Safe or sexy?

What would you choose to wear if someone asked you to dip into your closet and be photographed in two outfits, one sexy and one safe?

How would you feel in each outfit?

Photojournalist Sarah Hughes travelled across Canada, and asked women to choose, and comment on their two images. Her photo essay, "Safe and Sexy" was published in 2006 in The Walrus, and is available

The results evoke "before and after" magazine features and archives Hughes studied when she worked at The Smithsonian. Women of varying ages and backgrounds explore their self-images and willingness to conform or challenge the way the world looks at them.

The issue of womens' dressing to attract, or dressing to deflect the gaze of others pertains to issues of violence, sexism and ageism. When we select an item of clothing, we make a second decision about who we are and what we show the world.

Thank you, Sarah Huges, for your thoughtful and provocative work.


I think I would prefer, if I was taking these pictures, to have one outfit in which the women felt strong and the other photo of an outfit she feels sexy in. Sure, we need to be safe and be aware that there are unsafe things out there. But, if women feel strong they are less likely to be a victim. Strong feels more agential and less victimy, in my mind. I would be curious if you asked the women who were in the experiment to create an outfit of strength and on of safety---I am curious how they would be different.It is my sense that safety might be about disappearing. And, women, throughout history have had to disappear to be safe. Think of the extremes of safety as demonstrated by Moslem values.
materfamilias said…
I agree with LBR, and was glad to see she'd said it first. I saw some of this series in Walrus when it first appeared and appreciated it for posing an interesting style question. However, I don't see why we need to perpetuate that sort of binary -- feeling sexy isn't the opposite of safe, for me at least. The notion of safeness seems so often to be used to remind us of threat, even in everyday operations such as "It is now Safe to disconnect your . . ."
And for women, as LBR reminds us, safety has been used as a whip to keep women in place.
At least,Ms. Hughes gets us thinking about this issues -- I just wish she'd broaden the options.
Anjela said…
Very thought provoking-I had to stop and think as I have never dressed with any idea of a piece of clothing being sexy or safe. With respect to all women who have to think about this.Must be awful to have constraints against who one is or have family or society say it is dangerous-To have certain people who will see it as an invitation -as having open house-

I choose things for the touch of the fabric against my skin- am I sensual to my body and what my body feels and needs- sometimes I like light clothes- other times something heavier- asexual perhaps- a strong look as LBR said but strong to me- a sort of epoxy of my outer shell- when I need holding together-lol
I did have a very rude man approach me at home in Dingle, Ireland- a total stranger who was angry that I, an Irish woman was setting back society and women hundreds of years by chooosing my Hunter boots(I had just come from a 'dig')I suppose instead of some strappy little high heels that said what? we had evolved-Did I need to prove that? maybe in my soul I haven't evolved-I am me clinging onto the DNA of my foremothers and fathers- I feel it is all about comfort and sometimes by accident a silk Ghost UK shirt and a pencil thin grey skirt that hits just below my knee and plain leather high heels can allow me to feel sensual but, for me- If someone passing by loves the art I project I am happy for them.
Duchesse said…
The photogrpaher's direction was "safe and comfortable". "strong" is a different attribute. There are times I've felt strong, but not safe, and vice-versa. When I feel safe, I do not feel "victimy".

I think she was contrasting attracting the interested (or potentially interested) gaze and deflecting it: what we choose when we make that conscious decision.

And I agree it isn't binary. Sometimes we want some attention to our sexual attributes, but not too much, or attention from some persons but not others.
WendyB said…
Interesting -- I was thinking of "safe" as a "safe fashion choice" ie sure thing, rather than something to deflect victimization!
greying pixie said…
And yet, la belette, I remember how sexy the Muslim women in India looked - painted red lips and heavy black kohl eyes behind black fine chiffon veils. Where there's a will, there's a way.

I think this is a highly complex issue with all sorts of factors to consider such as age, culture, sexuality as well as psychological factors. The research needs more depth and rigour if it is to come to any meaningful conclusion.
Duchesse said…
As I read your responses, I think of a street vendor I passed by one day, saying plaintively to a friend, "They dress so we look, then they get mad when we do."
Anjela said…
I had never known there was a Safe look or a Sexy look. Hmmmm interesting!

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