Object of Desire – Sex, Fashion and the Female Gaze (Symposium)

Photo: Betony Vernon by Ali Mahdavi
by Sally Roberts

The Edinburgh International Fashion Festival

 23rd July 2016

Discussing the relevance of porno-chic at 11am on Saturday morning may seem to some a confirmation of our sex infused society. Not even the National Museum of Scotland is safe anymore. Yes, sex is everywhere in our culture, but that’s exactly why we need to talk about it. Leading the discussion were the charismatic jewellery designer, author and sexual anthropologist (whatever that means) Betony Vernon; erotic illustrator Safia Bahmed-Shwarz; luxury bondage fashion designer Resha Sharma and fashion journalist Alice Pfeiffer. Hearing such impressive women debate about the links between fashion, sex and politics was a real privilege, but it was a shame that there were no contributions from any male voices.

Photo: Luke Rajczuk
Photo: Luke Rajczuk

The debate began with the idea that fashion and sex are inextricably linked and always have been. Like birds of paradise, we communicate internal desires (or lack thereof) with external signals. Other topics covered were the empowerment of underwear; the stigmatisation and acceptance of female erotic designers; the universal intrigue of sex and the importance of respect and sharing. Highlights include the candid comment that every single person in the auditorium – both in the audience and the panel – is intrigued by sex and that without sex we wouldn’t be on earth let alone at a fashion festival. With a few awkward giggles, the room seemed to physically relax, allowing the openness and comfort required for a subject such as this one. Bahmed-Shwarz also made the excellent but not obvious point that sharing pleasure is not only possible through intercourse. It is also sharing a coffee with a friend, a good chat or a funny joke. Although fashion is a blatantly physical industry, the panel focused on the importance of internal comfort and confidence that clothes express and encourage.

The negative impacts of sex in fashion were also touched open, particularly the increasing and worrying sexualisation of young children. This brought to mind Primark’s infamous padded bikini, which was thankfully withdrawn in 2010. Vernon also criticised the commercialisation of bondage in campaigns by designers such as Tom Ford, arguing that without proper knowledge and respect, the implements shown in the advertisements could be far from pleasurable, and indeed extremely harmful.

Yes, sex has permeated into almost every aspect of our society and this is by no means completely positive. But if we can follow the panellists’ example by talking about sex openly and honestly, we will be better equipped to face the problems that constant sexualisation inevitably brings.

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