Clothing and Textiles Research Journal How Clothes Make the Woman Immoral: Impressions Given Off by Sexualized Clothing
Beth Montemurro and Meghan M. Gillen Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 2013 31: 167 DOI: 10.1177/0887302X13493128 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Keywords Downloaded from ctr. 1600 Woodland Road. ‘‘Clothing . Ninety-five women in their 20s . 1 The Pennsylvania State University. or show her fashion sense. USA Corresponding Author: Beth Montemurro. Self. authenticity If I have a turtleneck and big baggy pants on does that mean I’m not sexual? We still equate sexuality with appearance. In other words. As Twigg (2007) noted. with dress. . This information is not just about the wearer and their desired image. sexuality. clothes both give and give off impressions (Goffman.nav DOI: 10. Email: eam15@psu. PA. much of the way clothes convey meaning is in how they are read by others (Littrell & Berger. with your hair—the blonde. 1959. A woman who wears a short skirt may wish to give the impression that she is attractive. call attention to her legs. offering a means whereby it is experienced. and given meaning’’ (p. 1999). and for other-judgments. Gillen1 Abstract The goal of the present study was to examine clothing as a marker of women’s sexuality. and parental status. Abington.Article Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 31(3) 167-181 ª The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permission: sagepub. .sagepub. by social class and generation. The Pennsylvania State University. How Clothes Make the Woman Immoral: Impressions Given Off by Sexualized Clothing Beth Montemurro1 and Meghan M.1177/0887302X13493128 ctrj. presented. and judged other women’s clothing on the dimensions of authenticity. judgments varied by the target’s age. Amanda. Results suggest that women’s bodies are socially monitored and that sexual subjectivity is suppressed through the stigmatization of women’s sexualized dress. 39 years old Clothing is a prop used to communicate information about identity (Goffman. marital status. 2013 . forming the vestimentary envelope that contains and makes manifest the body. 1992. Kwon. you know with the blonde and the big eyelashes. and appropriateness. & Schulz.60s participated in in-depth interviews. 1985–1986).sagepub. 286). PA 19001. Division of Social Sciences. Many women reported concern with sexual messages others might perceive from their clothing. So [dressing sexy] is still equated with being a whore or being loose. mediates the relationship between the body and the social world. USA.and women. Lennon. aging. Johnson. 1959).com at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1.

Similarly. Storr. we examine the way clothes are used as markers of sexuality. 1959. By analyzing women’s perceptions of dress as an expression of sexuality. we view bodies as texts that are read and interpreted by others. we discuss the public nature of women’s sexuality and the policing of women’s bodies by means of explicit and implicit moral judgment.168 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 31(3) However. 1999). and concern for contexts in which it was important for sexual identity to be read or not read dictated clothing choices. trends in women’s fashion may reflect women’s marital opportunities. Griffin. Thus. Appropriate presentations of sexuality are also constrained by stage in the life course. There is also evidence that women prefer more suggestive clothing when fertility peaks at ovulation. Thus. with shorter skirts indicating more limited opportunities for marriage (Barber. a sexy and desirable woman is one who wears clothes that display or accentuate a toned and curvaceous body. Lennon et al. Schultz. presumably unintentional kind’’ over which individuals have only marginal control (Goffman. and mothers (Friedman.. 1999. 1999. we also explore the ideas of authenticity and identity in sexual expression. the right to display one’s body as an authentic expression of sexuality through the use of revealing clothes is a very limited one. they have little to say in how others interpret such presentations of self. Clothes can signify class status and serve as identification of ‘‘taste’’ or wealth (Bourdieu. married women (Dempsey & at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. Holliday. Weinberg. Veblen. 1999). 2004). Comfort. 2007) and believe they should avoid wearing brightly colored or revealing apparel and choose their clothing with the intent of covering up perceived bodily flaws associated with aging (Clarke. 2002. Twigg. For example. Older women (Tally. 2013 . 2006. 1998. For example. Clothes may also be used to communicate sexual orientation or perform gender in a nontraditional way (e. We look at women’s attitudes about sexualized clothing in general as well as the ways women reported using clothes to accentuate or conceal their sexuality. intention is often irrelevant in public.’’ In this article. where people become viewable and prime for evaluation (Goffman. With regard to clothing choice in particular. and Sexuality The ways in which clothes are interpreted as symbols of sexuality has not been explored in much depth. Bacon.. and individuals high in rape myth acceptance see women as wanting sex more when they wear a short skirt as compared to a moderate or long skirt (Workman & Orr. This is in spite of the fact that research fails to document the connection between sexualized dress and sexual assault (Lennon et al. 2009. class. 1999. 1990. restricted more to theory than practice. a woman who dresses in such a manner is usually judged negatively for such presentation. Though actors use props like clothing to try to communicate an aspect of identity. 1989). The judgment and evaluation of impressions given off by women’s clothing is indicative of the public nature of women’s bodies and sexuality. Rolley. p. for example. 2004. 1999). Women’s clothes are critiqued not simply as a matter of style. Lewis & Johnson. Holliday. 2012). the impression given off may be that she is looking to attract sexual attention or that she is ‘‘easy. Our focus is on the impressions given off. & Pines. For example. although a number of factors moderated these links such Downloaded from ctr. ‘‘the non-verbal. Montemurro & Siefken. rather. there is concern about clothes’ messages of sexual intentions as well. In practice. Johnson and Workman (1992) found that people are more likely to attribute the provocation of sexual harassment to women who wear provocative clothing. In line with this work (Bacon. 1993). 1899/1918). Butler. 1984. 2007). 2009). Identity. 1996).. so dressing in a revealing way is viewed with suspicion and judgment. are culturally desexualized. 1959. In addition to research on the importance of the context and identity of the wearer. In theory. 2000). there is work on how clothing may relate to women’s sexual opportunities. & Maliha. individuals perceive female victims of rape as more to blame (Lennon et al. using video diaries.sagepub.. Holliday (1999) asked lesbian women and gay men about the ways they felt their clothes conveyed information about their identity and sexual orientation in both public and private settings. 4).g. Older women receive the message (Twigg. 2001. 2009. Clothing.

