Dressing the Part

by | June 26, 2015 | General | 4 comments

by Jean Roberta

Do you think about your characters’ clothing when you write erotic stories or poetry? As a girl who spent her formative years cutting out pattern pieces and sewing them together to make (hopefully) chic ensembles for myself, I am often disappointed by descriptions of clothing in the erotica I read. Either there is just enough information to emphasize the body underneath (cleavage-revealing tops and short or slit skirts on the heroine, trousers on the hero that bulge noticeably at the crotch), or there is a detailed description of clothing with no indication of what it actually signifies to the contemporary viewer. (A swimsuit at the beach is expected. A swimsuit in an office would probably be considered scandalous, and the wearer would be expected to explain his/her relative nudity. In historical fiction, a maid and a duchess –or a stableboy and a duke — would not be dressed alike, unless one were trying to pass for the other.)

I’ve been thinking about clothing ever since I agreed to review a fascinating book, Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution by Jo B. Paoletti, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. The author has written several books on the sociological significance of fashion, including Changes in the Masculine Image in the United States, 1880-1910(her Ph.D. thesis, 1980) and Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (2012).

The current book, Sex and Unisex, is about the drastic changes of fashion that took place in the 1960s and early 1970s, led by innovative designers, who were mostly gay men (although this was never openly mentioned at the time), and the hordes of teenagers and young adults who had been born just after the Second World War, and who wanted to look different from their parents.

As a member of that generation, who shopped for clothing patterns the way my classmates shopped for 45-rpm vinyl records of the latest Top Tunes, I am so glad that a scholar has analyzed trends which, at the time, were routinely dismissed as trivial, but which often produced over-the-top reactions from those in authority.

One current myth about the 1960s that Paoletti debunks is that girls and women were not allowed to wear pants (trousers) until some brave individuals (feminists and/or lesbians) paved the way for the rest of us. Contemporary images from mail-order and pattern catalogues show “play clothes” for boys and girls under the age of puberty that look identical. Little girls, especially in the U.S., could wear Western-style shirts with jeans and even add a holster with a toy gun, and this look was socially acceptable all through the 1950s and 1960s. There was a practical reason for advertising unisex clothing for the under-12 set: families of the Baby Boom tended to be large, so parents appreciated sturdy clothes that could be passed down to a sister from a brother, or vice versa.

Pants for adult women were also widely accepted – in the right social context. Images of Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood bombshells from the 1950s and early 1960s in snug “pedal pushers” were titillating, but not really considered obscene. At the time, these photos presumably showed what the stars looked like in the privacy of their homes, in “casual dress.”

Puberty was a dividing-line, and so were school and church, as distinct from the playground, the campground, and the suburban neighborhood. Girls who had developed womanly curves were expected to wear skirts and dresses much more than formerly, and most schools (public and private) had a dress code that demanded skirts on girls from kindergarten on. The rationale was that pants on girls (and denim pants on anyone) were “casual dress,” and students of both genders were supposed to take the educational process seriously. (Note that denim pants were originally sold to men with strenuous physical jobs, so the widespread adoption of jeans as a middle-class teenage uniform could be seen as a shocking rejection of white-collar respectability as well as a refusal to grow up.)

Needless to say, religion was also taken seriously, so attendance at church or temple required gender-specific attire: suits for little gentlemen, dresses for little ladies. Special events (first communion, weddings, high-school proms, even extended-family dinners at home on holidays) required formal, gender-specific clothing on everyone, from the youngest to the oldest.

The spread of jeans and mini-skirts, feminist rebellion against traditional gender roles, and the “sexual revolution,” which accelerated after the invention of the birth-control pill in 1969, all progressed at approximately the same time. This is probably why minor variations in style (the length/shortness of girls’ skirts, the length/shortness of boys’ hair) were thought to represent philosophical positions that the Establishment was not willing to accept.

I’ll never forget my father’s explosion over my secretary outfit (as I thought of it) in the mid-1960s, when I was fourteen. I wanted to look like an independent woman working in an office. (My unmarried aunt was a secretary, and I imagined that this job involved a high salary and considerable decision-making power.) I made myself a straight skirt that ended just above my knees, with a back zipper and a kick-pleat for easy walking. It was made of pink wool, fully lined in acetate satin. (I knew the names of several famous designers, and I wanted to be Mary Quant when I grew up.) The skirt went with a long-sleeved blouse in a paisley-print polyester which I thought could pass for silk. The blouse had a notched collar and cuffs. Nothing about this ensemble violated the school dress code, so I couldn’t imagine why my parents would try to prevent me from wearing it to school.

