What we think we know about dressing like a sex worker is all wrong. Features writer Alijah Webb delves into why we think certain aesthetic elements evoke this image of a sex worker, and why those narratives need to be challenged.
Latex, leather, harnesses, and fishnets all evoke an image of the sex worker, at least, one we’ve been fed. We associate these specific ideals of sexualized dress with misunderstood origins of a supposed aesthetic, one that we don’t fully understand. In film and media, street sex workers are faithfully portrayed in scantily clad clothing. No one is donning jeans and a t-shirt, even if that is what they normally wear. Yet, by forcing societal notions of how sex workers should dress, we put them onto a pedestal while simultaneously silencing them. In reality, the “sex worker’s aesthetic” does not exist, but there are a lot of problematic connotations that do.
In September of 2018, Jennifer Lawrence described her personal style as “[a] 90’s sex worker who’s just won her case in court,” spoken like a true woman with too much money and a fixation on poverty. In the moment she made her claim, Lawrence entered a centuries-old tradition of young, middle-to-upper class white women who have been fascinated with borrowing from the working class. Through the subtle incorporation of sartorial symbols which do not belong to them, these women are able to cultivate an aesthetic identity. Yet, without paying homage to the marginalized bodies who originated the looks, there is an active process of erasure which allows for distance to exist between the real-life marginalized muse and the fabricated image of a sex worker.
Kathy Peiss, a professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania and historian of early-twentieth-century youth culture, argues that in the 1900s, middle class women would frequently look to both aristocratic socialites and working girls for style cues. The reasons for borrowing from sex workers were the same then as they are now: to push the boundaries as much as possible while still maintaining the respect of one’s peers. We all liked to play dress up as children, allowing ourselves to embody the lives of people we admire or find interesting. There’s an implicit safety in knowing that you can take off the clothes and go back to normal. To evoke the image of a sex worker is to play dress up with an edge.
Lawrence’s comment also exemplifies a rose-colored view of sex work. It implies an association between sex work and criminality, while not addressing the safety of sex workers in any way other than poking fun at the very real legal problems they face. In reality, according to a 2013 article in the New York Post by Kate Briquelet, a woman was arrested for prostitution based on how she was dressed. The officer deemed that the jeans she was wearing were too provocative underneath her pea coat. This sex worker won her case, but I don’t think that a pea coat and skinny jeans was the aesthetic Jennifer Lawrence was referring to.
A 2016 slideshow by Esther Zuckerman for Refinery29 explores the nuanced portrayals of female sex workers in media. Zuckerman’s slideshow provided little commentary on the morality of films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Tangerine, but an important message can be extracted nonetheless. Narratives surrounding sex work either sweep you off your feet like Pretty Woman, or leave you terrified like Law and Order: SVU, which doesn’t allow sex workers to exist outside of this binary. These portrayals also perpetuate the very dangerous notion that sex workers are all the same, unnamed and interchangeable. This dehumanization leads to a disassociation of personhood from sex work. By perpetuating this notion of what a sex worker has to look like we are choosing their legacy for them, rather than letting them speak for themselves.
Brands have bought into popular media portrayals as well. “Tom Fitzgerald once stated ‘Fashion in general is always borrowing from street wear, and it doesn’t get more street wear than hooker,’” as quoted by Ruth la Ferla in The Independent. But what does a sex worker wear? We have been so influenced by film and media that brands cater to a certain aesthetic that comes from a curated false perception. The sex worker motif in film and media has been whittled down to an aesthetic so palatable you can find what would have been considered “90s hooker” clothing in any Forever21 or H&M. Some brands, like Fashion NOVA, cater to this fascination with bodies that are the most fetishized by almost entirely promoting what they refer to as “club wear.” There is little to no acknowledgement that these stylistic interpretations are not entirely based in reality.
The most striking thing about media depictions of sex workers is the sense of tangible autonomy they exude. Famously, Pretty Woman provides a narrative of a woman making it on her own, sauntering into a Beverly Hills Chanel while wearing thigh-high boots and a mini dress. Perhaps that is the appeal, a sense of recklessness and sheer female power. This, I think, is what Jennifer Lawrence was referring to. Women can construct different ways of representing their autonomy, and one of those ways is through a carefully curated closet. Another example of the working girl in media is Donna Summer’s 1979 hit “Bad Girls,” which was inspired by the street sex workers on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The single is from Summer’s album of the same name, and on the cover, Summer situates herself as a sex worker standing in front of a police officer. Throughout the song she notes that the imagined woman in the song and her are the same, cut from the same cloth but with different life circumstances.
Summer paints an image of a sex worker by utilizing the word “bad,” which has two meanings, one positive and one negative. The negative connotation means deviant, law-breaking, or wrong while the positive connotation presents a narrative of cool, in control, and as defined by Urban Dictionary, someone who “knows what they want and knows exactly how to get it.” It is this very dichotomy of “bad” which makes this perceived sex worker so alluring. The appeal hinges on this explicit defiance of the law and challenging dominant structures of what is good while claiming one’s own bodily autonomy.
While the double connotations of “bad” have historically and implicitly been tied to the marginalized (who in may cases are also the working class), that’s not to say women of privilege don’t seek to embody them too. Cue Jennifer Lawrence. All women want to feel powerful, thus they look toward women who are seemingly in charge of their own sexuality for clothing cues. And who’s to say wealthy women shouldn’t wear leopard print, which Jo Weldon of Lenny Letter suggests gives the wearer a sense of self-sufficient power? A woman can wear whatever she chooses, whatever makes her feel beautiful, powerful, and in charge of her sexuality. This is just to say: wear whatever you want but acknowledge where it actually came from. Oh, and don’t be Jennifer Lawrence.
Photography by Andrew Uhrig. Models: Ruth Goshu, Mbiye Kosanga.
Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 2.