in this article. (young) women are expected to look ‘‘hot’’ and dress sexy to charm men. 1984). by seeking or expressing sexual desire and sexual pleasure (Mudaly. women who do not are judged negatively (Armstrong et al. This too is an extension of the repression of women’s sexuality. Those who label women who wear short skirts or low-cut shirts as merely mirroring the dominant culture deny the possibility that such women may actually feel good about themselves and their bodies. for example. women who dress hypersexually in other contexts or who fall outside the range of desirability are chastised for their appearance and may be labeled as promiscuous or Downloaded from ctr. 2004) noted that they intentionally dressed in a hypersexual manner. Hamilton. In the college party scene. Koukounas & Letch. 2001). we look at how women feel about their entitlement to wear sexualized clothing and their judgments of others who choose to dress in a provocative way. Girls and women resist sexual oppression in different ways. Women in this subculture can acquire erotic capital by conforming to expectations of sexual dress and thus be included in the party scene. not as a means of displaying their true sexuality. there is power in feeling connected to the sensual aspects of self and freedom in expressing and embodying sexuality in ways that counter hegemonic norms. interactionist perspective. That is. These studies provide a solid foundation for the evaluation of women’s clothing as a marker of sexuality. men are quicker to approach women wearing more revealing clothing and are more likely to see these women as having greater sexual motives (Gueguen. Dressing to show sexuality in a culture that labels women who do so as promiscuous needs to be considered as an act of resistance and an articulation of subjectivity. or by wearing provocative clothes because they feel it is a true expression of their sexuality or way of signifying their identity (Wilkins. not sexual promiscuity. Reading Clothes as Policing Women’s Sexuality: A Feminist Interactionist Approach We approach the sexualization of women’s clothing with a feminist. & Haselton. wearing corsets and fishnet stockings as a means of communicating their sexual subjectivity. 2011. 2004). it is important to explore changing attitudes about women’s sexual expression. & Sweeney. Thus. we do not ignore the influence of the pornification of society (Sarracino & Scott.Montemurro and Gillen 169 as sexual experience and relationship status (Durante. 2012). 2006). they resist the ‘‘plastic sensation’’ of sexuality that has been imposed upon and used against them. On the other at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. women’s dress may reflect their sexual desires and influence others’ perceptions of their sexual intent. When women embody their eroticism and claim it as emblematic of their feelings. party themes like ‘‘pimps and hos’’ or ‘‘Playboy mansion’’ call for women to wear hypersexualized outfits. What is missing from this research is an understanding of the way women use clothes to express their sexuality and their concerns in so doing. not an invitation for sexual interaction. 2013 . Although they were not entirely free from judgment about their wardrobe and sometimes received unwanted attention. Women are encouraged to show their sexuality in this way to appeal to heterosexual men. Li. such as through language (Allen. we look at the moral judgment of women’s clothing choices as evidence of the repression of women’s sexuality. 2003). Although we recognize that dressing sexy can be an authentic expression of women’s sexuality. evaluating women as moral or immoral based primarily on their clothes— particularly unknown or abstract women—says much about cultural fears of women’s bodies and sexuality. 2008). This could be their aesthetic or means of showing their sexuality. Though this style may be inspired by the male gaze.. 2008) and the push for younger women to mirror mediated expressions of sexual attractiveness (Armstrong. As Lorde (1984) articulated. So. To critically dismiss revelation of skin or the form of the body through low-cut or tightfitting clothing as an inauthentic or self-objectified expression of sexuality is to dismiss the ‘‘power of the erotic’’ (Lorde. women within this subculture dressed sexy as an indication of Goth identity and belonging. 2006). These women saw this style of dress as a representation of their sexual desire and sexual self-confidence. Research on women in the Goth subculture (Wilkins. We look at these as competing ideologies. Furthermore. On one hand. Also.sagepub.

