Sex, safety & politics: what the ‘going out’ dress means now
Fashion designers have been heralding the return of the ‘going out’ minidress, but in light of recent events, the narrative of post-lockdown nightclub dressing is just as much about ‘safety’ as it is ‘sexuality’.
Main image courtesy of Nensi Dojaka
After months of being cooped up inside, with days low in sunlight and heavy on elasticated loungewear, the idea of ‘going out out’ is beginning to dawn on us as a very real prospect. Next week, pubs and bars begin to open their doors again; and on June 21, British nightclubs will beckon us all back to dancefloors, sticky with spilled vodka lemonades, and to crowded smoking areas, where we will no doubt overshare life stories with complete strangers once more. The question on everyone’s mind: “What will I wear?” The answer: something sexy, of course.
Sex — and the idea of sexuality — has re-entered fashion’s consciousness after what feels like an eternity of ever-inflated puffy volumes and frothy, princess-party dresses. Not since the night that Samantha Mumba stepped out at the Spider-Man 2 premiere in 2004, wearing £5 million-worth of diamonds and not much else, have slinky, strappy minidresses -- with incendiary cutouts, sheer panels, spaghetti straps and sky-high thigh splits — now courtesy of Nensi Dojaka, Supriya Lele and Charlotte Knowles — been so prevalent, even if they are barely-there. Each of these London-based women designers are ushering in a new era of the minidress, tapping into our collective fatigue with loungewear and primness. Their work also reflects a wider nostalgia for the late 90s and early 00s – an era when hedonistic club culture was at an all-time (often literal) high – with the likes of Brit Pop, Ibiza mania, and paparazzi shots of pre-Instagram socialites, such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan appearing splashed across tabloid pages every day in Donatella’s slinky Versace and Tom Ford’s Gucci.
As anyone wearing that kind of an ensemble knows, it often comes hand in hand with receiving attention on the street, or in clubs and in bars. Sometimes, this attention is wanted -- from friends, or from the girl you’ve never met before complimenting you in the club bathroom.
Sometimes, this attention comes in the form of lecherous stares, leering comments, and unwanted touching, particularly from men; behaviours that go hand in hand with the age-old slut-shaming narrative: “Well, if you will go out dressed like that, you’re asking for it.” As the conversations following the murder of Sarah Everard have revealed, however, the reality is that women face the constant risk of patriarchal violence in its many different forms no matter what they wear. To put it in numbers, recent studies show that 97 percent of 18 to 24-year-old women said that they had experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives.
Sarah, who was abducted and killed by an active member of the police force on her mid-week walk home from a friend’s house, was captured on CCTV for the last time wearing her everyday clothes: a pair of patterned trousers with trainers, a woolly hat, a green rain jacket -- garments that quickly became key tools in the search for her that ensued. Rather than examining and tackling the reasons why men commit these acts, both the government and the mainstream press immediately angled the narrative around nightlife and ‘women’s safety’, with one particularly maddening proposal being to put plain clothes policemen in nightlife venues. Words such as “she didn’t deserve to die,” were uttered by many; but, if Sarah had been wearing a miniskirt, how would this heinous incident then have been framed?
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a need for women’s safety to be addressed in nightlife spaces. Bryony Beynon is the director of The Good Night Out Campaign, which started in 2014 as a grassroots organisation. It now exists as a specialist training group, which looks at how to support venues, pubs and bars, clubs and event organisers to better understand, respond to, and ultimately prevent, gender-based violence. “A lot of the way we do this is also to challenge some of the myths that are out there,” she tells me. “One of the classic myths is that people who dress a certain way are somehow asking for trouble. These myths are very deeply ingrained – in all of us in different ways. You don't hear this so openly anymore,” says Beynon, referring to the ‘asking for it’ trope, “But when I deliver training, people don't say it explicitly, but you can tell that they still think it. It's much more covert."
"If someone does experience sexual violence and reports it to the police, one of the first things that they are asked about is what they are wearing,” she continues. She also notes that many of the men she trains react with surprise over the fact that women might be dressing for themselves – and not for the so-called ‘gaze’ of others. "It has often been thought that if we dress our bodies for a night out in a certain way, it equates to somehow ‘sending a message’ about what you want to happen with your evening, and this is something we need to do some work on. We need to decouple this in people's minds,” she says. “I do a lot of training with LGBTQ+ spaces and kink clubs, where people are often wearing very little clothing – but consent is implied. Wetherspoons have a lot to learn from the kink club, actually.”
So what does this mean for the comeback of the ‘going out dress’ in 2021? In a review of Nensi Dojaka’s AW21 collection, i-D’s Osman Ahmed described her work as “strappy, sexy and definitively lo-fi” and “the kind of clothes that will have you even more furiously counting down the days to June 21”. Although, as Nensi noted of her own designs, “I don’t want it to be something sexualised. I want it to look sexy and be aggressive.” This narrative is also present in the work of Supriya Lele and Charlotte Knowles; a desire to take back power in how they dress, no matter how revealing it might be. “I would actually say it's [a predominant theme] for most of what we do,” Charlotte says of why she’s drawn to designing pieces that often riff on underwear-as-outerwear, too. “I think there is a lot of strength injected in the pieces; we are trying to build our design language around this sentiment of power and energy. I think this is attractive to a lot of women.”
Supriya, a British Asian designer, reinterprets the codes of traditional Indian dress in her work, which often reveals a bare midriff. “I’ve always been attracted to the sensuality of the sari,” she says. “The facets which I love are translucent, sensitive fabrics, cutouts to highlight elements of the body and drapery. I also feel there's confidence in exploring this aspect of dressing too.” Supriya also notes that she designs from a strong female perspective — and seeks to challenge notions of modesty and conservative dress codes within the South Asian community. “We always aim to make women feel good and strong as opposed to uncomfortable,” she says, adding that she works with an all-female team. “It’s so important to consider how women will feel in clothes that could be seen as ‘revealing’ – so elements like comfort and movement are key to me.”
The desire to reclaim this aesthetic has perhaps also hit a boiling point of late, because of the way we are collectively revisiting how women in the media spotlight were treated in the past. The heroines of the age of the 00s strappy dress were trampled by the press, whether it be the demonisation of Britney Spears or Kerry Katona – with the latter case the result of a cruel intersection of classism and misogyny. Recent documentaries exploring this demonstrate the aggressiveness of a predominantly male-led paparazzi and tabloid machine, with ‘upskirting’ shots of these women stepping out of cars in short dresses and skirts now condemned as part of a gross invasion of privacy.
The resurgence of the sexy, strappy ‘going out dress’ in 2021, clearly stems from a place where women are beginning to feel able to reclaim their sexuality, their bodies, and their power in a post #MeToo and #NotAllMenButAllWomen landscape. For many of us, it is about dressing for ourselves while simultaneously acknowledging that we are dressing to be seen – after all, fashion is about putting on a show. But it is also about re-addressing how it is seen, and the attention that comes with it. As Charlotte Knowles puts it, “The old ideals of beauty are slowly crumbling away and, hopefully with it, the toxic social interactions that were built around it.”