Dressing the Part

by Jean Roberta

Do you think about your characters’ clothing when you write erotic stories or poetry? As a girl who spent her formative years cutting out pattern pieces and sewing them together to make (hopefully) chic ensembles for myself, I am often disappointed by descriptions of clothing in the erotica I read. Either there is just enough information to emphasize the body underneath (cleavage-revealing tops and short or slit skirts on the heroine, trousers on the hero that bulge noticeably at the crotch), or there is a detailed description of clothing with no indication of what it actually signifies to the contemporary viewer. (A swimsuit at the beach is expected. A swimsuit in an office would probably be considered scandalous, and the wearer would be expected to explain his/her relative nudity. In historical fiction, a maid and a duchess –or a stableboy and a duke — would not be dressed alike, unless one were trying to pass for the other.)

I’ve been thinking about clothing ever since I agreed to review a fascinating book, Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution by Jo B. Paoletti, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. The author has written several books on the sociological significance of fashion, including Changes in the Masculine Image in the United States, 1880-1910(her Ph.D. thesis, 1980) and Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (2012).

The current book, Sex and Unisex, is about the drastic changes of fashion that took place in the 1960s and early 1970s, led by innovative designers, who were mostly gay men (although this was never openly mentioned at the time), and the hordes of teenagers and young adults who had been born just after the Second World War, and who wanted to look different from their parents.

As a member of that generation, who shopped for clothing patterns the way my classmates shopped for 45-rpm vinyl records of the latest Top Tunes, I am so glad that a scholar has analyzed trends which, at the time, were routinely dismissed as trivial, but which often produced over-the-top reactions from those in authority.

One current myth about the 1960s that Paoletti debunks is that girls and women were not allowed to wear pants (trousers) until some brave individuals (feminists and/or lesbians) paved the way for the rest of us. Contemporary images from mail-order and pattern catalogues show “play clothes” for boys and girls under the age of puberty that look identical. Little girls, especially in the U.S., could wear Western-style shirts with jeans and even add a holster with a toy gun, and this look was socially acceptable all through the 1950s and 1960s. There was a practical reason for advertising unisex clothing for the under-12 set: families of the Baby Boom tended to be large, so parents appreciated sturdy clothes that could be passed down to a sister from a brother, or vice versa.

Pants for adult women were also widely accepted – in the right social context. Images of Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood bombshells from the 1950s and early 1960s in snug “pedal pushers” were titillating, but not really considered obscene. At the time, these photos presumably showed what the stars looked like in the privacy of their homes, in “casual dress.”

Puberty was a dividing-line, and so were school and church, as distinct from the playground, the campground, and the suburban neighborhood. Girls who had developed womanly curves were expected to wear skirts and dresses much more than formerly, and most schools (public and private) had a dress code that demanded skirts on girls from kindergarten on. The rationale was that pants on girls (and denim pants on anyone) were “casual dress,” and students of both genders were supposed to take the educational process seriously. (Note that denim pants were originally sold to men with strenuous physical jobs, so the widespread adoption of jeans as a middle-class teenage uniform could be seen as a shocking rejection of white-collar respectability as well as a refusal to grow up.)

Needless to say, religion was also taken seriously, so attendance at church or temple required gender-specific attire: suits for little gentlemen, dresses for little ladies. Special events (first communion, weddings, high-school proms, even extended-family dinners at home on holidays) required formal, gender-specific clothing on everyone, from the youngest to the oldest.

The spread of jeans and mini-skirts, feminist rebellion against traditional gender roles, and the “sexual revolution,” which accelerated after the invention of the birth-control pill in 1969, all progressed at approximately the same time. This is probably why minor variations in style (the length/shortness of girls’ skirts, the length/shortness of boys’ hair) were thought to represent philosophical positions that the Establishment was not willing to accept.