and 1% biracial. we look at how clothes function as a symbol of identity both in abstract terms and in direct social interactions. questions focused on women’s attitudes about sexuality. and Downloaded from ctr. local markets. the first author’s home or office. Additionally.. In addition to examining attitudes about women’s clothing through a feminist lens. 2% Hispanic. Thus. 20 in their 30s. Initially. the sample was further stratified by age. 2% Middle Eastern. 22% as working class. 24% as upper middle class. 17% divorced. It became evident that women’s sexuality was very much defined by physical appearance. The first author began analysis by doing open coding and microanalysis. In order to have balanced numbers of women of different age groups. Theory was built from. women were recruited through fliers posted in colleges. To be eligible to participate. 20 women in their 20s. Participants were recruited primarily by snowball sampling. The last 65 women interviewed were paid $25 for their time. Transcripts were imported into Nvivo and analyzed for themes and patterns. given the ambiguity in reading intention in dress and the potential for misinterpretation (Lennon et al. That is. 19 in their 40s. Four of the interviews with women in their 20s were conducted by a research assistant. 91 women identified as heterosexual and 4 women as either bisexual or ‘‘undefined. as a tool to demonstrate sexual confidence. using a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss. Fifty percent were currently married. Fifty-two percent of women self-defined as middle class. Two bisexual women were interviewed prior to deciding to focus on heterosexual women. 18 in their 50s. As coding progressed. during the interview. labeling data with codes. the authors read through data together. We add to the existing literature on women’s dress by exploring the idea of authenticity of sexual expression and recognizing the possibility that provocative clothing may be used by women intentionally. This process involved reading through the interview transcripts multiple times. Interviews averaged 100 min. and 18 in their 60s were interviewed. another two women said they did not see themselves as heterosexual. as well as the ways their sexuality developed and changed during their lives. It is important to look at the ways in which clothes are used as symbols of identity. the balance between authentic embodied representation of sexuality and conformity to heteronormative standards for desirable appearance becomes quite complex and nearly impossible to manage. the diversity of sexual development experiences as well as the existence of studies on sexual orientation and sexual development led to the decision to interview heterosexual women only. health clubs. data. We analyze women’s comments about clothes with attention paid to the way meaning shifts depending on both the item of clothing and the identity of the wearer.sagepub. Thus. we use a symbolic interactionist perspective. 14% were African American. public parks. women needed to be heterosexual and between the ages of 20 and 69. and 2% widowed.170 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 31(3) foolish. discussed possibilities for interpretation of comments. or quiet coffee shops. however. rather than being imposed upon. 25% were never married. Method Between September 2008 and July 2011. and senior centers. our focus is on how women’s clothes are read and how judgmental observations about clothing choice function to police women’s sexuality. 1967). All but three of the participants lived in the Northeastern United States. the intention was to interview women of varied sexual orientations.’’ Interviews were conducted at locations convenient to participants such as their homes. Seventy-two percent of the women were White. Interviews were audio recorded and professionally transcribed or transcribed by the interviewer. then. and writing memos about emergent themes. Using Goffman’s (1959) concept of impressions given at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. the first author conducted in-depth interviews with 95 women aged 20–68. 10% Asian. 5% separated. As this was part of a larger study on women’s sexuality through the life course. 1999). as a grant was awarded to support the research in the second year of data collection. and 1% as upper class. and once the second author began working on the project. 2013 .

personal experiences and the reactions of others caused them to rethink their clothing choices. 2005). And so I’m thinking. and generation. Clothing was nearly always mentioned.’’ and related questions about the expression of sexuality. Women can give off an impression of either compliant or deviant sexuality (Schultz. In addition to analyzing data based on codes. . you know? And so I’ve spent too much time thinking about before I could wear a negligee. Maybe sexuality now is a housecoat. Both authors then went back through the data and analyzed all comments coded as the themes of ‘‘physical appearance’’ and ‘‘clothing’’ and developed subthemes within these nodes. Women’s discussion of the use of clothes in general and other women’s clothes in particular ignited discussion of morality. particularly their age.’’ ‘‘Do you think the way women show their sexuality changes as they age. For some women. Her assessment of the difference between sexuality and old sexuality Downloaded from ctr. . was reconsidering her wardrobe for age appropriateness. Next. Women expressed concern over the appropriateness of their clothing choices given their stage in life. you know? So I’m thinking in the other direction that maybe the dress at this point is not a manifestation of sexuality. When women rejected clothes they liked or had enjoyed wearing in the past because they worried about the reactions of others.Montemurro and Gillen 171 reached a consensus on how data should be organized. 2013 . we discuss judgment of impressions given off by other women’s clothing including questions about wearers’ authenticity. so that quotes were not interpreted independent of an interviewee’s larger at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. and the impression women convey with clothes. The way others respond or the imagined reactions of others reveals which impression has been perceived. 2010). 58.’’ ‘‘Do you think there is a right or wrong way to be sexual. Concerns About One’s Own Clothing. that is. In other words. I hope not but maybe it is. And then we went to this event . we summarized each interviewee’s comments. maybe it’s a manifestation of old sexuality. with a focus primarily on clothing. Though Sandra tried to maintain a light. . 1964). Results Impressions Given Off by Clothing The main way interviewees defined contemporary women’s sexual expression was in ‘‘the way they dress. . Comments analyzed were primarily in response to the questions: ‘‘In what ways do you think women show or express their sexuality. women viewed themselves with a ‘‘looking glass-self’’ perspective (Cooley. morality. joking tone in her discussion. we describe women’s thoughts about impressions given off by their own clothing and the consequent choices they make about what they wear. And now maybe I ought to wear flannel . their behavior indicated their awareness of being watched and assessed. including how these choices vary by identity status. I could put on a thong and [my husband] would think that was exciting. As she said: I bought a pair of yellow high-heeled sandals at the beginning of the summer and I really—I love strappy sandals. . they saw themselves through the eyes of others when they imagined how they looked. a moo-moo. it was evident that this transition seriously concerned her. identity. Sandra. maybe I have to give up the strappy sandals. and/or parental statuses.’’ There was a general consensus that women use clothes to communicate sexual desire or attract sexual attention. I don’t know. marital. She questioned whether or not it was appropriate to wear lingerie and seemed at a loss in trying to arouse her husband’s interest if such traditional sexy clothing was not accessible to her anymore. authenticity of sexual expression. First. and like I was probably the only one over 50 in strappy sandals. in response to a question about how women express or show sexuality. Women’s self-monitoring lead to clothing choices that are evident of ‘‘self-surveillance’’ and ‘‘obedience to patriarchy’’ (Bartky.sagepub. along with body language and makeup.

