Because of Slut-Shaming, the Wrap Dress Still Matters

The wrap dress is over four decades old, but in today's environment it is as relevant as ever. In her new biography, Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped, Gioia Diliberto writes that the designer persuaded women to buy her iconic garment by telling them, "Feel like a woman; wear a dress." It's a philosophy that might seem outdated today when gender is widely seen as malleable and as easy to take on and off as, well, a dress. Yet old-fashioned ideas about masculinity and femininity continue to shape behavior, as Caitlyn Jenner's hyper-feminine makeover, a 2015 reincarnation of "feel like a woman; wear a dress," demonstrates.

We see this gendered mindset today clearly in the arena of slut-shaming -- when women who are open about their sexuality are labeled "sluts "or "hoes" to be put in their place. I've been tracking slut-shaming for two decades, and the environment today is at a crisis point. When I recently spoke with 55 teenage girls and young women across North America for my book I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, they repeatedly expressed puzzlement: they are expected to appear hot and sexy, online and offline -- but they are vilified if they come across as slutty. They're damned when they do, damned when they don't.

What's the difference between sexy and slutty? There is no fixed answer; the space between the two is relative and subjective. If a woman's peers determine that she is "too" sexy -- she's calling too much attention to her body; she's trying too hard; she seems desperate -- they decree that she has crossed the invisible, ever-shifting boundary and is worthy of being labeled a "slut" or "ho."

In the age of social media, acts of slut-shaming are easier than ever before to accomplish. Young men can anonymously take photographs of naked, unconscious women with their phones and post the pictures on Facebook without the women's consent -- as members of the Penn State fraternity Kappa Delta Rho have done. Being denigrated publicly can be traumatic for some, as the suicides of a number of slut-shamed teenage girls have shown. No doubt many of the Florida women subjected to the "Scarlet Letter law," which Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush supported as governor, experienced shame and judgment. If they were single and putting up their baby for adoption, they were legally required to publish their full name, physical description, and names of their sexual partners.

Once a girl or woman is regarded as a slut or ho, she is at risk for becoming a target for sexual assault. Alternately, if she has been sexually assaulted, she may be assigned the slut or ho identity ex post facto to rationalize the crime and to protect the assaulter. This was Bill Cosby's tactic: his legal team silenced many women who claimed over the years that the public authority figure had drugged and raped them by insinuating they were sluts and hos.

It should never be a woman's burden to avoid being seen as slutty. It's everyone else's responsibility to not call a woman a slut, since the idea that boys will be boys and girls will be sluts is a product of a sexist sexual double standard, and to believe her when she says she's been sexually assaulted.

While we are busy chipping away at the sexual double standard -- by refusing to call any woman a "slut" or "ho" and supporting organizations like Planned Parenthood Federation of America (where I am the senior writer and editor) that provide sexual health care and education -- we should wear whatever we please. It helps to have a dress in the closet that finesses the sexy-but-not-slutty problem. The wrap dress, in this environment, is a way for a woman to eroticize herself with sprezzatura, to be sexy and powerful.

When von Furstenberg's wrap dress became available in 1974, it was revolutionary -- no zippers, buttons, or hooks and eyes. The mother in the workforce, running from shower to kitchen to day care to office, could slip it on in a flash while affixing her earrings and stepping into her pumps. Von Furstenberg created it at the same time that Erica Jong coined the phrase "zipless f**k" in her novel Fear of Flying, referring to sex with a total stranger that is seamless because "zippers fell away like rose petals" and "underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff." The wrap dress made Jong's feminist fantasy of sexual liberation as possible as it ever could be.

It also looked darned good on just about everyone, regardless of shape or size, molding to the body at the bust and waist as tightly as one wished, and revealing or covering her cleavage as she desired. What made the dress feminist was that it put the wearer in control. With professional shoes and jewelry, she could wear it to a job interview, and with peep-toe platforms and a statement necklace, she could wear it on a date. At a moment when workplace sexual harassment had not yet been defined, and when feminism was widely misunderstood and mocked, the simple wrap dress gave women the jolt of confidence they needed.

According to Diliberto, von Furstenberg has been bold and beholden to no one, taking lovers "whenever and wherever it suited her," wearing dresses that barely covered her breasts, having three abortions, and, at age 68, proudly showing off her wrinkles and eschewing cosmetic surgery. Diliberto reveals that von Furstenberg has also enabled other women's independence in material ways, such as allowing her company's senior vice president to bring her baby and nanny to work. Von Furstenberg has said emphatically that financial independence strengthens a woman's relationship with a man; she stays with him because she wants to, not because she is financially dependent. In today's economy this is straight-up common sense, but in the early 1970s this was a new feminist viewpoint at odds with the thinking of millions of Americans.

In 2015, it's not easy to project an eroticized image together with an identity of strong independence. Diane von Furstenberg figured out a panacea a long time ago to accomplish both rather than choosing one over the other. And there's no reason teenage girls and college-age women also can't make this look their own.

If a woman wants to eschew a sexy appearance altogether, or ramp it up beyond the limits of the wrap dress and cross the boundary between sexy and slutty, that's fine too. It's good to have choices and to be in control of them.