At the crux of humanity are two ongoing concerns: reproduction and quality of life, better known as sex and money. Under European patriarchy, women could not inherit, own, or earn money. Patriarchs tried to control sex with the same coherence, but women remained capable of intercourse and reproduction. Women’s only route to money was in exchange for sex. Patriarchy thus necessitated prostitution.
Prostitution is, of course, the exchange of sex for money. But there have always been two kinds. One was marriage, a standard contract. In European history, this prostitution has been socially authorized. The other kind, socially-unauthorized prostitution, has been reviled by church and state since either’s inception. Most women have preferred socially-authorized prostitution; those who worked as un-authorized prostitutes generally did so because it was the most appealing of few options. Money came from many men, rather than one; the prostitute was employed for sex, rather than child-bearing; and ejaculation, rather than death, marked the contract’s close. Both kinds of prostitutes advertised their sexuality, as their material well-being depended on men’s interest.
Fashion sexualized women, made clear their desirability as commodities. It helped unauthorized prostitutes look like “whores.” For a higher price, fashion helped those who wished to be wives advertise their sexuality while conveying that they were not “whores.”
Though fashions change, two laws immutably guide them. The first is misogyny. Corsetry monopolized centuries of female fashion. Cosmetics killed: white lead, the Greco-Romans; bleeding, the medieval Europeans. High heels, starvation and the burka are fashions that sexualize female pain, pre-pubescence and immobility. Fashion, which professes respect, even love, for the female form, evidently hates women’s bodies.
The second law of fashion is that the rich don’t want to look like the poor. Societies that struggle for food elevate the plump, curvy bodies of rich girls. Pale skin used to denote the idleness of those rich enough to remain indoors. Now that the West is obese, fashion is emaciation. The tan is in because the wealthy vacation.
No longer are all women prostitutes, because patriarchy is less absolute. Nominal political equality has “liberated” women. Yet fashion is still misogynist. It commodifies women, encourages them to believe that they must endure pain in order to be sexually appealing. Designers advertise clothes by picturing them on clear-skinned, breastless cadavers, in so-called “women’s magazines”; these magazines run articles that discuss how fashion can help you — an averagely fat, slightly be-zitted woman — come close to this standard of beauty. Fashion invites every woman to make the old trade of sex for money and happiness.
But the suggestion, to any woman, that she objectifies herself through her dress, is met with indignation. But this is the dilemma, even the tragedy. The concept of femininity that fashion instills in women is blatantly misogynist. Yet women literally buy into it, as part of their alleged “liberation.”
There is a simple answer: Society is coercive. But this is too simple. The fashion industry is a misogynist conspiracy, but it is also right. Women lead easier, happier lives when they prostitute their bodies. Fashion’s defenders say that “fashion is empowering.” Yes. Women still derive power from conforming to misogynist standards of beauty because we still live under patriarchy. And patriarchy necessitates prostitution.