Recently divorced. like physically. . Or Downloaded from ctr. Tally. several women noted modifying their expressions of sexuality based on their husbands’ expressed or perceived preferences. like I’m very . Marital status also impacted clothing choice for many women. I had that a couple of times.’ It is interesting that even among friends Paula expressed this at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. Camille described her concerns dating as an older woman and. Further. 2007) old sexuality may in fact be asexuality. Friends are people she knows well and who presumably trust her. particularly in social contexts like bars or parties and among available men. she said: . . if I’m gonna be in the dating world again and all that. explained: I don’t dress myself up too much unless I’m going out with my husband. you know. 47. I don’t dress provocatively or anything . I was very careful what I wore because I knew that if I showed up in a slinky black. Nia. Given the desexualization of older women (Montemurro & Gillen. When those props no longer work or are deemed inappropriate due to status. She knew she would not be comfortable wearing low-cut shirts or tight jeans. . Paula. felt flummoxed trying to determine how to show her sexual availability or interest without wearing sexy clothes. I’m not hesitant to be sexual with my partner. there is a very narrow conception of sexual display and a strong reliance on physical aspects of sexuality rather than verbal communication. so here we can see the power of sexualized clothing and the presumed fear of the erotic. . A woman who chooses to wear such clothing.sagepub. For example. many of the married women specifically stated that the clothes they wore to go out changed after they got married. . In general. However. whether I want to date or not I’m not gonna be dressing a certain way and that’s what I think is sexual. . makes a grave faux pas with her implicit sexual invitation. You know. . it’s just not me. because sexuality is so linked to youth in Western culture. single women were less concerned about giving off an impression of sexual availability because often that was the impression they wanted to give. but it is clear that Sandra feels it looming. . it becomes quite challenging for older women to create new methods of expression.172 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 31(3) is important. said that when she was single there were clothes she would not wear among married friends’ husbands. 2007). 2013. ‘So and so thought you were checking her husband out. What Sandra is saying is that the shift in the display of sexuality as women get older happens at an indeterminate time (Montemurro & Gillen. 2013. . . and thus older women who feel sexual desire may feel inhibited by the lack of models or examples of older sexual expression. 1959). you know. . . . Like Paula’s worries about her dress around her friends’ husbands. She commented: I found that I had to watch if I was going to a party and I didn’t have a date . . . 53. She is a woman to be feared and from whom husbands should be kept away. I know like I don’t want to project myself as being something I’m not. In both of these cases. . However. . particularly among married men. like Sandra. women can be tough . Twigg. the actor must find a new method to communicate. high-heeled dress and I was single . . 29. comfortable and eager and all that . Just I can’t dress a certain way. many married women indicated they were concerned their clothing choices might be too revealing and send the ‘‘wrong message’’ about their interest and availability. I mean I still dress nice but I’ll take a second or a third look in the mirror or I’ll ask his opinion of it—if he’s okay with it . Twigg. She has no guide or benchmark to tell her that she has reached the point where sexuality becomes old sexuality. 2004. The ‘‘slinky black dress’’ and high heels are seen as worn by a woman who wants sexual attention. . my friend would say. 2013 . . 2006. . too—your whole appearance and all that. Camille also commented on age-appropriate clothing and avoiding certain clothes because they would give off an impression that she did not feel was true to herself. Actors rely on conventional props to convey an impression (Goffman.

