That look is dated, for sure, bearing little resemblance to what many prostitutes actually wear, but those images have proliferated just the same, a common sight this fall at concerts, on theater screens and in a flurry of luxury ad campaigns.
Seedily costumed streetwalkers are a magnet to fans of “The Deuce,” about 1970s-era Times Square and the rise of its infant pornography industry. A leather-clad vixen grinds her stilettos into a fleshy male torso in one of the Steven Klein videos on display this month in “Fetish,” an exhibition organized in partnership with Visionaire magazine at the venerable Sotheby’s auction house. And a manga-inspired old-school prostitute, resplendent in shrill fuchsia fur, is among the vivid attractions of “Blade Runner 2049.”
The very prevalence of such images, overworked as they may be, is a testament to their durability. It is reason enough to look more closely at a position advanced by scholars and style arbiters alike: that the clothes we wear, or might like to wear, owe a very real debt to the world’s most ancient profession.
“Fashion right now is influenced by hookers,” said Anna Terrazas, the costume designer of “The Deuce.” “It’s not the other way around.” In a sea of eye-numbing conventionality, a maverick appearance is their signature. For someone employed on the busy streets, Ms. Terrazas said, “the point is to be seen.”
Not a groundbreaking concept, exactly. “There is an untold history of the relationship between sex workers and fashion,” said Rebecca Arnold, a fashion historian and lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. As fashion’s early adopters, working women routinely took up what their respectable contemporaries shunned as too showy, tasteless or new.
Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images
“The dubious woman could be more outlandish in her dress, and more experimental,” Ms. Arnold said. “She is allied with the idea of fashion as linked, not necessarily with the avant-garde, but with the beginning of new dress trends.”
Among the more fashionably progressive were the grandes horizontales of the 19th century, courtesans like Cora Pearl, a client of Charles Worth, the era’s first celebrity designer; and Catherine Walters (Skittles to her public), riveting on horseback as she paraded through Hyde Park sewn into her riding ensembles. Her style was much copied by noblewomen of the day.
More recently, to hear it from the prostitutes themselves, down-market variations on that patrician theme have been reduced to a series of musty clichés.
“Fashion doesn’t produce a vast range of ideas of what female sexuality looks like,” said Annie Sprinkle, a writer, sex educator and former prostitute. Stereotypes abound, she noted, with the upper echelons of the profession embodied by the aspirational up-and-comer cloaked in cashmere and silk and the role-play specialist dressed in pinstripes or a schoolgirl smock. The more down-market variations flaunt fishnets, kinky boots, hot pants, fur chubbies and harnesses.
It’s a visual code dating at least from the ’70s, tatty and archaic even then. Yet it is routinely resurrected by top-tier designers including Marc Jacobs, John Galliano and Alexander Wang, each gussying up his offerings in sumptuous fabrics or in a mash-up of fetish, athletic and military gear, to tamp down the steamy aggression and make the look palatable to an affluent clientele.
Credit Remy de la Mauviniere/Associated Press
The gambit works. “In the disco era, fashion was inspired by drag queens and prostitutes,” said Tom Fitzgerald, one half of Tom & Lorenzo, an opinionated fashion blog. “Fashion in general is always borrowing from street wear, and it doesn’t get more street wear than hooker.”
Those references, fixtures in the lexicon of style, are mainstream now. “Is there a specific sex worker look anymore?” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “Or does it all get pulled from the sexy pile at Forever 21?”
Like hip-hop and grunge, “the look has been normalized,” he said. “It’s never been more respectable.”
Or apparently more covetable.
In “The Deuce,” Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the prostitute Candy, swivels her hips in a working-girl wardrobe of short shorts, skimpy tops and lightly soiled coats. The actress reminisced the other day about her fixation with its centerpiece, a boxy fur chubby, a down-market variation on a famously scandalizing look introduced in the ’70s by Yves Saint Laurent, one inspired by the wartime prostitutes of the Rue Saint-Denis.
Seemingly unaware of its provenance, Ms. Gyllenhaal went on, “I wanted to wear that jacket in every scene.”
She wasn’t alone. “It became such an iconic piece on the set,” Ms. Terrazas said. “All of the girls were, like, ‘I want a jacket like that.’”
Pop performers like to tap the look as an assertion of power, often treading a fine line between owning their sexuality and trading on it. Cardi B, a retired “stripper-ho,” as she boasts, has been accused of glamorizing prostitution. She makes no apology.
Nor does Nicki Minaj, who turned up at a fashion show this fall wearing lace-up hot pants, over-the-knee boots and an ermine stole, her image an echo of Julia Roberts’s pre-makeover turnout in “Pretty Woman.”