Representing the creative future

Fashion knows that sex sells. But those who sell sex are rarely given a voice

Dear fashion, Sex Workers are more than erotic mascots

In early February, Heather Briganti, the owner of L.A.-based brand Yung Reaper, released a since-deleted post of herself in transparent Pleaser heels on Instagram. Specifically designed to support strippers on the dancefloor and pole, the thick platform shoes can get sex workers arrested in some areas if worn outside the club. Her caption thanked workers for “taking crap from society” so she could own a pair, and wished that there were more style options. Obviously, her followers, many of whom work in the sex industry themselves, were offended by the message. One user said: “SW [sex workers] don’t own the shoes, but they’re undeniably the most recognizable aspect of their dancing. They’re also associated with stigmas and marginalisation- dangers for SW’s that you’ll never understand. Until you face that, this is appropriation.”

The controversy surrounding Heather’s post represents a growing resistance towards the use of sex work culture in fashion. From Versace’s problematic ‘kinderwhore’ Lolitas and dominatrixes to Louis Vuitton’s playboy bunnies, designers have historically cherry-picked motifs from sex work culture, capitalised on cliches, and prioritised artifice over authenticity. They benefit as the ensuing controversy drives sales and press coverage. But sex workers’ identities and voices are silenced when they’re commodified into advertisements that conveniently distance consumers from the ugly realities workers face. While this makes catwalk parodies easier to swallow, it also demeans workers’ personal agency and capacity to be taken seriously by the masses. Over time, sex workers have amassed a strong (albeit censored) online community, and many are protesting against criminalisation. As groups like HAH campaign for their safety and rights, it’s important to consider the consequences of fashion’s appropriation and how today’s new guard of designers can diverge from tradition.

“Up until now, we have been unapologetic appropriators, using other cultures and identities for our own vampiric purpose.” – Caryn Franklin

According to fashion and identity commentator Caryn Franklin, sex work has been a consistent source of inspiration. “Up until now, we have been unapologetic appropriators, using other cultures and identities for our own vampiric purpose,” she says. “Relying on fantasies to reinvent, repurpose and reframe narratives and optics, we are capable of selling some very unattractive truths as a glamourous con.”

Sidelined to the fringes of society, sex workers are often romanticised into clandestine or brazen figures who witness people at their most vulnerable. The seemingly intimate and glamorous nature of their job fascinates the humdrum consumer, and more designers are cottoning on. “There’s been a revived enthusiasm for sex workers who seem exotic and different,” confirms New York fashion designer and former stripper Anna Bolina. “People like to look at alternative lives for inspiration because interesting shit happens in ‘underground’ spaces.”

But the ability to wear clothing associated with sex work without being harassed or criminalised is a privilege that often goes unappreciated by mainstream society. This is largely due to ignorance or disinterest in sex work’s uncomfortable realities, and it’s not uncommon to see community members share posts on their Instagram stories pleading for “civs” (civilians) to acknowledge the trauma or origins behind a garment. The popularity of sex worker ‘aesthetics’ is incubated by an ignorance of their reality.

While some workers choose the trade and enjoy it, according to a systematic review of research, there’s a 45% to 75% chance that they’ll experience violence, and may turn to online organisations like SWARM, APAG and NUM for help (scroll to the end of the article for information and support links). Realities like this have been glossed over or glorified in campaigns and generated a behemoth of archetypes like the objectified siren, fashion victim, streetwalker, and seductress (dressed like Belle de Jour in ‘67 Yves Saint Laurent). On the page, these characters invite the viewer into a boundless underworld of unlimited potential and provocation.

A classic example is Louis Vuitton’s AW13 collection, where Marc Jacobs released a campaign video with LOVE magazine depicting Cara Delevingne and Edie Campbell as sultry Parisian streetwalkers. They sashayed through alleyways in Louise Brooks bobs and négligées, while a black car chased them “like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho,” observes stylist and former escort of eight years Lakyn Carlton. Eventually, the women succumbed to the car’s advances and climbed in to have sex with its driver. “I take offence when somebody outside of the industry is using this caricature,” says the stylist. “Especially Cara Delevingne. Are you kidding me? She’s never once had to work the streets.” In one swoop, Jacobs had replaced desperation with lust and transformed one of the most dangerous genres of sex work into a game of cat and mouse.

