History of Fashion Lookbook

How Bedhead, Blush and Stilettos rose to fame as “sex symbols”

It’s Friday night. You’re getting ready for a night out with the squad. You rouge your cheeks with your best, shimmery blush. You clip your hair back into a soft, messy bun and slip on your favorite pair of heels. You take one last look at yourself and think “cute, I guess.” Meanwhile at the club, men are lining up at your feet, offering you all sorts of drinks and sexual innuendos. Why the sudden interest, you think? That’s because the looks you’re rocking all have one thing in common; they make you look like you’re ‘ready for sex.’ Let’s take a closer look at how the patriarchy first assigned this ‘sex appeal’ to these items.

Blush: like a rush of blood to the face after sex

Blush dates back as far as ancient Egypt. On top of inventing winged eyeliner and pyramids, Egyptian men and women used to grind red ochre to add rosiness to their complexion. They’re not the only ancient society to have done this; the Greeks used crushed mulberries and flowers, whilst the Romans rubbed Vermillion on their cheeks. 

Once prostitutes started wearing blush for maximum allurement (and to cover bruises and tired eyes) there was a huge chunk of time where society frowned upon it. It was during this period where ‘higher class’ women would paint their faces white or use leeches to remove natural redness from their skin – like really? Y’all disgusted by sex work that much? 

Still, the reign of blush continued in many societies, albeit sparingly, and even though it was made with toxic chemicals. Only during the industrial revolution did blush become much safer to use and much more common. And just in time for WW1, when the patriarchy decided they wanted women back in the kitchen looking all pretty and ‘ready to go.’

While today, blush is just a staple makeup product to give us a rosy glow, its universal popularity came from what it represents: the rush of blood to the face after, er, getting it on. 

Bedhead: a hairdo tangled up by sex

Rocking bedhead may serve to liberate our morning routine, but Urban Dictionary defines it as “a hairdo that looks like you just finished having sex”. How did this happen? Well, similar to the rise of blush, messy hair was once only synonymous with “improper” women, whilst neatly styled locks was a symbol of decency.

In one recorded example of how scandalous messy hair could be, a man once came home to see his wife with a twig in her hair and assumed she had cheated on him with another man on the ground. So, he stabbed her in the chest, killing her. I want to make a joke about this man’s lack of communication skills here, instead I gulp down the injustice that is gender-based-violence and continue

The changeover of bedhead from “unfaithful whore” to “desirable woman” can largely be attributed to the rise of sex scenes in film, where women would be made to act as if dripping with sexual energy in the bedroom with their mussed up manes and smudged lipstick. Models like Kate Moss, and even male musicians like Robert Smith helped turn bedhead cool and effortless, too. I mean, I guess it’s only cool depending on who you are. Selena Gomez looks effortlessly sleek with a messy bun, whilst Donald Trump looks like he’s been pulled through a bush backwards. 

Stilettos: a physical sign that we’re ready for sex

The original high heels were invented for men to be able to secure their feet in stirrups, and later, for aristocrats to parade around towering over everybody. But they too eventually took on a hyper-sexualized meaning when they were later only meant for women. The story goes that the original chunky platform was deemed too dangerous for women, especially when pregnant. So for us fragile, ‘baby making machines’, voilà – we were gifted the stiletto.

While to women today, high heels represent glamour, ambition, and power; to men they once represented a woman ready for sex. This is ‘because’ heels cause an arched back which suggests openness to “mating advances”. I laughed out loud while typing that.

When asked what men find attractive about a woman in high heels, a French shoe designer once famously said that it was that “heels slowed the woman down, giving the man more time to look at her”. Clearly, no one wanted women to be able to get away either. Anyone else thinking rape culture?

Since then women and heels have become one. Like sharp weapons beneath us, we can run when we’re late to meetings, jump over hoops for our family, and dance the night away on our tippy toes. But at the end of the evening you’ll probably see us barefoot – cursed heels in hands – wiping away our contoured cheekbones when we’re home and brushing our hair before bed. And I can assure you, none of this means we’re not down for sex. But instead of judging that from the sate of a few accessories, educate yourself on consent, and ask us instead.

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By Candice Buckle

Candice Buckle is an international journalist looking to use her words for global change. A proud South African who is currently based in Tokyo, she travels to expand her knowledge of other cultures and make connections all over the world. In her free time she enjoys exploring and taking photos, going to the movies, and sharing good food with good friends.