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19th February 2013

The changing image of sexy

Damilola Ade-Odiachi examines the way in which the meaning of ‘sexy’ has changed from the Renaissance period

Through time our perceptions of sexy and sexiness have hinged almost completely on our perceptions of beauty. This is hardly surprising as we human beings are many things but we are hardly sapio-sexual. You often don’t find yourself in bed with the hot mama you met in 5th ave because of the strength of her conversation and if in fact you do it will be because she has fulfilled some physical requirement or the other.

I’ll begin with the Renaissance woman. She had ample bossoms and sizeable birthing hips. The term voluptuous is often used when describing the sirens of the era. However today the majority of them would be considered overweight, fat and generally unappealing.

The next great trend came with the Victorians. They loved their women to be the pinnacles of moral uprightness. It is rumoured that table legs were covered to dissuade improper thoughts. Copious amounts of make up were a thing reserved for the fallen and great emphasis was placed on the size of the waist. Waists had to be as small as humanly possible. In some cases ribs were broken to reduce a 16 inch waist to a 10 inch waist. This was done to enhance the appearance of an hour glass figure.

picture: Wikipedia

By the 1920s things had changed considerably. Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel are credited with freeing women from the corset. During this period hemlines and sleeves were shortened considerably and women had to take care of bits that had not been on display previously. During the roaring twenties, women went to great heights to conceal their breasts by taping them up and some even wore girdles to give the appearance of a more boyish figure. The trend here was not to be slim it was to be more boyish to give suggestion of gender equality.

picture: Wikimedia Commons

The 1940s and 1950s saw the return of the hourglass figure. However this time it was natural. Marilyn Monroe was the siren of this age. Her measurements according to her dressmaker were 35-22-35. Women never left their houses looking anything but their best because their primary goal was to snag a man and start a family.

picture: Bert Stern


The 1960s saw the introduction of the super-thin look. No age before it had demanded that women look so boyish and skinny. The star of the time was Twiggy. Her measurements were 31-23-32 and she had what was considered a “stream lined androgynous sex appeal”. Things more or less continued in the same vein through the 1970s but women opted for longer wilder hair and tanning caught on.


picture: Ronald Traeger

In the 1980s the pressure on women to look slim and toned but not muscular increased. It was the age of aerobics, leg warmers, shoulder pads and colour. Madonna has been described as the face of the decade. A good illustration of sexy in the 1980s is the ‘Call On Me’ video by Eric Prydz…

Things changed a little in the 90s in that, while the emphasis on skinny grew, there was also a case for being more curvy. Models like Kate Moss popularized a look known as “heroin chic” and grunge was all the rage. The look of general unkemptness was advertised by bands like Nirvana. However, it would be impossible to talk about sexy in the nineties without talking about TV super-series Friends, in which the ‘Rachel’ haircut steered women away from the big hair seen in the 70s and 80s.

The noughties have been characterized by freedom of choice and expression. Of course, the seemingly impossible combination of both curvy and thin is still in, but there are signs that we might be moving back to the curvy end of the spectrum. Beyoncé, a woman renowned for her booty, was voted GQ’s sexiest woman of the millennium and Kate Upton, who is no size zero, is taking the  fashion world by storm.

picture: Terry Richardson

Our impressions of sexiness have changed dramatically through time, thereby influencing our ideals of beauty immeasurably. The question is, what will the next era-defining image of sex appeal be?

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