Hooker Chic Lingerie Fashion and the Girl Next Door

Hugh Hefner, founder and erstwhile editor-in-chief of Playboy, always said that his ideal for the Playmate of the Month was “the girl next door with her clothes off.”

Hefner launched Playboy in 1953. At the time, the then 27-year-old former copywriter could not afford to commission centerfold photos. Instead, he used girlie pictures earlier purchased from a calendar company.

But even then, Hefner knew how to choose the right images. Playboy’s first issue was an instant hit, mostly due to a nude early photograph of Marilyn Monroe.

Playboy’s first issue was an instant hit, mostly due to a nude early photograph of Marilyn Monroe.
Playboy’s first issue was an instant hit, mostly due to a nude early photograph of Marilyn Monroe. (Photo: Jersey Museum Marilyn Monroe Exhibition/Flickr)

Within a year, Playboy was able to afford its own photography, and the calendar girls were swept aside in favor of Hefner’s girls next door. The change was immediate, bold, and apparent.

Unlike their predecessors, the new girls tended to have their nipples covered. Their poses were not overtly sexual but caught as if by fortuitous circumstance: they are climbing out of the bath or getting dressed when – Oops!

Therein lay the idea that many experts today say is behind the magazine’s iconic popularity. The early Playboy images drew, simultaneously, on two divergent trends: girlish innocence on one hand; and the enthusiastic vulgarity of the prostitute on the other.

We are now accustomed to seeing these two tendencies combined, but – at the time – the two still seemed like opposites. It was Playboy’s novel proposal that gave rise to the notion that they are not: something totally unheard of in the 1950s.

In the earliest Playboy images, poses were not overtly sexual but caught as if by fortuitous circumstance.
In the earliest Playboy images, poses were not overtly sexual but caught as if by fortuitous circumstance.

The Girl Next Door Breaks Bad

Playboy has since remained largely true to Hefner’s vision – with certain key revisions. While the Playboy centerfold of the 1950s almost always wore standard-issue white panties, today’s playmate is often clad – or partly clad – in erotic lingerie.

The change was part of an increased explicitness – a stronger focus on the female sexuality and sex fetishism that Playboy popularized over the years. Simply put, the sweet-smiling girl-next-door and the prostitute have, in fact, become one and the same.

Today, Nearly 70 years after its first issue, the images within Playboy’s pages are still powerful and captivating. The magazine’s juxtaposition of innocence and flashy sensuality is as striking, erotic, and salacious as ever. But the modern playmate now wears red pumps, a killer corset, and nothing else.

While the Playboy centerfold of the 1950s almost always wore standard-issue white panties, today’s playmate is often clad – or partly clad - in erotic lingerie.
While the Playboy centerfold of the 1950s almost always wore standard-issue white panties, today’s playmate is often clad – or partly clad – in erotic lingerie.
(Photo: Playboy Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

This kind of erotic imagery has spawned innumerable iterations outside the pages of Playboy. While a changing socio-political climate and internet porn have exacted a toll on Playboy’s popularity, the visual code it made famous is routinely resurrected by top-tier designers.

Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang frequently doll-up their offerings with sumptuous lace and garter belts. Female pop performers and reality show celebrities also like to evoke the look as an assertion of power, wearing lingerie as outer garments during public appearances.

The singer, Cardi B, a retired stripper, often graces celebrity events in nothing more than a corset and short-shorts. When she performs, she parts her legs suggestively to reveal a wedge of inner thigh. She has even posed bare-breasted for an album cover.

Not surprisingly, the controversial singer has been accused of glamorizing prostitution. The sexually flamboyant Ms. B makes no apology.

Nor do Paris Hilton, Kendall Jenner, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, and Mariah Carey – all of whom have graced public events wearing nothing but “hooker chic” lingerie.

Female pop performers and reality show celebrities evoke the "hooker chic" look as an assertion of power, wearing lingerie as outer garments during public appearances.
Female pop performers and reality show celebrities evoke the “hooker chic” look as an assertion of power, wearing lingerie as outer garments during public appearances.
(Photo: Eva Rinaldi/Flickr)

“An Empowering Performance”

So what makes images of women – the girls next door – in lingerie so sexually compelling? Some experts say that erotic lingerie has come to suggest, among other things, invulnerability. “Designers make reference to sex workers to communicate toughness,” says James Kaliardos, a founder of Visionaire.

Others seem to share this view. “In the disco era, fashion was inspired by drag queens and prostitutes,” says Tom Fitzgerald of the fashion blog, Tom & Lorenzo. “Fashion in general is always borrowing from street wear, and it doesn’t get more street wear than hooker.”

From a sexual standpoint, the deep-seated male sexual fascination with lingerie appears to generate an equally profound effect on women.

Rachel Wood, a senior lecturer at the University of Chester, suggests women who wear lingerie gain pleasure from visually performing femininity. In a study entitled “You Do Act Differently When You’re in It,” Wood describes how women sometimes purchase sexy lingerie to “do something nice” for themselves.

The deep-seated male fascination with girls in lingerie appears to generate an equally profound effect on the women who wear them.
The deep-seated male fascination with girls in lingerie appears to generate an equally profound effect on women.

The majority of the women who participated in the study were in their 20s and 30s. Some were in their early 50s. Most saw wearing of lingerie as an “empowering performance” even as they doubted their own abilities to pull it off.  

“It’s nice ‘cause it makes you feel nice when you dress nice,” one of the women told Wood. “It’s just nice, I think. It’s nice being wanted and looked at.”

The women in Wood’s study explained that wearing sexy lingerie made them feel more confident about their bodies. This confidence was expressed in terms of how their bodies appeared and how they moved in bed, according to Wood.

That’s probably why some women wear lingerie to feel somehow special, as pointed out by Vanessa Burton of Ask Men. “When you see a gal with an unusual skip in her step, it might be what’s under her attire that’s got her in a good mood,” says Burton.

But where does it all come from? How has the slatternly girl next door become so erotic chic and fashionable?

Rebecca Arnold, a fashion historian, suggests that erotic lingerie has come to symbolize a kind of cultural mutiny. That is, in an increasingly repressive socio-political climate, wearing sexy lingerie can signal rebellion: a deliberate identification with the prostitute.

Indeed, the position has been advanced by social critics like Camille Paglia, whose theories glamorized the prostitute’s outlaw status.

in an increasingly repressive socio-political climate, wearing sexy lingerie can signal rebellion: a deliberate identification with the prostitute.

But then it just might be that – for the less socially-involved pretend streetwalker – hot lingerie and hooker chic fashion are simply props in a performance.

“A campy, over-the-top, overtly sexual image can be part of a visual fantasyland,” Arnold tells the Independent. “It gives women a way of buying into that exciting idea of a sex worker without actually having to live that life.”

That said, one thing – at least – is certain. Even in today’s over-the-top, sexually permissive milieu, the sweet girl next door in corset and garter belt still elicits a “standing ovation” from most men.


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