What Does Sex Appeal in Fashion Actually Mean in 2021?

It's all about agency and self-expression.

Fashion Sex Appeal Cult Gaia

@cultgaia/Unsplash

It’s the summer of love, so they say, and the tenaciously evolving question of “What should I wear?” certainly holds more weight than ever after a year (and then some) on pause. Finally, we’re slowly welcoming back our in-person social calendars, and with that comes an assortment of looks to match our going-out energy. From reuniting with friends over cocktails at the neighborhood bar we dearly missed to safely taking the plunge back into dating, the thought of it all can be undeniably daunting. So, to answer the age-old question, it seems as though we’re responding with “something sexy.”

From crop tops to corsets to '90s-inspired TikTok dresses, many of us have decided to show a little skin after ages spent in waist-up Zoom view, and the way our collective experiences of the past year-and-a-half have led us all in a similar style direction is fascinating, though not too surprising. Ahead, we investigate what fashion sex appeal means in 2021.

What's Driving Fashion Sex Appeal in 2021?

While our daytime looks are still driven by practicality and comfort (most of us have come to appreciate the ease of work-from-home outfits), there’s an emotional fuel driving our choices when it comes to showing up to social settings after a long stretch of isolation. Dr. Dawnn Karen explains that “due to the lack of human interaction during the pandemic, the draconian measures that were inflicted upon us—such as when to leave our home, who to hang around, the number of people to hang around with, to wear or to not wear a mask—have led to a lack of control that can manifest in different aspects of our lives.” 

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Dawnn Karen is a fashion psychologist and the author of Dress Your Best Life, which offers tips on using clothes to elevate both your mindset and your life in general.
  • Patricia Maeda is the women's and intimates director at Fashion Snoops.
  • Roseanne Morrison is a fashion design and creative specialist based in New York City.

And the result? We may just be grasping at the idea of control through the one way we can: our bodies. “If [the world hasn't been able to have as much social interaction and masks remain necessary at times], perhaps they can show other body parts. So it's a notion of gaining,” Karen says.

Sex Appeal in Fashion and Pop Culture

While looking back at our past digital-centric year, we can take the rise of TikTok, for example, as a platform that skyrocketed to success in part because it became an outlet to showcase dancing, revealing fashion, and other bolder aspects of our personalities while we were unable to so in person. Plus, style moments on trending Netflix shows, such as Bridgerton or Emily in Paris, and red carpets have caused a frenzy as of late, and it’s easy to note fashion with sex appeal as an overarching theme.

While "regencycore" has been rising on the runways for several seasons thanks to Brock Collection, Simone Rocha, and Erdem, to name a few, the hype around Bridgerton certainly pushed the trend into the mainstream. As we got caught up in the sultry storylines, the show's sensual, form-accentuating aesthetic sparked a rise in trends like corsets, dramatic sleeves, and hourglass silhouettes.

We can see this idea of reclaiming sex appeal rising in celebrity fashion, too; one of the more notable red carpet moments from the recent past was Megan Fox's Mugler dress at the Billboard Music Awards. The all-black look was form-fitting with intricate cutouts and sheer draping that left little to the imagination, a head-turning look that got everyone talking.

Fashion Sex Appeal Brock Collection Mugler Paloma Elsesser Megan Fox

Getty Images/Design by Cristina Cianci

Regencycore and all-out sex appeal are two contradicting yet equally popular aesthetics with the same motivation, leaving us with the thought that what’s most alluring may not be a simple answer, but it's still certainly one at the center of conversations.

“What’s interesting about the current obsession with all things sexy is that there is no specific aesthetic driving the trend," notes Patricia Maeda of Fashion Snoops. "In addition, sexy dressing has been a key theme from high-end to high street. The common thread here is that revealing skin is in.” And while this is certainly a trend, there’s a need for innovation. “We’re seeing brands and designers play with unexpected cutout placements in an exploration of new erogenous zones, which is key for this trend to remain relevant and feel fresh,” she says. 

Fashion design and creative specialist Roseanne Morrison agrees, observing that “many of these cutouts are modest, while some are highly revealing.”  We’re seeing this range from classically sexy designs at Mugler and Balmain to more understated clavicle or torso cutouts at Victoria Beckham, Bevza, and Jacquemus, furthering the idea that sex appeal in fashion is nearly impossible to define and doesn't just align with a single trend.

"Being sexy is ultimately about owning your look and not letting the clothes wear you,” Maeda advises. While we’re not all walking the red carpet or shopping straight off the runway, we’re still seeing fashion with sex appeal as a major influence in our daily lives, from our favorite summer dress to what we may (or may not) be wearing underneath. The one sentiment that does define it all? Empowerment. 

Fashion Sex Appeal in the Everyday

Looking at our everyday wardrobes, the idea of empowerment is incredibly visible in the frock of the summer: Cult Gaia's Serita dress. Even if you don’t know it by name, you’ve likely seen it on your Instagram feed at least one time, if not 10. The dress hugs the curves of anyone who wears it, with the form-fitting silhouette furthered by cut-outs that hit in just the right place. 

“The Serita is designed to make any woman who wears it feel at her absolute best, highlight her best physical features, and make her feel her most sexy and powerful self," explains Cult Gaia's founder and designer, Jasmin Larian Hekmat. "The knitted fabric and skin-baring yet tasteful cutouts help to honor the beauty of the female silhouette.”  Basically, it’s a no-brainer that this style became the "it" dress for a liberating summer. Hekmat adds, “I feel sexiest when I feel empowered in my femininity. I think that’s why the Serita resonates so well with so many women—because it does just that.”

Fashion Sex Appeal Cult Gaia Serita Dress

@cultgaia

Outside of occasion-dressing, feeling sexy has transcended into what we wear during a workout or while lounging at home. Take Doverist, an athleisure brand loved by the likes of Jessica Alba and Devon Windsor, whose most popular sets include cutouts and corset-like details. “Designed with this [idea of empowerment] in mind, we’ve taken inspiration from Henri Matisse and his ability to portray the natural beauty of women’s bodies in his artwork,“ says founder Claudette Lam. The result is an unexpected yet harmonious formula for athleisure.

Subtle Sex Appeal

Even more subdued, what we wear underneath it all may just be the ultimate form of confidence realized from the inside out. Especially at such a heavy and serious time, it’s important we remember to take time for ourselves to feel special. 

“We saw an uptick in sales of our more provocative lingerie styles during quarantine," says Fleur du Mal founder Jennifer Zuccarini. "It was great to hear anecdotes from our customers that Fleur helped them get back in touch with pleasure and a more sensual feeling they'd been missing.” Whether you’re stocking up for the bedroom or not, reveling in the pleasure of your own self-confidence has major personal sex appeal. “We have customers that wear our sexiest lingerie under their suits because of how it makes them feel,” she says. “We all know the feeling of having more confidence when we look and feel great, even if no one sees it.”

The takeaway here? Sex appeal isn’t for the eye of the beholder—it’s for you, whether that means boldly baring it all like Megan Fox in Mugler, tossing on a dress or pair of pants with subtle cutouts, or reveling in the mystery of sporting your go-to turtleneck while wearing something special underneath. The cutouts and corsets of this summer may eventually fade, but the confidence and self-love can last forever, and that is sexiest of all.

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