I’ll never forget my father’s explosion over my secretary outfit (as I thought of it) in the mid-1960s, when I was fourteen. I wanted to look like an independent woman working in an office. (My unmarried aunt was a secretary, and I imagined that this job involved a high salary and considerable decision-making power.) I made myself a straight skirt that ended just above my knees, with a back zipper and a kick-pleat for easy walking. It was made of pink wool, fully lined in acetate satin. (I knew the names of several famous designers, and I wanted to be Mary Quant when I grew up.) The skirt went with a long-sleeved blouse in a paisley-print polyester which I thought could pass for silk. The blouse had a notched collar and cuffs. Nothing about this ensemble violated the school dress code, so I couldn’t imagine why my parents would try to prevent me from wearing it to school.

I put on my new clothes to show my parents. My mother chewed her bottom lip while my father yelled loudly enough to be heard from the street. Neither parent seemed at all impressed with my dressmaking talent. The gist of my father’s sermon was that I was still a child, and therefore my outfit was inappropriate as well as indecent. He announced that I would never be allowed to wear it anywhere. (Later on, he seemed oblivious when I left the house in my new clothes.) Apparently, when my father saw me dressed like my idea of a secretary, he saw “Sex” written across my girlish bust, or my pink-wool-covered hips. He might also have seen “Pregnancy,” “Drugs” and “Bad Company.”

If possible, the boys who joined the “peacock revolution” in men’s clothing faced even more opposition. The threat of homosexuality was the elephant in the room which terrified fathers in grey flannel suits when their sons wore flashy shirts, open to the waist, with tight hiphugging pants and “long” hairstyles that included bangs and sideburns. Paoletti devotes a whole chapter to court cases in which young men fought a variety of institutions for the right to wear their hair any way they chose. For many employers, most school administrators, and virtually the whole top brass of every branch of the military, “long hair” on males represented everything that was likely to destroy civilization. The clothes that usually went with the hair just seemed to confirm the opinion of strait-laced elders that a whole generation of young men was refusing to accept adult responsibility, including the patriotic requirement to become warriors.

On the subject of length, I need to end this post before it becomes unreadably long. Suffice it to say that styles of presentation (including clothing, body types, hairstyles and facial appearance) in every era carry enormous symbolic baggage. Clothes are never just arrangements of fabric (or leather, metal, wood, or plastic). Wearers of controversial fashions can be accused of transmitting messages they never intended. Clothing styles of the past can be misunderstood as being either more or less radical than they were at the time.

When writing an erotic story, I am tempted to give too much information about what the characters are wearing, and I have to remind myself that a fashion show in words would probably be read as a digression from the action. Certain styles of face, hair and body display might also mean something different to the reader than they do to me. (My secretary outfit carried a horrifying message for my father than I didn’t even foresee at the time.)

Do you pay attention to the way characters display themselves in your reading-matter? As a writer, how do you approach this subject? Responses welcome.

Depilation Blues

By Lisabet Sarai

Like most of you, I read quite a lot of
erotica. I’ve noticed an increasing focus on the supposed sexual
appeal of a depilated pussy. And I have to say, I deplore this trend.

Half a dozen years ago, one would only
occasionally encounter a shaved or waxed pubis in an erotic story. A
bare beaver was unusual and thus transgressive. An author could use
this to signal that the character was into age play, or a submissive
forced to shave by her Dom, or a wild sensualist seeking the
increased sensitivity that supposedly results from the removal of
pubic hair. The average woman had pubic hair – thus the woman
sporting a naked mons was by definition unusual.

These days, every woman and her sister
seems to wax. The practice (in erotic fiction at least) has become as
accepted – almost as expected – as shaving one’s underarms.
Waxing has found its way into romance and chick lit, another female
ritual akin to shopping or getting a manicure. As a result, a bared
mound has completely lost its value as an indication of erotic
preferences. At the same time, more and more authors seem to imply
that hairlessness is a desirable, sexy state – that in fact a woman
who doesn’t shave or at least trim her pubes is in some sense

Sorry, but I don’t buy this. Pubic hair
(as well as underarm hair) has an erotic function. It survived the
onslaught of evolution because it enhances arousal. The hair
surrounding the genital area captures and holds a rich melange of
scents that help attract a mate. Olfactory stimuli play a huge role
in triggering sexual response, and eliminating the hair reduces the
potency of those stimuli.

