Fashion

Welcome to the Era of Sensual Dressing

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When Oscar Isaac kissed his way up Jessica Chastain’s arm at the Venice Film Festival, he awakened a sea of starved onlookers. Those few seconds on the red carpet quenched the public’s thirst, and they suddenly knew what they’d been missing. The moment tapped into a larger conversation about the dearth of true sensuality in popular media: You’d be hard-pressed to come up with anything from the last few decades that resounds with a true sensual nature. There are not too many moments that could compare to the slow-burning fire in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, when Madame Olenska touches Newland Archer’s knee with her fan: “It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress,” Wharton writes. Or the high-octane pairing in Singin’ in the Rain, with Cyd Charisse’s green fringed dress seductively echoing her movements while she playfully blows smoke in Gene Kelly’s face.

The same holds true for fashion, where even the overtly body-conscious clothes of the past few seasons have lacked that elusive ability to entice. TikTok star Serena Shahidi, aka glamdemon2004, known for her alluring manner and dulcet voice, tells me that this absence of sensuality can be chalked up to a lack of subtlety. “We’ve forgotten what we actually want to see from other people. Not vulgarity or inhuman body proportions or trendiness or potential for virality, but more nuanced things,” she says. “There’s power in subtlety.”

loewe spring 2022

Loewe spring 2022.

Courtesy of the designer

As a culture, we are far too invested in the naked body as a symbol of sex—when the journey of how we clothe ourselves, and our movements wrapped in fabric, can really be what ignites the senses. When I look to my closet for answers, the one piece that stands out is a vintage DVF wrap dress. Simple in its shape and made of slinky silk jersey, its legacy is owed to the effortless way it gently holds the body’s curves. Whenever I wear it, I feel attuned to my form. With no zippers or buttons, there’s a freedom to it that gives me the ability to be bold or gregarious in the face of whatever the night holds. Then there is the simple knot at the waist that ties the dress together, that with one pull could unravel the whole thing. That is what sensuality is. It should invite the imagination—suggesting what could happen.

For spring 2022, designers were keen to bring that vibrant pulse back. There were hints of the body everywhere at Prada, from the boned waists of the dresses to the tails of miniskirts billowing out behind the models, mimicking the movement of their hips. The most effectively seductive pieces in the collection were sweaters with the outline of the breast built in, reminding us of what it feels like to wear knits over bare skin on a cool day. Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons’s show notes referenced the tension between the clothes and their wearer, pointing out that “their architecture is inherently tied to the body, and therefore to seduction.”

prada spring 2022

Prada spring 2022.

Courtesy of the designer

Jonathan Anderson experimented with draping at Loewe, citing Renaissance painter Pontormo as inspiration. There were dresses held up by the smallest strap that looked like no machine had passed through the fabric for something as crude as a seam—they appeared, instead, as though they’d landed on the body by divine chance. The dance of push and pull was present in the translucent breastplates of his closing pieces, offering cheeky nudity offset by a high neck and capelike sleeves that transformed the pieces into sophisticated objects, analogous to sculpture (the most intimate of mediums, as it has so much to do with touch). And at Versace, the foulard safety pin held together dresses and jackets all at risk—or possibility—of coming undone.

prada spring 2022

Prada spring 2022.

Courtesy of the designer

As we’re all overwhelmed with an excess of information, it’s natural that our heads turn for only the most outrageous and salacious things. Over time and through overexposure, this numbs our senses. “Ostentation is not the way to maximize sex appeal or humor or even entertainment. We’ve forgotten about the way clothing feels on our body, the practicality, the personal touches,” Shahidi says. The finer distinctions are often what make life worth living—and definitely what make wearing clothes so pleasurable. When we are used to everything being served on a platter, we lose our curiosity. Our culture is only focused on what is revealed, when all the intrigue is in what’s hiding. The spring collections were an exercise in reinvigorating the nuances of our senses. And fashion lovers are ready. Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear at Matchesfashion.com, notes that we saw designers “understanding that people want to be in touch with themselves and feel joy once again.” After all, we must get dressed to undress. Why not take our time?

This article appears in the February 2022 issue of ELLE.

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