Fashion, Sex and Power

What is the relationship between sex and fashion? Why do we use sex so much to sell clothes? Is that the most efficient way?

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Sex is about power

Oscar Wilde once said:

“Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power”.

Alright, sex truly is about power. Power today is related to money. Money is about business. This formula is as simple as day and is used everywhere in all sorts of businesses. Fashion is one of the most popular businesses on the planet and is also guilty of using sex as its main weapon to get more sales. Luxury fashion houses, high street brands, magazines, fashion PR companies, and merchandisers – we all use it.

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A good friend of mine is a fashion designer. When she just launched her label, sales were not great at all. She went for a consultation with a business advisor who simply stated when my friend showed her the clothes:

“There is no sex in them”.

As soon as my friend started making her skirts shorter and necklines more revealing, sales boomed. As a good designer she managed to preserve the main design features and not lose her identity, but the change was noticeable. This design decision changed the direction for the brand, slightly reshaping its target market, however, it was only for the best in terms of revenue.

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It seems that we have reached the point where if you don’t have any ‘sexiness’ in your clothes/photographs/ad campaigns, you are simply going to fail. Was it always like this though?

How, when, where and with who?

“Western cultures have long enjoyed freedom of expression, which allows us to paint a rich and varied interpretation of our lives for art’s sake, to entertain, or to promote commercial enterprise”.

– Kim Winser, Forbes 

We are intrigued by the private lives of others: how, when, where and with who? How to be a good lover and how to make everyone think you are one? I bet the word ‘sex’ appears on covers of fashion magazines more than the word ‘fashion’. Sex usually happens behind closed doors and is something very intimate, and this makes any allusion to it in public so powerful. It’s a forbidden fruit that nobody and everybody talks about.

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Attracting the crowds

We all want to be attractive. Whether that is about attracting opposite sex or just about presenting ourselves to people around us, we want to appeal to others. And whether we want it or not, but it all starts from the way we present ourselves visually. There have been thousands of studies concluding that it only takes us the first 3-5 seconds of meeting someone to form an opinion about them and to decide whether we like them or not. According to many statistics, those who look ‘attractive’ tend to get more attention in social context and in business. Being attractive doesn’t just mean looking good, healthy and pretty, it is closely related to the way we present ourselves as sexual beings. It doesn’t matter if we already have a partner or not, the desire to be liked by others does not go away. At the end of the day, humans are still animals and natural instincts come first and foremost.

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This is the reason why sex is used so much in fashion. We buy clothes, shoes, bags, belts, sunglasses, scarfs to attract others, no matter the sex. And I’m not even mentioning the beauty industry. Brands of all kinds have used it for many years. We are attracted by photographs that present the clothing not just comfy or wearable, but sexy and appealing to the eye. Yves Saint Laurent said that the best dress is the one your man wants to take off you. Isn’t that ironic?

Most controversial sexy marketing campaigns

‘The more the better’, they say, and today it has become a sort of a competition. One brand will shoot a very revealing campaign, its competitor will shoot a more revealing one. There are almost no rules and no borderlines. Has it not gone too far over the years? Let’s take a look at some of the sexiest campaigns over the recent years.

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Sexual revolution

40 years ago the Flake chocolate advert broke a lot of advertising boundaries and almost got banned for being too explicit. Today, no one would bat an eyelid if that appeared on TV. We have evolved to be more tolerant to the idea of sex. We discuss it with friends, we show it using plenty of visual mediums such as film, photography, pop videos or novels. Sex, in its various guises, is not only a fundamental human function; it infiltrates almost all aspects of our lives.

Flake chocolate advert, 1970s

Flake chocolate advert, 1970s

Everyone in fashion industry understands that sex is all about delivering sales, and there is nothing wrong with that unless it evolves from sexy to crude.

“In order for it to work as an effective sales tool, sex must be used in an elegant, eloquent way that reflects a customer’s aspirations. If it is used crudely as a mere way to court publicity, it may raise the profile of that brand, but it probably won’t have a direct impact on sales – certainly not a positive longer term way”.

– Kim Winser, Forbes

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The truth is, customers buy into sex. However, no matter how sexy you advert is, how loud your cover screams ‘buy me!’, we all know: “first you judge ‘how nice’, then you judge ‘how wise’”. Let sex be, but without strong and valuable content, without a DNA that speaks for itself you cannot build a loyal clientele.


Text: Irina Gorskaia

Images: Getty Images, Vogue

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