Of course, a hairless pubic area
introduces new textures and sensations for both partners. I suppose
that it might amplify sexual intensity as some women report. I must
say that the only time I’ve had ever had a shaved pubis – in
preparation for a gynecological procedure – I found the experience
uncomfortable and unpleasant. There’s nothing arousing or enjoyable
about itchy, unsightly stubble!

I believe that the increasing emphasis
on hairlessness derives at least partially from an attempt to
distance ourselves from our animal natures. Sex is messy, smelly,
sometimes rough, sometimes awkward, and I think society would like to
forget or deny that. The feminine ideal is porcelain smooth,
flawless, poised and cool. How often do you see fashion models – or
porn queens for that matter – sweaty and disheveled, the way people
really are when they’re fucking?

I’m sure this is partly the result of
my age and experience, but to me, a woman without pubic hair looks
unnatural and unappealing. In my stories, I frequently mention the
luxurious tangles that shield my heroine’s sex from her partners’
view. Those partners love to burrow into that damp, fragrant thicket,
breathing in the intoxicating scent of an aroused woman. You’ll find
my characters enjoying the ripe musk lingering in the bush of
their male companions, too. I’ve written a handful of tales in which
a character has a bare pubis, but there’s always a narrative
justification for this choice. In both fiction and the real world, I
prefer lovers who are comfortable with their bodies, men and women
who aren’t ashamed to recognize that we’re slightly less horny
cousins of the sexually voracious bonobos.

“It’s just a fad,” I’m sure some
readers will counter. “Eventually the pendulum will swing the other
way.” Perhaps they’re right. Recently, though, I read that men have
hopped on the depilation bandwagon as well. The New York Times
reports that salons offering Brazilians for guys are doing a booming
business, at least in urban areas. I found this article made me feel
vaguely queasy, especially when one stylist commented, “It’s about
maintaining yourself and keeping things clean.”

“Maintaining yourself”! Like a car
or some other mechanism. Please! But this view seems to be popular.
Alas, you’ll rarely find a hairy romance hero. Check out the covers
from your favorite erotic romance publisher, and you’ll find a high
proportion feature well-muscled men with chests as smooth as a baby’s

Perhaps these images attract women
because they’ve known hairy men who did not, in fact, give much
attention to hygiene. I’ll admit that hair intensifies unpleasant as
well as pleasant smells, but a shower will handle this problem at
least as well as waxing.

It’s come to the point that women who
retain their pubic hair have become exotic fetish objects. Check out
any vendor
of adult films
and you’ll find titles like “Horny Hairy Girls”,
“Pubic Hair for Sale”, and “That Teen’s Got a Bushy Pussy”.

I suppose I’m just a product of my
times, my aesthetic and sexual preferences determined by my history.
I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when abundant hair was a
symbol of freedom. Younger readers won’t necessarily have these

I still find it depressing, though,
that women will spend their hard-earned cash and endure considerable
pain to conform to this twisted notion of attractiveness.

My depilation blues even inspired a
story. “Shorn”, in Lustfully Ever After: Fairytale Erotic
, (edited by Kristina Wright), is a re-telling of
Rapunzel. In my version of the tale, the princess is imprisoned in
an inaccessible tower not to protect her from ravishers but to punish
her for being unwilling to cut her hair – or shave her pubis. If
you’re curious, you can read a brief excerpt here.

So what do you think? Am I being silly?
Or does the current obsession with eliminating the hirsute go beyond
the question of fashion to have negative implications for our

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