The "Seduction" exhibit currently on at the Museum at FIT raises some interesting questions about what makes an outfit seductive.
Take this French afternoon dress from around 1785. It was a bit too tight and structured to qualify as sexy in its day (though the flesh-colored bodice filling is suggestive). A woman intent on seduction would have been just as covered but more déshabillé. Her garments might show less of her body's shape, but their looseness would imply accessibility.
In either case, the seductiveness comes not from showing skin but from the movement of fabric and what it implies about what lies beneath. Robert Herrick immortalized the effect in his 1648 poem "Upon Julia's Clothes."
Whenas in silks my Julia goes, Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see That brave vibration each way free, O how that glittering taketh me!
So one question the exhibit raises is, Which is more seductive: structured clothing that hugs but imprisons the body, or loose clothing that conceals the form but sets it free?
The 2000 black leather John Galliano for Christian Dior dress on the left exemplifies structure, while the 2008 Sárka Sisková dress on the right embodies floaty freedom. Personally, I far prefer the Galliano. It's also what you'd expect from FIT Museum director Valerie Steele, who jokes that it was included as a token of her taste. The exhibit's curator, Colleen Hill, generally takes a more girlish approach to seduction.
And that, in turn, suggests a second question raised by the exhibit, Are clothes seductive because of their intrinsic aesthetics or because of the way they make the wearer feel? I don't know any contemporary American men who'd find the Sisková dress particularly sexy. But, feeling it caress her skin, a woman might feel--and act--seductive. And, as this photo demonstrates, it does look better on a person than on a mannequin.
Finally, the genius of Halston was to produce clothes that were simultaneously body-conscious and freely moving, that simultaneously concealed and revealed. The Galliano is great, but I think the most seductive dress in the exhibition is this one, donated to the museum by Lauren Bacall.