If you’ve longed after the head-turning looks of Balenciaga – a fashion house that often visits fetishism motifs in their collections, re: Kim Kardashian during New York Fashion Week 2021, enjoyed contemporary popstar’s hyper-femme-bubblegum renditions of the cam girl space, re: Doja Cat’s ‘Cyber Sex’ music video, and Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ music video you have none other than sex workers to thank. Cam girls have also been influential in the art space especially amidst the pandemic; like the two designers who created an installation of decorative stucco molding inspired by the interior décor of rented chat rooms used by cam girls in response to our new comprehension of a virtual space.
As a result of this whorephobia, sex workers’ sense of style, hustle, and activism are ultimately blurred into oblivion by our more “consumable” counterparts.
Sex workers have historically been buried under celebrity-dom and the general public’s terror with pronouncing things under the influence of ‘sex work.’ As a result of this whorephobia, sex workers’ sense of style, hustle, and activism are ultimately blurred into oblivion by our more “consumable” counterparts. These counterparts have been celebrated for ripping off the visually exciting and provoking elements of sex work but not the actual people behind it, all while sex work itself, remains *very* criminalized in most of the world.
Sex workers are seldom uplifted for our positive contributions and advancements to society at large. We are instead sensationalized, victimized, but mostly erased from history, and perhaps because of that, the true symbolism of the Pleaser heel may be unknown so long as puritanical sterilization in media persists.
Contemporary influences are no exception; sex workers continue to be as snubbed in the world of fashion as ever before, in fact, this lack of acknowledgment of The Whore’s Influence dates back as far as Ancient Rome, throughout Japan’s Edo period, during the porn craze in the 1970s, and to current day, where sex workers of color are perpetually dismissed for their impact on the intersection of music and high fashion.
First, let’s address that there has long been a way of signifying a whore from a “non-whore” or courtesan from a “noblewoman/person”. At the peak of Ancient Rome’s development, AKA paved roads, prostitutes were so omnipresent that “authorities” needed a way to distinguish the two from each other. Roman sumptuary laws – which were laws that were put in place to control lavish consumption (capitalism is ironic), enforced all prostitutes to wear a blonde wig. Thus the “blonde bombshell” was born – which bimbo aesthetics may be a result of?
...if the “whore” was blonde, then the “respectable woman” would likely feel the urgency to be brunette! If this doesn’t make you want to go blonde, I don’t know what will.
The idea or ultimate “goal” from this, if you will, was that if the “whore” was blonde, then the “respectable woman” would likely feel the urgency to be brunette! If this doesn’t make you want to go blonde, I don’t know what will.
Cut to 16th Century Venice, courtesans of the time were classified into two groups: lower and higher rank, not entirely different from today’s whorearchy, which is a system, or hierarchy, (hence the play on words) that ranks sex workers by how much in-person client interaction takes place during, or within the work itself: i.e.: cam girls would be at the “top” because they can make an impressive amount of coin without ever having to intimately interact with their clients.
The lower-rank workers serviced those in the middle class and they were often poor themselves and their wardrobe reflected that, thus their rates were lower and they were more accessible for the common person to hire. The higher rank workers were called, cortigiane oneste (Italian for ‘honest courtesan’), and these women were synonymous with that of class, style, and intellect. These are traditionally classist terms, but alas, such is the historical record. The cortigiane oneste catered to the ultra-wealthy and highest-ranked members of Venetian society; often politicians, artists, and well-regarded businessmen.
The cortigiane oneste however, was the best-dressed woman of their time and very much ahead of their time. Insert the extreme platform shoe, or as they were known then, chopines. Chopines make today’s most extreme heel look like child’s play. Courtesans were not only highly fashionable women but also admirably daring in their choices as these platforms stood 20 inches tall. Why? one might ask, simply put, because they liked them! And they didn’t do much walking in them anyhow; they were mostly just standing and charming.
Venetian courtesans were rebels by nature and their garb reflected that; dresses so low their nipples revealed, underbust corsets exposing full breasts, and dresses that displayed a bare belly were just a few of the trends these women set. Apart from the more daring fashion choices courtesans made, they also were keen on luxurious textile; silks, electric colors, and pearls, oh yes.
During Japan’s Edo era high ranking sex workers were called Oiran and they have their own version of the chopine. Oiran, not to be confused with the Geisha, are different in their practice and traditional garb entirely. Geishas are women who have studied the art of entertaining, performance, and hosting. Although not vastly different in skill, Oiran are skilled in “chado, calligraphy, ikebana, and shamisen…” wear layers of bright and loud kimonos, unlike Geishas, that are purely made out of silk and black Geta shoes that can be as tall as seven inches, without socks (for sensuality purposes) unlike the less overtly sexy socked Geisha. The height of the shoe is to assure the Oiran literally stands out from the crowd.
Case in point, working girls love a platform shoe! I don’t think it’d be considered a stretch to see the parallel between the Pleaser shoe becoming synonymous with strippers and/or sex appeal as the Geta and Chopine shoe were to the Oiran and Venetian courtesan. The height of a shoe alone has long been a way to determine the kind of work a woman does throughout history, thankfully, feminism is in its fifth wave and sex workers and “girl bosses” alike are empowered to be conquering work in and out of heels of all kind.