people are gonna approach you. individuals are invested in their presentation of their ‘‘true’’ identity and do not want to come off as giving a false image of who they are or of being misread. For example. [when my husband and kids leave] he’ll say. . So it does—it changes everything. there is no need for such garments. go out and do the scenes.’’ Jamie’s comments imply that women dress in alluring outfits when they want to attract someone. Several partnered women said that they liked to wear moderately ‘‘sexy’’ clothes on dates with their spouse or a significant other—that is.Montemurro and Gillen 173 sometimes . Finally. So you do. you hesitate on just certain either clothes or things you say. . ‘‘Right now . led women like Amanda to evaluate and ultimately alter their clothing. ‘Don’t come to the door when you’re kissing us goodbye. . Mothers were also worried about the messages others might receive. She said. though a married woman or mother might think she looks attractive in provocative clothes. like go out to the bars and stuff. mistakes that may deem them ‘‘bad’’ mothers. So. so to him it’s I guess very sexual and very private. I mean. 45. For such women. In each of these cases. he’ll bring it to my attention. mothers are expected to curtail the display of flesh or the form of their body because it is assumed that they are not good. he doesn’t want the neighbors [to see that]. Nia felt that wearing sexy clothes would be viewed as disrespectful to her husband and their relationship because it might solicit sexual interest from others. particularly their own children. And although women were asked if they thought there was a right way or wrong way to be sexual. 2013 . like I don’t have to . Tammy. Like those who use clothes to convey or conceal their sexual orientation depending on the ‘‘safety’’ of the situation and the imagined reactions of others (Holliday. Jamie. most focused on the wrong way to show sexuality when talking about dress (and in general). Cultural assumptions about mothers who show some degree of sexuality.sagepub. . 1999). Elsewhere the first author noted the expectation for women with children to not show their sexuality (Montemurro & Siefken. questioned married women’s need to wear sexualized clothes. . but when in a committed at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. Women have a vested interest in expressing compliant sexuality (Schultz. when their sexual expression was directed toward a specific person and not communicating general sexual availability. Downloaded from ctr. so women do not need to fear judgment in the same way as if they were alone or with friends. was concerned about her choice of underwear: I remember when [my daughter] asked me why my underwear doesn’t cover my butt cheeks and when is she going to start to be able to wear underwear like I have. she may be disinclined to wear them because they would give off an impression that is inconsistent with her expected sense of self. but you don’t want to look like you’re advertising. you know. responsible mothers if they do so. 39. 2012). . particularly in front of their children. you’re going out. women reflected on the impression given off by certain outfits and in particular the idea that married women should not wear—or at least not in public—sexualized clothing because it is a marker of sexual availability. Similar to married women. Furthermore. women who avoid wearing revealing clothing may do so because of concerns with being perceived as someone they are not or are not supposed to be. In this case. 40. concerns seem to center on impressionability and children glimpsing aspects of their bodies they should not be able to see. similarly spoke of her husband’s worry about the impression given off by her nightclothes: I’ll come down in my pajamas and . my favorite clothes are sweat clothes because I already have my prom date . I mean it’s hard because. . . if they wore revealing clothing. that’s—you know. . Amanda. you’re gonna look nice. . the impression given off is mediated by being with a man typically in an adult setting. 2005) because their reputation may otherwise be at risk.’ I mean I’m in my pajamas.

She said: I think you are just giving the wrong message about your sexuality . I’m not going to say you have a responsibility to represent all women. 2004). interviewees were quite vocal about the impressions given off by other women’s outfits. merely the idea of a certain type of shirt. Many of these women suggested that women should wear Downloaded from ctr. 2013 . As long as you’re not wearing six-inch heels and blouses cut down to your navel and telling us that way that you’re a sexual person. When judging other women’s clothing. morality. . Wearing this ‘‘public mask’’ is indicative of the lack of individuality and authenticity in presentation of self. because maybe they just want to wear [those clothes]. acting the same way. From these comments. In this sense. . In addition to articulating concern over how others perceived what they wore. they could not conceive of an open expression of sexuality as sincere. They’re just dressing like that. Although Amy was one of very few women who acknowledged such use of clothes as potentially authentic representations of sexuality. They neither consider the possibility that this is a true means of conveying desire nor contemplate the point of view of a woman who dresses this way. Though neither opposed women being sexual. Although many women felt that sexy clothing conveyed a false image. there were a couple who felt that it might represent women’s actual taste and preferences.174 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 31(3) Judging Other Women’s Clothing. But you’re on the street kind of dressing the same way. 1996) is denied. . I don’t like the way [those women] portray women in general. . . however small in imagination. 2004). triggers a dramatic reaction and strong opinion about its potential wearer. 41. The ability to experience pleasure in one’s body or to communicate sexual desire or confidence through the adornment of one’s body (Martin. in her mid-30s. And Adena. questioned the assumption that women who dress sexy just want to have sex: It’s not like women dress like that just to have sex. some women questioned whether other women’s suggestive clothing truly represented their sexuality. but I see the handkerchief as kind of a worst way of objectifying women than even maybe prostitutes or strippers— that’s their job. Amy. sexualized clothing is quickly read and dismissed as tawdry and deserving of criticism. women’s sexual subjectivity is suppressed.sagepub. several others accepted sexualized clothing as long as it did not go too far. it is clear that Adena and Kristen see women who wear provocative clothing as too overt to be authentic. Regarding authenticity. . But men think they’re like the sexual beings that they’re going to have sex with this woman that’s dressed provocative. that’s what they do and that’s on them. implied as much when she said: I mean if you describe yourself [as a sexual person] and feel that way that’s great. Like Goth women who choose to wear vinyl dresses or high-heeled leather boots as a way of proudly showing their sexuality (Wilkins. 35. Kristen. and appropriateness. In this case. the most common assumptions made were about at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. The men that are going to be attracted to you maybe aren’t going to be good mates . Amy believed that women may dress sexy because it feels good to them. In the same way that journalists and spectators read soccer player Brandi Chastain’s removal of shirt and revelation of sports bra as ‘‘an erotic striptease’’ rather than as authentic display of jubilation at winning the World Cup (Schultz. expressed disdain for women she called handkerchiefs because they wore skimpy tops no bigger than a bandana. Adena clearly attributed a sexual persona to women who wear revealing clothing and imagines they not only attract the wrong attention (a partner who is just interested in casual sex) but are also unaware of their own sexuality.

