use it now, i.e. to refer to someone who is sexually attractive/ alluring/ appealing (delete according to alliterative preference), seems to have gained traction in the 1920s and flourished since then.
It’s the kind of word that, when used by one person in a certain situation comes off as absolutely creepy and inappropriate – and by another, at the right time, complimentary. It’s all down to context.
I’m really interested though by what it means to feel/ look sexy. If we worked to conventional imagery and media representation, the first pictures to spring to mind would probably include heels, lots of flesh, slinky stuff, and maybe some black satin. You know what? All those things can and do have the capacity to make the wearer feel sexy. Agent Provocateur eat your heart out (or rather, break your bank balance). But I think it’s often more complicated than that – so dependent on individual circumstances, the day at hand, and whether that quality of ‘sexiness’ is for the benefit of oneself, others, or perhaps both.
To push the questioning further, how do we draw a line (if we could) between 'looking' and 'feeling' sexy? I guess that ‘feeling’ suggests something internal and personal, while ‘looking’ suggests something external – viewed through the eyes of others. But neither category is always that neat. Both influence and interact with the other, obviously, and besides – that sense of ‘looking’ sexy can also be entirely down your personal, self-led perception.
By way of example, I’m typing this wearing a high-waisted knee-length seventies style blue denim skirt and a cropped grey short-sleeved sweater with a little collar (whew, that’s a lot of words in one sentence). There’s a flash of stomach between the sweater and the skirt, which is cinched in with a brown leather belt. My legs are bare, and I have on blue socks and clumpy men’s Chelsea boots. I'm wearing no make-up other than a sweep of brown eyeliner. My hair is super-tangled and could really do with a wash. Yet you know what? I’ve felt weirdly sexy all day. But maybe ‘weirdly’ is the wrong qualifier there. In plenty of ways it makes perfect sense – because this is a kind of sexiness manifested in feelings of confidence and being damn comfortable in what I have on. There is an element in there of feeling attractive too, but it’s not so much about actually requiring or soliciting attention from other people - but instead a more subtle sense of assurance in myself (and my outfit).
To give another (less descriptive) example, I’ve also had days when I’ve worn a dress that displays a lot of cleavage, or a set of tiny shorts and shirt tied at the waist, and not given a second thought to whether or not it exhibits any quality of perceived sexiness… Similarly, with the vintage swimming costume and cape worn above, it might be considered a conventionally ‘sexy’ get-up in some ways – but to me it felt more delightfully dressed up and dramatic than anything else.
Linda Grant in The Thoughtful Dresser - which is great, by the way - writes that, ‘Sexy is not the desire to have sex. Sexy is not what turns on the person on looking at you. Sexy is a state of mind, of understanding that under all the drapery there is a body, and inside the body are instincts and desires. Sexy in other words is a state of being. It’s a way of knowing you’re alive. It’s the sensual relationship of skin and cloth. It’s the awareness of the distance between yourself and another.’
I’m not sure if I fully agree. I think that ‘sexy’ is more multifaceted than a list of prescriptive things. What it ‘is’ and 'is not' can change all the time dependent on context. But I do like her suggestion that it’s ‘a state of mind’ – or of ‘being’. Moreover, I definitely agree that sexiness doesn’t actually automatically always link to the notion of sex. Sometimes it absolutely does, and ‘sexy’ becomes a synonym for ‘desirable’ or ‘deeply attractive’ or plenty of other possibilities. Other times it blithely doesn’t, especially when it comes to clothes…
That much is apparent in trying to collate a rough list of garments I own that have felt sexy at one point or another. They include oversized cotton white dress shirts; wide-legged well-tailored trousers that call to mind Katharine Hepburn; a full-length close-fitting silk dress; massive black heels; men’s brown brogues with bare ankles; a suede sixties-esque miniskirt; velvet hot-pants; skinny jeans and a yellow halter-top; a full-length seventies dress with a low cut front… You get the idea. A myriad number of forms and possibilities. Also plenty of room for change. Something that feels sexy on a particular day, in a particular mood, in a particular combination, can feel very different the next time it’s tried on for size. Much like the word itself, really.
These photos were taken in Sweden, and everything I'm wearing is vintage. 70s swimsuit from Reign Vintage in Soho, London. Also, this post could have extended to the length of a thesis. I'm aware that there's so much I haven't referenced or explored in here - but isn't that the case with pretty much every subject?