I put on my new clothes to show my parents. My mother chewed her bottom lip while my father yelled loudly enough to be heard from the street. Neither parent seemed at all impressed with my dressmaking talent. The gist of my father’s sermon was that I was still a child, and therefore my outfit was inappropriate as well as indecent. He announced that I would never be allowed to wear it anywhere. (Later on, he seemed oblivious when I left the house in my new clothes.) Apparently, when my father saw me dressed like my idea of a secretary, he saw “Sex” written across my girlish bust, or my pink-wool-covered hips. He might also have seen “Pregnancy,” “Drugs” and “Bad Company.”

If possible, the boys who joined the “peacock revolution” in men’s clothing faced even more opposition. The threat of homosexuality was the elephant in the room which terrified fathers in grey flannel suits when their sons wore flashy shirts, open to the waist, with tight hiphugging pants and “long” hairstyles that included bangs and sideburns. Paoletti devotes a whole chapter to court cases in which young men fought a variety of institutions for the right to wear their hair any way they chose. For many employers, most school administrators, and virtually the whole top brass of every branch of the military, “long hair” on males represented everything that was likely to destroy civilization. The clothes that usually went with the hair just seemed to confirm the opinion of strait-laced elders that a whole generation of young men was refusing to accept adult responsibility, including the patriotic requirement to become warriors.

On the subject of length, I need to end this post before it becomes unreadably long. Suffice it to say that styles of presentation (including clothing, body types, hairstyles and facial appearance) in every era carry enormous symbolic baggage. Clothes are never just arrangements of fabric (or leather, metal, wood, or plastic). Wearers of controversial fashions can be accused of transmitting messages they never intended. Clothing styles of the past can be misunderstood as being either more or less radical than they were at the time.

When writing an erotic story, I am tempted to give too much information about what the characters are wearing, and I have to remind myself that a fashion show in words would probably be read as a digression from the action. Certain styles of face, hair and body display might also mean something different to the reader than they do to me. (My secretary outfit carried a horrifying message for my father than I didn’t even foresee at the time.)

Do you pay attention to the way characters display themselves in your reading-matter? As a writer, how do you approach this subject? Responses welcome.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica (http://excessica.com). Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, www.eroticanthology.com. Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links: www.JeanRoberta.com http://eroticaforall.co.uk/category/author-profiles


  1. Donna

    I loved this post–it brought back very vivid memories of the drama of dressing in the late 1960s. My two older sisters both braved the outrage of my parents with their mini-skirts and hot pants and ponchos and love beads which obviously screamed sex and the new morality. "You're not wearing this out of the house!" (and they usually did anyway). A lady was never supposed to draw attention to herself, but be quietly lovely and well-groomed. Hard to do with the 60s color palette. My mother also sewed and shopping for patterns was a part of my growing up. I'm now trying my hand at historical fiction and the clothes and especially underwear of both men and women need researching. In my contemporary fiction, I do picture my characters in terms of what they're wearing (for a date, at home, for seduction), but probably should pay more attention to what it all means. I definitely avoid the full-on outfit description.

  2. Remittance Girl

    I remember a pair of tight, fire-red satin trousers that caused my father something close to an aneurism.

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Ah, Jean! This is a side of you I've never seen. (The dress designer/seamstress, not the historical and societal critic!)

    I pay quite a lot of attention to what my characters wear, both men and women. For one thing, a sartorial detail or two can go a long way toward delineating a character, or at least his/her preferences.

    Also, from a more practical perspective, I need to know what they're wearing so I can figure out how to take it off!

  4. Jean Roberta

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Donna, RG, and Lisabet! For better or worse, I haven't made my own clothes for many years. Either other activities have filled up my time, or maybe parental disapproval had more of an effect on me than I liked to believe at the time. I still do repairs & alterations on clothes that need them.
    In all fairness, RG, if my teenage daughter had wanted to go out in the trousers you describe, I probably would have had some anxiety, though not to the level of an aneurysm.
    I'm sometimes reminded of current violence in Muslim countries when women appear in public with their faces or ankles exposed.
    The author of the book under discussion mentions the feminist position that clothes simply shouldn't matter, and therefore a debate over fashion is unworthy of anyone who seriously advocates gender equality. Mary Wollstonecraft had a similarly dismissive approach to ladies' clothing in her time, but I've never been able to simply ignore clothes. When we (everyone in the modern, industrialized world) get up in the morning, we have to wear something, and whatever we wear carries a message, whether we like it or not. (When the recent head of the English Dep't where I teach wore ripped jeans every day on campus, that was a message. He had adopted the facetious title of "cowboy poet.")
    Luckily, I still have the earliest short story I remember writing, at age 16. It includes a fairly detailed description of my school clothing, including underwear, which I probably would have forgotten otherwise. (I described cheap nylon stockings rubbing against each other like steel wool.)

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