“The pre-orgasmic look fashion models are routinely asked to evoke for the camera results from male entitlement to positioning women as fantasy service providers, fantasy girlfriends, or just fantasy femininity: decorative, compliant, and available.” – Caryn Franklin

But a fascination with underground culture isn’t the only driver behind fashion’s obsession with sex work. Fashion imagery has become particularly susceptible to the omnipresent male gaze, which Franklin points out women also internalise and normalise, creating the ideal environment for sex work appropriation to fester. As a co-editor of i-D in the 1980s and long-time presenter of BBC television’s The Clothes Show, Franklin’s witnessed the industry’s subservience to the male gaze along with the rise of hyper-sexualised imagery and predatory behaviours from photographers themselves and observes a system shot through with patriarchal values.

“Male designers, whether straight or gay, see women and femininity in association with masculinity,” she says. “The pre-orgasmic look fashion models are routinely asked to evoke for the camera results from male entitlement to positioning women as fantasy service providers, fantasy girlfriends, or just fantasy femininity: decorative, compliant, and available.” Within this milieu of female objectification and exploitation, models have been asked to imitate lithe, amenable sex workers lusting for male gratification.

The sex worker ‘erotic mascot’ can also double up as the fashion victim in need of refinement. Too poor to afford nice clothes or too brash to have good taste, they’re saved by an industry whose appropriation of sex work is marketed as a service to the worker themselves. Four months after Gianni Versace’s death in 1997, a major retrospective at the Costume Institute honoured him for giving “as much to the prostitute as he took from her style”. She sprang from the notorious AW92 show “Miss S&M” (which tapped into an underground world of fetishists and dominatrixes). To the former curator Richard Martin, Versace was a “Pygmalion to the prostitute,” who “accommodated her lack of [style] expertise” and seized her “bravado and conspicuous wardrobe, along with her blatant, brandished sexuality.” In other words, he polished the sex worker into a palatable, rarefied jewel to be enjoyed by the masses. Martin’s implication that sex workers desperately needed a fashion makeover also feeds into the idea that they’re tasteless, immoral, and unfit for polite society.

The prejudice against workers’ fashion tastes dates back to mediaeval times when it was believed that their love for “finery” indicated a moral and financial decline. The more a sex worker spent on fashion, the more she was despised.

“The industry likes spinning a fantasy and the fact that I come with a story.” – Anna Bolina

By moving workers’ from the streets and into high fashion, Versace made the outsider an insider at last ‒ at least superficially. Not only did this allow him to sanitise workers’ lives for social consumption, but it endorsed appropriation in the public eye. The sex worker reflected the designer’s own artistry and skill at refining a workforce who’d otherwise been othered into an exotic sexual icon.

“The industry likes spinning a fantasy and the fact that I come with a story,” says Bolina. Raised inside a school bus on a hippie commune, she briefly held an office job before working as a stripper in New York and becoming a full-time designer during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I’ve never put stripping at the forefront of my brand but I honestly think it’s boosted my career; which is something I never intended. Actually, I didn’t talk about my past as a dancer until it was necessary to explain where I got some of my inspiration and personal style from.”

It’s not the first time fashion circles have been intrigued by a sex worker’s life story. Only a decade ago, Karl Lagerfeld took a shine to the ex-sex worker Zahia Dehar and, according to The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis, he found her “so fascinating precisely because she is a reminder of France’s 18th-century courtesans.” Once an underage sex worker serving the underbelly of Champs-Elysées bars, she was thus hailed as his muse by the press and introduced to Paris’ fashion elite. With Lagerfeld by her side, Dehar realised her dream of becoming a luxury lingerie designer in 2012 (the Chanel designer shot her first collection’s lookbook), and has since inspired exhibitions, been photographed by David LaChapelle, and starred in the Cannes prize-winning film ‘An Easy Girl’ (2019).

“Many have the misconception that sex work is like Pretty Woman and they go into the industry with starry eyes.” – Lakyn Carlton

There’s something irresistibly glamorous about a rags-to-riches Cinderella story. “The sex work fantasies peddled by the media are causing more people to become strippers, which reduces the amount of money going round,” says Bolina. “Many have the misconception that sex work is like Pretty Woman and they go into the industry with starry eyes,” agrees Carlton. “It’s a flat little idea that doesn’t take into account workers’ stories, limitations, and personalities. Simplifying sex work attire into good and bad stereotypes is disrespectful to those who choose the life, who are forced into it, and who risk their safety in order to survive.”

