Latex, leather, harnesses, and fishnets all evoke an image of the sex worker, but there is no specific image of a real-life sex worker. We associate these specific ideals of sexualized dress with misunderstood origins of a supposed aesthetic that we do not know the origins of. By forcing societal notions of how a sex worker should dress, we put them onto a pedestal while simultaneously silencing them. Without paying homage to the marginalized bodies who originated the looks, there is an active process of erasure which allows for distance to exist between the real-life marginalized muse and the fabricated image of a sex worker.
For centuries, young middle-to-upper class white women have been fascinated with borrowing from the working class. Through the subtle incorporation of sartorial symbols of a class that does not belong to them, women are able to cultivate an aesthetic identity. This promotes bodily autonomy while still maintaining a sense of personal respectability, thus “othering” sex workers. In September of 2018, Jennifer Lawrence described her personal style as “[a] 90’s sex worker who’s just won her case in court,” spoken like a true woman with too much money and a fixation on poverty.
Lawrence’s comment implies an association between sex work and criminality, while not addressing the safety of sex workers in any real way other than poking fun at the very real legal problems they face. It exemplifies a rose-colored view of sex work, a very dangerous notion that sex workers are all the same, unnamed and interchangeable. This dehumanization leads to a disassociation of personhood from sex work. By perpetuating this notion of what a sex worker has to look like we are choosing their legacy for them, rather than letting them speak for themselves.
Tom Fitzgerald once stated “Fashion in general is always borrowing from street wear, and it doesn’t get more street wear than hooker,” as quoted by Ruth la Ferla in The Independent. But what does a sex worker wear? According to a 2013 article in the New York Post by Kate Briquelet, a woman was arrested for prostitution based on how she was dressed. The officer deemed that the jeans she was wearing were too provocative underneath her pea coat. This sex worker won her case, but I don’t think that a pea coat and skinny jeans was the aesthetic Jennifer Lawrence was referring to.
Even if she was wearing a skin tight dress underneath a knee-length fur coat, why would that be wrong? A woman should be allowed to feel powerful and comfortable in whatever she chooses to wear without having to worry about being ostracized by the people around her. However, we have been so influenced by film and media that brands cater to a certain aesthetic that comes from a specifically-curated false perception. The sex worker motif in film and media has been whittled down to an aesthetic so palatable you can find what would have been considered “90s hooker” clothing in any Forever21 or H&M. Fashion NOVA almost entirely promotes club wear, proving that brands cater to a fascination with bodies that are the most fetishized.
Kathy Peiss, a professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania and historian of early 20th century youth culture, argues that in the 1900s, middle class women would frequently look to both aristocratic socialites and working girls for style cues. The reasons for borrowing from sex workers were the same then as they are now: to push the boundaries as much as possible while still maintaining the respect of your peers. We all liked to play dress up as children, allowing ourselves to embody the lives of people we admire or find interesting. There’s an implicit safety in knowing that you can take off the clothes and go back to normal. To evoke the image of a sex worker is to play dress up with an edge.
A 2016 slideshow by Esther Zuckerman of Refinery29 explores the nuanced portrayals of female sex workers in media. Zuckerman’s slideshow provides little commentary on the morality of films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Tangerine, but an important message can be extracted nonetheless. Narratives surrounding sex work either sweep you off your feet like Pretty Woman, or leave you terrified like Law and Order: SVU, which doesn’t allow sex workers to exist outside of this binary.
The most striking thing about media depictions of sex workers is the sense of tangible autonomy they exude. Famously, Pretty Woman provides a narrative of a woman making it on her own, sauntering into a Beverly Hills Chanel while wearing thigh-high boots and a mini dress. Perhaps that is the appeal, a sense of recklessness and sheer female power. This, I think, is what Jennifer Lawrence was referring to. Women can construct different ways of representing their autonomy, and one of those ways is through a carefully curated closet. Another example of the working girl in media is Donna Summer’s 1979 hit “Bad Girls,” which was inspired by the street sex workers on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The single is from Summer’s album of the same name, and on the cover, Summer situates herself as a sex worker standing in front of a police officer. Throughout the song she notes that the imagined woman in the song and her are the same, cut from the same cloth but with different life circumstances. Summer paints an image of a sex worker by utilizing the word “bad,” which has two meanings, one positive and one negative. The negative connotation means deviant, law-breaking, or wrong while the positive connotation presents a narrative of cool, in control, and as defined by urban dictionary, someone who “knows what they want and knows exactly how to get it.” It is this very dichotomy of “bad” which makes this perceived sex worker so alluring. The appeal hinges on this explicit defiance of the law and challenging dominant structures of what is good while claiming one’s own bodily autonomy.
In “The Many Lives of Leopard Print,” written in September of 2018, Jo Weldon of Lenny Letter explores the implications of leopard print and concludes that it gives the wearer a sense of self-sufficient power, but she does not mention its connections to sex work. This is because the connection to sex work does not exist. A sex worker can be in sweatpants or in Chanel lipgloss, or both. A woman can wear whatever she chooses, whatever makes her feel beautiful, powerful, and in charge of her sexuality.
In film and media, street sex workers are faithfully portrayed in scantily clad clothing, no one is donning jeans and a t-shirt even if that is what they normally wear. This continued fetishization of marginalized people has contributed to the notion of what a sex worker should or should not wear, which is a notion that has not been acknowledged. The sex worker’s aesthetic does not exist. Women want to feel powerful and look toward women who are seemingly in charge of their own sexuality for clothing cues. This is just to say: wear whatever you want but don’t be Jennifer Lawrence.
Written by Alijah Webb
Photography by Andrew Uhrig
Edited by Emmel El-Fiky and Peter Makey