Chloe.’ And she really wasn’t. She said: The first thing that they want to do is tag the woman. . was one of few women who challenged this idea. as long as they do not show too much of women’s bodies or appear to be soliciting sexual attention. more or less . Or even not being able to say no to a guy because if you . maybe. . . . . You can be sexy in a one-piece bathing suit. Harriet. and I just—it’s a little too much. 64. as some kind of moral judgment is attached to sexuality.’’ And Tammy. . Harriet. Connie. 24. they don’t understand how it’s gonna affect men and how they view them . and several other women thus noted that clothes can be used as a way of expressing sexuality. certain women were judged more harshly than others. . in the sense that . rather than sexuality.’’ As Bourdieu (1984) noted. .’’ Connie’s comment that provocatively dressed women are almost like a ‘‘porn film’’ is telling. You don’t have to like have half your anatomy flying out to be sexy . .sagepub. Well. Those who fail to do so have their taste. [T]oday some of the clothes . typically women that dress that way people say that like they don’t have as high a self-esteem or something. She stated: Usually women that dress that way are more passive. Some women suggested that women should convey sensuality. few women expressed concern over the general stigmatization of such women. . Although women of all backgrounds and ages were judged when wearing revealing clothing. beautiful dress. . But the people who were looking at her had a lot to say about what that look actually meant. said: I would say you can be sexy in a long. than when somebody’s wearing something very low-cut or very short or very provocative. Though few women said it explicitly. . women who chose to wear sexier clothing were seen as having lower morals and values. dressing in an overtly sexy way was often correlated with being ‘‘lower class. people demonstrate class status by looking the ‘‘right’’ way and possessing the ‘‘right’’ things. For example. .com at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. 45. Tammy. you see it. noted. More often interviewees blamed these anonymous women for making women look bad or encouraging men’s predatory sexual behavior. Like other women. Women who wear revealing clothing are assumed to have loose morals and be unaware of the effect they have on men. . she’s dressed like a whore.Montemurro and Gillen 175 clothes like long dresses or well-fitted pantsuits that hint at their sexuality but do not reveal too much of their bodies. The ease with which anonymous women become targets for labeling as ‘‘whores’’ based on what they wear did not go unnoticed by Delia. ‘‘I guess what I agree with is a tease. . . Working-class women’s provocative dress put them in jeopardy for negative labeling as ‘‘bad girls. not only agreed with Connie that dressing sexy is a bad choice but also provided analysis of such women. here again. Evidently. morality. . women’s sexuality is perceived as something private to be revealed only to a partner and left as a ‘‘mystery’’ to others. 51. they have a postage stamp for a bathing suit. 68. addressed this when she said. . noted that Downloaded from ctr. As with comments challenging the judgment of sexy clothes as inauthentic. and social worth questioned. Clothes served as a symbol of women’s moral character. she was dressed in a way that was provocative but she was completely covered in any way that you would be at a bar listening to music.’’ Alyssa. ‘‘I always felt that suggestion about sex or sexuality is more of a turn-on . My idea is to leave something to the imagination. 2013 . has it all on display and it’s almost like a porn film. Delia. Chloe views this style of dress as inauthentic and a sign of low self-worth and naı ¨vete ´ . because the latter comes across as desperate and unfeminine. 60. So if she dresses in a way that shows her sexuality—I was out last night and I heard someone say about the woman sitting next to me (I don’t think they heard me hear what they said but) ‘Oh.

. Because I just think of the types of clothing they may wear. Though few articulated specifically how this is accomplished. . for example. the words they may choose to communicate with. . should dress this way. And Faith. 2004. said. In the previous section. Paula. Like I’ll go out . how the good girls dress versus the bad girls dress and how I was raised . flaunt it. although most women were critical of the way contemporary younger women dressed. Older women who wear clothes that defy such expectations may be intentionally giving the impression that they do not wish to conform to such conventions. for most people. Kristen noted that class limits sexual expression and that poorer women are more likely to be judged negatively when they wear suggestive clothing. there was an undertone that provocative clothes and the women who wear them are ‘‘cheap.’’ Some women sympathized with this labeling and said things like. they look like they’re on the prowl for someone because they are dressing in outfits that would look far more attractive on women in their 20s that have the physique to pull them off. quoted discussing sexuality versus old sexuality. I kind of always wanted my daughters to dress properly for that same reason. 53. Sandra. ‘‘It’s just more . had good reason to be concerned about how others might evaluate her clothes. ‘‘I think it’s hard for a lower class woman to be viewed as a sexual person . . So I think it’s important in terms of presenting yourself to other people to be conscious of your age and not try to dress young and in that sense look like you’re in a kind of sexual strata that you’re not anymore. Similarly. . . ‘‘I think if you have it. . As she said. she noted its salience among her peers. .176 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 31(3) ‘‘bad girls’’ in her high school were classified more by socioeconomic status and dress than actual sexual behavior. We use clothes not only to display our bodies in a particular way but also to show who we are and. 38. she still reinforces the idea that only certain women. almost sad. so absolutely.’’ Though she questioned the validity of this classification. They may feel proud of or comfortable with their bodies and like displaying them with form-fitting or skimpy clothing. One of the most often mentioned subthemes related to women’s dress as a marker of sexuality was age appropriateness. and I think some of the women that come in that are my age—maybe 40s or 50s and are single. and they’re out there and they’re looking. we discussed married women’s and mothers’ concerns about impressions given off by their own clothing. . Jane. . made the following observation: I think as you get older—to me—it looks really comical. However. These comments say much more than women should wear what fits and is in fashion.’’ Though Paula accepts younger women’s sexual displays.’’ With this comment. .sagepub. A number of women suggested it is okay to wear sexy clothing if one does so in a ‘‘classy’’ way. 2007). without seeming slutty . I mean I think women my age that would go out and try to put on some of the things that the girls in their 20s have on look ridiculous. Many suggested that older women should avoid wearing provocative clothing because it is unattractive and because of the assumption of asexuality among older women (Twigg. said: I think you should dress to complement your age. 52. What looks attractive is culturally constructed and so it is not just that tight tops do not look attractive on older women as much as it is that older bodies are less sexually appealing in American culture. those who are conventionally appealing. . they are still subject to giving off a very different impression. a couple suggested that single women in their 20s are in their prime years of attractiveness and should feel free to show off their bodies. Clothes are bodily adornments—they can highlight or downplay physical assets or flaws. .com at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. 2013 . Interviewees made comments about this related to other women as well in response to questions regarding whether women should show their sexuality differently when Downloaded from ctr. to conform. when a woman who’s obviously entering middle age tries to look like she’s a teenager.

