The Heinie Chronicles

What a Raunchy Designer Can Learn From the Sex Museum

Hey, Tom! Tom Ford! You're the creative genius behind that Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche show a few weeks ago in Paris, right? I mean, boy, that was really supposed to be sexy, right? Even in a season that Women's Wear Daily, not given to hyperbole, referred to as one of the most superheated in years, you went the furthest. Those dresses with the salacious slits and puckers front and center that Cathy Horyn of the Times called a "surrealist rendition of The Vagina Monologues!" Those instantly infamous penis pendants you slung around the models' necks! Those skirts imprinted with the outline of a woman's behind! The purple paint on the nipples! The corset-jackets with buttons on the tips of the titties! You sure had the fashion world talking. But Tommy, baby—what are you going to do next season, when those phallic necklaces lie moldering in T. Anthony jewelry boxes, when those naughty skirts look about as fresh as a Louis Vuitton Sprouse bag?

Well, if you're thirsty for inspiration, you could stop by the fabulous new Museum of Sex at 27th and Fifth, in the former headquarters of a place called the Perfume Palace, not in itself a bad name for a sex museum. If the gallery's current exhibit, "How New York City Transformed Sex in America," proves anything, it's that looking sexy isn't just a matter of shoving pussy dresses in everyone's face. At the museum lots of unlikely stuff, from Victorian dressing gowns to gay liberation lambda T-shirts, manages to look pretty alluring.

Next season, Tom, maybe you should think about dressing your models like Helen Jewett, that famous early-19th-century prostitute who was murdered by her upper-class admirer. (He got off.) Though there are no photographs of Ms. Jewett for obvious reasons, the museum does have a full-color etching, "from an original painting taken from life," that shows the high-class call girl swaddled in a gigantic, sidewalk-sweeping green coat buttoned high up on her neck and a pink poke bonnet. If there's a whiff of reckless abandon, perhaps it's the sight of her tiny foot, clad in a delicate blue slipper and just peeking out from under her capacious green hem.

What's that, Mr. Ford? Ms. Jewett doesn't float your boat? Well, the museum has plenty of other muses. There's that famous ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, stripped-down to an outfit consisting of three small things: two white mink pelts—one wrapped around her neck, the other in her lap—and a bejeweled necklace (it doesn't have a penis). Or maybe you'd prefer to do up your models like Little Egypt, the turn-of-the-century belly dancer, who struts in a variety of beaded tummy-baring ensembles, or the Ziegfeld Follies girls, resplendent in minuscule, glittery two-pieces and long, furry tails.

OK, Tom, so you aren't crazy about the group shot of the circa-1940 lesbian football team, bedecked in pleated tweed skirts, sensible shoes, and sweaters that spell out HOWDY, an homage to the Howdy Bar on 3rd Street in the Village, where the team hung out. And sure, we can understand that you might not be turned on by the properly dressed Christine Jorgensen, the famous sex-change recipient ("Ex-GI becomes blonde beauty; operation transforms Bronx youth," reads the 1952 Daily News headline displayed nearby). In newsreel footage, Jorgensen is wearing a matronly fur coat, a matching beret, and a little plaid scarf. It may look to us as if she's dressed like Mamie Eisenhower, but we've no doubt she was feeling pretty sexy on the inside.

If we know you, you'll spend most of your time staring at the s/m cases, and who can blame you? Who wouldn't be tempted by Bettie Page's satin bra and tap pants, the outfit she's wearing in the blue-movie footage that shows her administering a lively spanking to a similarly clad enthusiast? Not interested in that tame purple corset on loan from the Kinsey Institute? Just wait—Kinsey lent something else, and it's just up your tree: a custom-built black leather arm restraint from the mid '60s that laces tightly and looks a lot like a boot with no foot. It may be one of the kinkiest items in the exhibit, but at least the fetishist who commissioned it didn't expect a willing victim to wear the thing nonstop—unlike you and your designer friends, who think nothing of telling women they should clomp around in excruciating spike heels all day long.

But perhaps the Museum of Sex, rich as it is in fashion history, leaves you wanting more. If that's the case, Mr. Ford, stroll over—after all, you're not wearing heels—to F.I.T.'s gallery, where "Femme Fatale," an exhibit of clothes worn by demimondaines in fin de siècle Paris, has just opened. "Behind the image of the femme fatale lurked the spectre of the Future Eve, combining attributes of the 'New Woman,' the prostitute, and the Woman of Fashion," reads the text on the wall next to a couple of Worth gowns. New woman? These gowns sport enough puckers, ruffles, flutes, and pleats to sink the Lusitania. Only their low necks and narrow waists make them at all seductive to our eyes, but back in the day, they were considered as hot as the hottest hot pants. There's underwear in the show, too, including a blue corset just like the one depicted in Manet's painting Nana that provoked such outrage when it was exhibited, since only high-priced courtesans wore blue corsets in 1877. But, as these things happen, naughty can morph into nice when no one's looking: By 1900, everyone and her mother was wearing a colored corset.

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