“There’s a lot more stigma surrounding Black sex work.” – Lakyn Carlton

Although stigmas dissuade brands from veering into the realities of sex work, authentic representation is a simple way to respectfully acknowledge nuances within the industry. “If you’re going to push an image of sex work, then actual sex workers have to be at the centre of it. But this can’t be gratuitous.”

Racial diversity is equally important here. Brands are consistently reverting to white-thin models; portraying an acute fraction of the numerous ethnicities, figures, weights, and sexualities in the trade. “There’s a lot more stigma surrounding Black sex work. And we’re not usually chosen to represent the “happy hooker” trope in fashion,” says Carlton; a stylist of African American descent who’s been involved with various genres of sex work since she left home at 18.

Eventually running a successful escort business for eight years, she acquired a business prowess that later kept her afloat when Covid-19 restrictions forced her to retire from sex work. Suddenly without a job, she rekindled a long-held desire to become a stylist and launched the consultancy True Style at the height of the pandemic. The creative now advises clients with a keen intuition and understanding of fashion’s subliminal messages that evolved during her former career.

Brands need to go deeper than simply talking to one sex worker or hiring a porn star because that usually generates singular perspectives,” she says. “Otherwise, I doubt whether they actually respect who they claim to respect.”

At a time when people are asking intuitions to be more considerate of marginalised cultures, brands cannot afford to continue skewing sex workers’ experiences for profit. Past campaigns have demonstrated a dire lack of decency and care for the workers they typecast as subservient and compliant objects, and the magnum opus of ‘sex sells’ advertising. But sex work is more than an aesthetic or business transaction, it’s deeply emotional and typically comes with physical and psychological tolls. Perhaps the only way for creatives to draw on the topic respectfully is to include the community in the creative process. Considering how integral sex work has been to fashion, it’s time the industry approached the field with the compassion and levity it deserves.


Information & support links  

  • SWARM APAG (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement) – A collective founded and led by sex workers who believe in self-determination, solidarity and cooperation. They campaign for the rights and safety of everyone who sells sexual services. 
  • HAH (Hookers Against Hardship) – A grassroots campaign of sex worker-led organisations, aiming to raise awareness of the specific experiences of sex workers during, and because of, the cost of living crisis. “We’re working to try to alleviate sex workers’ financial hardship in the current crisis; and to lobby our elected politicians to combat the poverty, criminalisation, and danger faced by sex workers. We deserve to be safe. We deserve respect. And, most importantly, we deserve the same rights as everyone else.” 
  • DECRIM Now – An alliance dedicated to improving the lives and working conditions of sex workers in the UK. Decrim Now is calling on the UK government to support the full decriminalisation of sex work. “When we say that sex work is work, we mean that it is a method of earning a living through your own labour. It is highly gendered, stigmatised and often precarious work, but it is work that pays the rent, bills, and puts food on the table of thousands of families across the UK.”
  • SASE (Stand Against Sexual Exploitation) – A series of links and services offering exit provision for those aimed at reducing sexual exploitation of children.   
  • UVW Union (United Voices of the World) –  A member-led, direct action, anti-racist, campaigning trade union. They exist to support and empower the most vulnerable groups of precarious, low-paid and predominantly BAME and migrant workers in the UK. 
  • NUM (National Ugly Mugs) – A scheme developed by The UK Network for Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP), which aims to keep sex workers safer from abuse at work. “Sex workers are celebrated as experts at NUM. We share resources to make our community safer, more informed, and better connected.” 
  • The Havens – Specialist centres (SARCS) in London for people who have been sexually assaulted or raped. 
  • ECP (English Collective of Prostitutes) – A grassroots organisation of sex workers and supporters campaigning for the decriminalisation of prostitution, for sex workers’ rights and safety, and for resources to enable people to get out of prostitution if they want to. The network includes sex workers working on the street and on-premises. 
  • SWISH – A charity project which supports anyone involved in the sex industry. Their services are completely free and confidential, and they provide clinics, support work, outreach and counselling services. 
  • The Survivors Trust – An umbrella organisation representing more than 130 organisations working with male and female victims of sexual violence across the UK. 
  • Beyond The Streets “We work to challenge the stigma that surrounds the sale of sex, to eliminate “survival sex” and more broadly to end violence against women and girls.”