We kind of snicker during orientation time where you have the moms coming with their prospective college student to the orientations and they’re like dressed inappropriately. She said: Well I can see teenage girls wearing too screaming clothes in the summer time and obviously their mother is there so they should have said something about it. maybe it’s a Saturday night and you’re all decked out—but first of all they’re wearing heels that are this high. said: I don’t approve of it but the younger ones. Mothers are expected to put their children’s needs above their own and those who wear shirts that reveal cleavage or otherwise display their bodies. they just show their body too much. ‘‘I think if you’re in a marriage. Women are expected to not only dress cautiously so that they do not entice or excite men but also be sure their daughters dress appropriately so they are not labeled bad mothers. you know? You go someplace and I mean they’re—okay. older women suggested that showing sexuality in such a way was immature. and I don’t understand that. . I mean maybe that’s true. Irina. 2013 . they advocated for ‘‘tasteful’’ displays of sexuality. instead. . 46. . . if they bend over just a little bit—I don’t know what they’re wearing underneath. suggested. Sara. unless they are deemed exceptional and classified as sexy (Montemurro & Siefken. 66. you know. Here. 2012). Mini was down here. 2012). Hannah. I mean they’re like up at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1.’’ In addition to lamenting the skimpy clothing of the current generation of teenagers and young women. Irina suggests that women are guardians of sexuality—not only their own but also their children’s. 35. I don’t know how they walk. there’s nothing wrong in feeling good and pretty and attractive about yourself. I would say. For instance. . But flaunting and acting in a manner that you’re looking for attention. they’re not even mini.Montemurro and Gillen 177 married or mothers. I probably sound like an old fuddy-duddy but I mean lately the skirts are. Now they’re like right up to. Mothers are often depicted as asexual. are viewed as irresponsible. I would not even picture my parents allowing me to—not that I would—but still that would be something my parents would never allow me to do. said: So many times some women feel they have to dress sexily . Kids These Days: Impressions Given Off by Younger Women Older women were often critical of the clothing that contemporary young women wear. coming in with their child—maybe too much cleavage—that would be an example. clearly held mothers responsible when their daughters wore revealing clothes. I guess. 46. Monica. Many believed that the current generations of younger women wear clothes that push the limits of acceptability and morality in ways that had not been done by previous generations. works at a college and describes an example of this: It could be embarrassing . for example.sagepub. believed that young women were doing themselves a disservice by looking too available for sex and making women in general look bad. Heather.’’ Mothers who wear revealing clothing were also judged as giving a bad impression and as being an embarrassment to their children (Montemurro & Siefken. Interviewees suggested that mothers are responsible not only for the impressions their own clothes give off but also for their children’s clothing choices. if you’re going on a date or if you’re single and you want to attract attention. 48. is disrespectful to your marriage. like other older women. Hannah. as a mother. Women like Hannah implied that such girls or women were participating in their own sexual objectification by adorning themselves in ways that revealed ‘‘too much. but Downloaded from ctr. Here.

