Dress, Adornment and Sexual Identity

Bizarre Magazine Cover

Bizarre Magazine Cover

Bodies can be adorned not only by dress and clothing, but cosmetics, jewellery, tattoos, scars and perfume, all of which can become the focus of erotic attention. Tattooing, scarification and piercing are some of the oldest forms of body adornment and were originally closely tied to religious rituals in many different cultures. In today’s society, however tattoos and piercings have become the new fake boobs, enjoying a vogue within fashion and have lost all their associations to sacred rituals. Almost everyone today has a body piercing and/or tattoos. In a way these adornments have become somewhat of a “norm” gaining much mainstream acceptance and exposure within visual media in recent years. The successes of alternative magazines such as Front or Bizarre or the glorious Suicide Girls speak volumes, proving that tattoos and piercings are very much on trend and thirsted for by society. I myself had my nipples pierced after seeing a fashion advertisement in Vogue magazine featuring supermodel Lara Stone, showing off her delightfully diagonally pierced nipples. That’s right Vogue featured pierced nipples.

However, despite the booming acceptance, popularity and celebration of tattoos and piercings; throughout history and to a certain extent even today still is, isolated to gay, sadomasochistic and fetish subcultures. Genital piercing in particular remains a more marginal practice, although, here again, there is now more discussion of it in mainstream media. The reason body piercings are often perceived as something erotic or taboo in spite of huge media exposure is due to the element of pain which comes to adorning the body with such modifications. In fact, for many advocates part of the appeal of getting a tattoo or piercing lies in the pain they endure, the rush, the adrenaline kick, which to sadomasochists is experienced as sexually pleasurable. But the pleasure doesn’t end once the flesh has been pierced. Once piercings have healed advocates claim they can exaggerate sexual pleasure, intensifying sexual arousal and orgasm, as well as facilitating a range of sadomasochistic bondage games.

Some of the trans* individuals I will be photographing have tattoos and piercings, these minute details I feel will definitely add something to the images, what that is I will leave to interpretation. These individuals do not only blur gender lines but sexual ones too. This will make my images all the more ambiguous. Could a pierced lip reveal the individuals sexual orientation? Is it a feminine or masculine piercing or tattoo? And so on. It will force the audience to question the identity before them and highlight the common connotations the public associate with certain piercings, tattoos and other practices. Is a boy with a belly button piercing gay or straight, cisgender or trans*? You decide.

Butch and Femme Lesbian Couples

Butch and Femme Lesbian Couples

Dress can also play an important role in articulating marginal sexualities and desires and this is why dress and adornment have been crucial to gay and lesbian communities. How else can you readily articulate sexual identity that would otherwise be invisible? One example would be the commonly recognized styles of “butch” and “femme” within the lesbian community. Rolley (1992) in her examination of clothing within lesbian relationships stated: “how else was a woman recognisable as a lesbian except through her body, her clothes and the dialogue between the two?” (1992:38). According to Joanne Entwistle in “The Fashioned Body” gay men have also long used clothing and other forms of bodily adornments to signal to other gay men. The iconography of gay masculinity is littered with sexual codes; images by Shamel Jabazz’s “The Last Sunday in June” may pop to mind. The Village People are a strong icon of homosexuality, thus the general pre-conception is that anyone that dresses “camp” or certain costumes and materials like leather and hot pants is the sign of a gay man.

In fact, there is a prevailing stereotype of the “fashion fag” that exists within popular culture. My idea is to perhaps mock gay stereotypes bringing to light how ridiculous these stereotypes really are as Versace has been exploiting through her latest 2014 designs. However, this is just a fleeting thought. The fashion industry is overflowing with camp queens with pursed lips and expensive purses who would bitch and backstab their way into the best shows, expensive parties and exclusive guest lists. Nick Denton at Gawker.com summaries this point perfectly when discussing the reason gay men attend Fashion Week-because it “enables creative homosexuals to gush, bitch, hook up and then bitch again”. The gay man, the popular Fashion Fag, is seen to love Prada, promiscuity and petty gossip. However, of course this is no more than a deluded and narrow minded stereotype, which many artists have mocked and challenged something I too want to do only more in relation to gender.

One example is of artist Audrey Bogush who creates socially defying and dream like images. He stated:

“My artistic development is a constant search for new ways of media use… I like Flusser’s idea that a photographer plays with his apparatus and that his game does not create a new reality but finds new uses of this apparatus (or, to be more precise, its programmed capabilities). However, this game is precisely my addiction and makes me use (probably, consume) photography more and more. The thing to do is to analyze this game, and consequently to study the medium.”

Audrey Bogush

Audrey Bogush

Bogush’s images move away from stereotypical images of individuals. They are rather quiet: almost silent with a higher integrity and perplexity. He takes the recognised gay symbol, the rainbow, and has it appear over male faces as a hazed, dreamlike state. I find them completely harrowing. A simple but powerful technique overlaying a stereotypical image but in a gentle way. We are presented with an individual whose homosexuality is a part of them, but a quiet part, as reflected through Bogush desaturation of the rainbow and having it appear faint.

Another artist that is changing representations of alternative individuals is Con Leche, a 20-year-old photographer from California. She captures beautifully those “erotic” and “taboo” adornments which have engulfed many of us within modern society. Her photographs feature girls with tattoos, scars and piercings with a dream-like aesthetic and highly sexual gaze. Such representations add fuel to the common perception of such bodily adornments being strongly linked to sexual identity and pleasure. They also reflect society’s idea of femininity and the female sexed body being submissive and highly erotic. Such things could be dangerous and fuelling an already male-dominated society. However, I find these images rather empowering and representing individuals within society that still are considered to break the “norm”.


Their haziness and subtle sexuality elevate the subjects captured to mystical creatures, something I too want to achieve within my own photograph of trans* individuals. Leche’s photography proves that by following the “normal” portrayals of females you can bring to light questions in regards to representation, empowerment, and sexuality but what’s more femininity. Are these individuals objectified? Are they exactly the kind of images society expects to see of women? Are they empowering? Is scarification erotic? And that’s my point, the mind ponders, an effect I too want to have on my audience.

Overall, this research has proved that certain bodily adornments such as scarification, tattoos or piercings can give off certain sexual or gendered signs. Such minute details may be looked over within my own images but I want my audience to investigate them. As I said previously, will a piercing mark signal whether the person captured in gay, masculine or feminine? It’s hugely exciting. I want to pay attention to small details and scars, tattoos and piercings will definitely be sources of investigation for my audience.


Entwistle, J (2000) The Fashioned Body. USA Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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