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Whore Couture: Influence or Appropriation?

The problem with demonising sex workers while simultaneously stealing from them

Woman in leather harnesses and BDSM attire lifting her leg to tie up thigh high boots

It’s Friday night, you’re towering 7-inches taller than usual, sporting shiny, platform boots while adorned in PVC and fishnets, and you’re going to… the bar? While you may raise a few eyebrows here and there, especially from the older generation, it’s mostly normalised and acceptable in today’s society, but have you ever paused to thank the strippers you stripped of their fashion?

Sex is constantly influencing the media. Sex workers provide inspiration to the industry time and time again yet continue to get ignored and demonised. The music industry is a prime example of this double standard, rappers are quick to shame selling sex while using “hoe aesthetics” in their music videos and live performances. ‘Stripper chic’ is glamorised, while sex workers are shamed for their profession.


From boudoirs to boutiques


Feminine pink corset resting on unmade bed

There’s no denying it, sex has always inspired fashion. This isn't anything new, clothing has been used to accentuate, enhance and reveal since the second millennium - just look at Minoan women. Now fast forward to the 16th century and we begin seeing examples of fashion inspired by sex work with the popularisation of the corset, the corset was often worn by sex workers to attract clients and later became popular for women of all classes as it created a desirable hourglass figure.

“There is an untold history of the relationship between sex workers and fashion.”

From flappers, to pin-ups to punks, the subtle-but-sexy fishnet stocking is a piece that has always carried risqué connotations and been traditionally associated with prostitutes. Though first referenced in an Aesop fable it wasn't until the 20s that they emerged as a major trend with flappers. However, it was actually the French cancan dance, often performed by sex workers wearing short, flouncy skirts that revealed stocking-clad legs and undergarments, that influenced the development of the flapper style.


Perhaps most commonly appropriated today is the G-string, originating in the 20th century the garment was exclusively worn by strippers and burlesque performers and even carried the risk of penalties if exposed due to the item being policed by authorities.


Another staple item we have sex workers to thank for, is the heel. The chopine originated circa 1400s in Venice and were first worn by Venetian prostitutes, they reached up to 18 inches and were worn due to the sensual gait they provided, the restricted movement was linked to eroticism and made the sexual availability and social position of the workers stand out to clients.


The trickle-up effect


The trickle-up effect is a theory in fashion first described in the 70s by Paul Blumberg. The theory suggests that fashion trends start with lower income groups and then trickle up to high fashion. A blatant example of appropriation and the trickle-up effect in contemporary fashion can be seen in Louis Vuitton's controversial Love magazine video promoting the AW13 collection, which features models clad in nighties and fur coats working the streets. The video undoubtedly glamorises prostitution, without a single sex worker being hired for the gig.


Further examples include Dior's AW03 show featuring latex and lace-up pants, such clothes are worn in clubs by sex workers to generate money from clients, however if worn in public pose a risk to their safety, however the same cannot be said for a civilian wearing a similar fit. It's not just Galliano pushing latex onto the runway, others designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Thierry Mugler, Gareth Pugh, Margiela and many more feature the material, however it's important to decipher the difference between prostitute appropriation and fetish appreciation.


A more recent example is Valentino's SS21 platform heels, reminiscent of ‘stripper heels' the shoe has had fashion followers flocking to brands like Pleasers for an affordable alternative. Shockingly, the shoe even holds a double standard within the pole dancing vs fitness community: despite the fact the moves are essentially the same, pole fitness is recognised as a legitimate form of exercise, while pole dancing is often still viewed as taboo.


This imitation of sex work fashion funnels into the mainstream under the guise of cut-out dresses, platforms and crop tops adorned with "Hooker", "Sugar Baby" or the Playboy bunny. Such pieces are easily accessible from brands such as fast-fashion giants Shein, or the notoriously sex-work-trivialising Dolls Kill. As said by Raquel Savage,

“Everywhere you look, hoe aesthetics are being appropriated and incorporated into declarations of liberation.”

Influence or appropriation?


There is a fine line between influence and appropriation. I would argue that historical examples show an obvious influence and simply evolved into something new without disrespecting sex workers in the process, certain items were popular amongst sex workers due to their allure and as it became increasingly acceptable for women to embrace their sexuality it makes sense that they should celebrate their femininity with suggestive styles.


However, the line certainly gets crossed with the popularisation of certain items in more recent years, such as 'stripper heels' and printed slogan crops. Appropriating sex work is problematic because those with high status and influence are taking from the underrepresented, who are seen as immoral and even imprisoned simply for working. By appropriating their clothing for profit and using it to create new fashion trends, the fashion industry is further perpetuating this stigma and contributing to the marginalisation of sex workers without giving anything back. Designers need to give credit where credit is due and be mindful of the impact their designs have on marginalised communities.


Unpack the whorephobia


To work towards a more inclusive and respectful industry both designers and consumers need to recognise the perspectives of sex workers who feel their culture and clothing are being exploited. We need to normalise sex work and support workers rather than silencing them.


Support isn’t just paying for escorts and subscribing to Onlyfans accounts, support is so much more. Support is being an ally. Support is listening. Support is advocating. Support is standing up for sex workers in conversation. If you're wondering how you can be an ally, here are some helpful tips.

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