It is striking that very few women recognized or Downloaded from ctr. and mothers. resistance becomes seen as conformity. and it’s not as desperate as a younger woman. Previous studies neglect the importance of age. objecting to their choices and changing norms of sexual expression. What she does not mention is the counterculture aspect of the sexual revolution (Otnes & Pleck. She said. Evaluations of sexualized dress depend on these demographic characteristics. this does not mean they should be dismissed. understated way. as now. in theory.’’ The imagined immaturity and desperation that Rose and Sara perceive is interesting and suggestive of changes both in fashion and the expression of sexuality. Though Connie also believed showing less skin is more attractive. . . like it’s selfaffirming for them that they need to have that. Because both came of age in a time where only ‘‘bad girls’’ dressed in a revealing way. . Many of the older women implied that women who really feel sexual should communicate it in a quiet. I remember being comfortable with the fact that I was a woman and it was an okay time for women to be women and we weren’t as considered as much as a piece of the furniture as we used to be . for wearing suggestive garments. ‘don’t wear the bras!’ . and marital status in evaluating women in provocative clothing. We find that clothes are symbols or markers of sexuality and that sexual expression is tied to age and identity. . Many interviewees were also quick to judge other women—whether women in general or the current generation of younger women—who dressed too sexy or who revealed too much of their bodies. . Women are expected to police their own behavior and in so doing conform to patriarchal sexual scripts that desexualize women as they age and make it difficult for older women to feel entitled to sexual desire. noting the daring impressions given off by their generation and previous generations. were a relatively small group. we were the first group. Many of the women interviewed for this study were concerned about the impressions given off by their own clothing. put this in perspective. again. women of older generations judged young women. parental. pro-women’s rights.. 2013 . Women who wear such clothes are automatically suspect. The presumption that a woman who dresses sexy is enticing or trying to solicit sexual attention from men is evident in women’s concerns about their own clothing choices and in the judgment of other women’s clothes as well. they rejected the display of sexuality and instead insisted that one can be both conservative and sexually appealing. you can be very sexy when you dress conservatively. their morals and intentions are questioned and assumptions are made not only about their sexual inclinations but also their worthiness (Lennon et al. ‘‘I think an older woman shows her sexuality by her confidence and by the way that she dresses—conservatively. in practice. married.sagepub. agreed. Those who resisted expectations for public sexual behavior and dress at that time. with young single women least judged. Rose. Short skirts and forget the at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. A few older women. . Brenda’s and Sara’s comments also seem to suggest an aging out of externally displayed sexuality to one that is more private and personal. 1999). particularly women who were older.178 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 31(3) I guess I don’t understand why women feel the need to do that almost continuously. However. Connie said: I was a Baby Boomer and I want to say. The problem is that when other women interpret such dress as indicative of lacking morality and authenticity. I mean why wear a bra? I was extremely pro-choice. however. Still. she rightly noted that fashions of the preceding generations pushed the limits at that time. social class. Discussion Short skirts and low-cut tops give off impressions in actual social interactions and even in the abstract. that women have a right to make a choice about their own bodies. 65. 2003) and those who pushed the fashion limits.

this lack of attention to men’s clothing is also evident in the research literature. In our work. 2001). Most participants were White and in middle to high socioeconomic classes. Some women even modified their clothing choices—in some cases. Women’s sexuality has been closely controlled and regulated.’’ and once they are put on. 2011. women instead internalize these norms and regulate their behavior accordingly (Bartky. results suggest that women’s sexual subjectivity is constrained through clothing. Furthermore. Future research should examine men’s attitudes toward women’s sexualized dress to determine whether their perceptions differ from those of women. Women’s subordinate status and the emphasis on maintaining a culturally appropriate physical appearance facilitate women’s cooperation with being controlled. or even foolishness when worn by the ‘‘wrong’’ person. and when other ways to express sexuality are limited or unknown. depending on who wears them. we add an interactionist interpretation to clothing. When women learn that revealing clothes are emblematic of sexuality but are discouraged from wearing them under most circumstances. 2010). People want to be seen for who they are and want to be sure the impression they give off is consistent with the one they present. Being a subject in sexual encounters or feeling pleasure in one’s body requires confidence. Women are concerned about the impressions their clothes give off because they are well aware of the continued judgment and stigmatization of hypersexualized women. or ‘‘on the hanger. and for mothers. Short skirts and low-cut shirts. 286). particularly for older women. The message that women need to be careful in displaying or showing sexual interest in their clothing was perceived and reinforced by most women in the current study. It is interesting that women in the present study rarely mentioned using clothes to show sexuality in the ‘‘right’’ way or their opinions about men’s dress. in imagining sexual dress as a form of either resistance or as a display of sexual subjectivity. This is not just about fashion—this is about the repression of women’s sexuality and fear of the erotic. Women remain responsible for acting as guardians of sexuality. convey promiscuity. there is a general awareness that one could be labeled as promiscuous. it is seen as a symbol of immorality and Downloaded from ctr. none of the existing studies addressed how women themselves feel about their own clothing choices and the reasons why they avoid or select particular garments as expressions of sexuality. limiting the generalizability of findings. then. Twigg (2007) noted.sagepub. that of their children. is often embedded in moral prescriptions that act to police their bodies and entrench the microsocial order’’ (p. both in terms of their own sexuality. ‘‘Clothing. We argue that this is especially true of sexualized clothing and true for women of all ages. Koukounas & Letch. There is a difficulty. The women interviewed carefully considered others’ perceptions when thinking about what to wear. Future research might focus on interviewing women who dress provocatively and understanding the impressions they intend to give. Further. While previous work confirms individuals’ suspicion about the sexual intent of women who wear provocative clothing (Gueguen. against their actual desires—in order to conform to social expectations for women’s dress. most did so using survey or experimental research that provides little depth as to why people felt this way. Rather than being formally restricted as to how one should dress or show sexuality. we show how clothes are symbols with meaning both before they are worn. This study has several limitations. The social order that is maintained here is a gender order and a power order. men were not included in the study. it makes important contributions to the literature on perceptions of women’s clothing. This focus on women—and relative exclusion of men—from empirical work and larger cultural discourse on clothing and sexuality suggests a cultural interest in maintaining surveillance over women’s bodies. for example. at NATIONAL INST OF FASHION TECH on August 1. that is. Rather. Even when short skirts are worn by the right women at the right time. in both overt and covert ways.Montemurro and Gillen 179 accepted that sexualized clothing can be an authentic way of showing sexuality. although some are more closely evaluated than others. Although the study was limited in these ways. women’s sexual self-assurance is undermined. Moreover. 2013 .

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