Whore! It may be the lowest insult that can be hurled at a woman. Yet prostitution and promiscuity thrive as archetypes in beauty and fashion imagery. Why? Is it a conspiracy of the male-dominated media? A not-so-secret desire by women to be subjugated? Or is there more to the archetype – and our use of it on our own fashion lives – than the word implies?
No one knows the full history of the connection between prostitution and fashion – we humans were painting our faces and showing off our beads and feathers before we were using metal tools. Prostitution may be called the world’s oldest profession, but when the first woman took her ochre-ing too far – and was slut-shamed by her peers – is an event lost to history.
By the Middle Ages, European religious reformers were determined to stamp out immorality, and women’s sexuality was seen as one of the main threats to the social order. Respectable women kept their dress modest and their faces scrubbed clean, lest they be accused of whoring – or witchcraft.
No doubt there were still whores, and some serious face painting going on. But to a greater extent, respectable women used cosmetics to attain a healthy glow and dressed as enticingly as they could without appearing too immodest. By 1794, John Prentiss’ how-to cosmetic guide The Compleat Toilet included this recipe for “scarlet lip salve” along with instructions on how to ward off the plague and prevent pits after smallpox.
Working girls had to paint their faces more heavily, as they were advertising their wares. In that sense, they were fashion leaders – whores, like royalty, were at fashion’s vanguard, experimenting past the edges of good taste. Although royalty could usually flirt with immorality at higher price points, some of the more successful concubines, who extracted high fees and expensive gifts from their suitors, could have much of the same finery – without the social confines of courtly life.
This brings up a point: whores in fashion imagery always have tons of money. A poor prostitute is not glamorous – and it’s not just the money – it’s lack of choice. And control. A huge point of any fantasy is that no matter how out-of-control things may seem, the fantasizer is the one in control. And in the case of fashion, extremely well undressed:
This would be a great place to point out that most women in prostitution do not make this kind of money, but ignoring the realities of potentially exotic occupations isn’t unique here: most people fantasizing about pro tennis life imagine more tournament wins than ankle surgeries, and entrepreneurial fantasies in the media routinely exclude the hard work and failures in favor of the multi-million dollar success stories.
And many who look at sexualized fashion imagery of women see it as created by or for men – yet it’s women who enjoy these images. Why do women enjoy looking at sexualized images of ourselves?
Fashion is fetishistic – it connects us to all kinds of social, material and fleshly desires. In fashion fantasies, whores get all the prizes – the diamonds, the freedom, the power – not to mention the best hair and makeup. Living outside the lines looks glamorous and fun, and the realities of life never intrude.
The Whore is such a visibly provocative combination of things we actually do crave – sex and beauty, power and money, that her archetypal power is hardwired into us. We may not want to be defined solely by these (less than lofty) desires, but we don’t want to give them up, either. The Whore Archetype allows us to incorporate our cravings for sex, power, and beauty into the rest of our lives – loosen up our stricter versions of ourselves, rock those platform heels on a date, and let our eyeliner get messy when we party.