'Slut' Clothes: A Brief History

In a recent piece for T magazine, Suzy Menkes heralds the end of what she calls a "decade of slut style," and a return to modesty on the runways. (Yeah, we had a thing or two to say about that.) But if history is any indication, provocative fashion is nothing new and not going anywhere anytime soon. Click through to read our brief account of fashion's most revealing moments through the ages. What got people riled up (sometimes just a glimpse of ankle)—and what didn't (a whole lotta cleavage in the 1500s)—might surprise you. nextpage
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In a recent piece for T magazine, Suzy Menkes heralds the end of what she calls a "decade of slut style," and a return to modesty on the runways. (Yeah, we had a thing or two to say about that.) But if history is any indication, provocative fashion is nothing new and not going anywhere anytime soon. Click through to read our brief account of fashion's most revealing moments through the ages. What got people riled up (sometimes just a glimpse of ankle)—and what didn't (a whole lotta cleavage in the 1500s)—might surprise you. nextpage
Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

In a recent piece for T magazine, Suzy Menkes heralds the end of what she calls a "decade of slut style," and a return to modesty on the runways. (Yeah, we had a thing or two to say about that.) But if history is any indication, provocative fashion is nothing new and not going anywhere anytime soon.

Click through to read our brief account of fashion's most revealing moments through the ages. What got people riled up (sometimes just a glimpse of ankle)—and what didn't (a whole lotta cleavage in the 1500s)—might surprise you.

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1200-1800s: Décolletage Up until the late 1800s, it was actually quite fashionable to show off your cleavage. Stylish and sophisticated women, including Agnès Sorel in the 1400s and Queen Mary II in the 1600s, wore low-cut dresses that often showed their breasts. Of course, Puritanical types eschewed these styles, and by the Victorian era, it was deemed inappropriate for women to flaunt their bosoms.

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1890s: Ankles The Victorians may have raised necklines, but they were also adamantly against flaunting a bit of leg. Women wore stockings and very long skirts year-round to prevent even a sliver of ankle from peeking out. The legs of wooden tables were even covered because they too closely resembled a female's appendages.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

1920s: Flappers While not every woman gave up her corset in the 1920s, those who did opted for drop-waist dresses that are still synonymous with Twenties fashion. Back then, the style was also synonymous with promiscuity. (The word "flapper" was interchangeable with "girl prostitute" in the 1890s, but like many derogatory terms it eventually softened up to mean a spirited, flirty teenager.) Modern codes have made flapper fashion almost quaint, since there's no emphasis on the woman's waist.

Mary Quant. Photo: Getty

Mary Quant. Photo: Getty

1960s: Mini Skirts Designer Mary Quant changed the way women dress forever by trumpeting the mini skirt, an abbreviated version the A-line styles mod girls were already wearing in the 1960s. Half a century later miniskirts often graze the wearer's rear end, resulting in even more (arguably) unwarranted criticism. One YouTube video, titled "How Not to Look 'Slutty' in a Mini Skirt," has received nearly half-a-million pageviews.

Photo: Duke University Archives

Photo: Duke University Archives

1960s: Braless Bra-burning became of symbol of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s, and even though very few bras were actually burned, many women did stop wearing them for a while. However, as more women entered the workforce, bras were once again all-but-required. Along with the "power suits" of the 1980s, bras served as workplace armor against chauvinists. Not much has changed since.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

1970s: YSL's Hommage aux Années 40 "Slut" clothes don't have to be revealing. When Yves Saint Laurent debuted his 1940s-inspired collection in 1971, French socialites were outraged. Many of the clothes—a giant green-colored fur coat, dresses tightly fitted at the hips—were inspired by the styles worn by prostitutes during 1940s, others drew from the ostentatious wartime wardrobes of the very socialites now admonishing them. Regardless, Saint Laurent spurred a 1940s-inspired movement in fashion that lasted nearly a decade.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

1980s: Crop Tops The Eighties were about legs, they were about breasts, but they were mostly about tight tummies. It was the decade that aerobic workout gear hit the streets, which meant lots of cropped tees worn with high-waisted jeans. For many years after, the look was considered gauche—especially when Britney Spears bared her belly at the end of the '90s—but it's cool again to show a sliver of stomach. This time around, like many revealing trends, the crop top is more demure—women are wearing '50s-inspired bra tops with high waisted pants and full skirts (though that Pretty Women dress could be making a comeback too).

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

1990s: Slip Dresses The Nineties were about reinterpreting sexy staples as something a bit tough or tomboyish, and nothing represented this idea more than the slip dress. Grunge icon Courtney Love wore hers tattered and torn. But most women chose to take the Bridget Fonda-route, mimicking the actress' Singles character by wearing her floral slip dress over a tank top, or under a leather jacket.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

2000s: Thongs By the early 2000s, most women were wearing thongs, and most women were wearing low-rise jeans. Which means most women let their thongs peek out of those jeans at one point or another. Sisqo's 2000 single "Thong Song" cemented the garment's place in popular culture. Eventually, teens and preteens began showing off their thongs, and high schools began banning the garment, or at least voicing disapproval. In 2002, it was widely reported that a female vice principal in California physically checked about 100 female students coming into a high school dance to see if they were wearing thongs.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

The Past Decade: Pop 'Sluts' Despite the headways women have made over the past 100 years, we still dress pretty conservatively day-to-day (even given the thongs and the crop tops and the mini skirts). What has changed is flamboyancy on the red carpet. Stars like Madonna and Cher paved the way for Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Lil' Kim to wear revealing clothes onstage and off. And yes, sadly, many people still consider those looks "slutty" rather than avant-garde or just women expressing themselves. But as Fashionista's founding editor so eloquently put it, fashion isn't about being a slut or a saint, rather it's about "explor[ing] the millions of options that lie between those two borders." So go forth and explore, people. Show off your ankles or your boobs or whatever body part you like best.

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