So, please remember it wouldn’t be possible for you to strap on or lace up a chunky platform shoe if it weren’t for the remarkable whores of yore who entertained and charmed in their 7-20 inch bad boys.
Geta shoes had a revival in contemporary fashion as Prada “reinvented’ the shoe in their 2013 Spring/Summer collection, which has spawned many other iterations among brands of the 21st century like Rick Owens and Jill Sander. So, please remember it wouldn’t be possible for you to strap on or lace up a chunky platform shoe if it weren’t for the remarkable whores of yore who entertained and charmed in their 7-20 inch bad boys.
Fast-forwarding to recent times and the influence of Showgirls. Showgirls are not totally synonymous with sex work, although there is some overlapping history with the notorious nightlife performers and sex work as a profession. Showgirls are known for their striking stage presence and talent as choreographers and dancers, often dressed in glamorous two-piece sets, elaborate feathered headpieces featuring incredible rhinestone detailing. Showgirls came onto the scene in 1800s Parisian music halls and cabaret. They made their way into Latin America, the United States, and Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As the culture around showgirls and ways to consume media evolved in the 70s, a new genre of sexy and erotic comedy films blasted onto the scene, called cine de ficheras. “The industry hired voluptuous models to play the roles of sexually explicit showgirls in their films… Most of the women who were hired to play these roles came from working-class backgrounds and didn’t have any formal education…” (Reichard)
Due to the way the industry was quickly changing and more women were being introduced onto the scene, these previously working showgirls felt inclined to take these roles, beyond just on-camera, but on the stage as well. The girls roles often if not always, turned into performing full service sex work in front of these cameras and audiences.
If not for showgirls, we wouldn’t have the extravagant stage presence and maximum show-stopping wardrobe that are often seen on the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, and J-Lo.
Despite the show girl’s reputation being publicly slut-shamed by puritanical-leaning audiences, these women had to go on providing a living for themselves among changing times. Showgirls still exist in variation today, we are probably most familiar with them in the form of the Vegas Showgirl and The Rockettes, even. Showgirls have had a massive influence on the pop culture of the 2000s and beyond. If not for showgirls, we wouldn’t have the extravagant stage presence and maximum show-stopping wardrobe that are often seen on the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, and J-Lo.
Strippers have made their mark on our visual language as a society, providing us with so many cultural offerings, having especially lent themselves to the world of fashion and music. The traditional attire of a stripper has remained pretty consistent in its overall playfulness: rhinestone-encrusted g-string bikinis, neon-colored mini dresses, glow-in-the-dark nipple pasties, tasseled Pleasers, and the occasional dramatic wig. Stripper aesthetics have long incorporated a sense of drag with a nod to the nightlife. The era of reducing a woman’s value to how modest and/or conservative her dress is, although not completely ridden from our collective psyche, has long been inching its way out and more successfully so as of recent of course, due to sex workers.
Sex workers, particularly strippers of color have modeled these styles for decades only to not be credited for the inspiration behind entire collections of cut-out mesh dresses, daring platform shoes, and micro two-piece sets.
We can’t talk about the cultural impact of strippers without directly linking that impact to the trailblazers that are strippers of color. Strippers of color have been deemed trashy for the same threads that contemporary brands like IAMGIA, Poster Girl, and Dolls Kill are now funneling to the mainstream (which has also been fueled by the explosion of OnlyFans). Sex workers, particularly strippers of color have modeled these styles for decades only to not be credited for the inspiration behind entire collections of cut-out mesh dresses, daring platform shoes, and micro two-piece sets.
The digital era of sex work has made daring fashion choices accessible to a wider group of women. The influencers of today that are landing ambassadorships with lingerie brands like Rihanna’s famed, Savage x Fenty are not so far from the cam girl/person who posts scantily clad on their social pages to sustain their own livelihood. All this being said, it’s the camgirls, the strippers, and the full-service sex workers who are not getting hired to represent these brands that they’ve built off sex workers’ image.
Sex work remains criminalized in most of the world and deeply stigmatized still, decriminalized or not. Sex workers remain largely in the margins of society, and however much sex worker representation and visibility are on the rise, their liberties are complicated by our labor; if a sex worker appears dressed in a suggestive way they can be prosecuted for intention to solicit sex in most states within the United States. There is a privilege in being able to participate in the dress-up and cosplay, so to speak, as a sex worker for a night, while the visual codes implemented by an active sex worker are often life-threatening. The next time you tighten your leather collar, lace up your corset or run your fingers along your fishnet tights, remember you have sex workers to thank.
High Fashion Harlots: How Prostitutes Changed Fashion History By Carlyn Beccia https://medium.com/history-of-women/high-fashion-harlots-how-prostitutes-changed-fashion-history-fe21a749ccf6
Geisha, Maiko, and Oiran: History and Comparison by Motivist Japan https://www.motivistjapan.com/geisha-maiko-and-oiran/
Freedom, Fame, and Misfortune: Ficheraz is Telling the Stories of Latin American Showgirls by Raquel Reichard https://remezcla.com/features/culture/interview-profile-ficheraz-collective-preserving-legacy-of-latin-american-showgirls/