Showing some skin has always been sexy, but past eras liked different parts. What is the most provocative force in fashion? Erogenous zones, of course. Technically, erogenous zones are specific areas of the body that give rise to sexual stimulus and desire. Biologically driven, this stimulus isn't subject to whims of fashion. Nor have the basic zones, penis and vulva, been accented by clothing in the Western world, save the 16th-century codpiece, more a sign of vitality than sexual symbol. Indeed, men's clothing has eschewed erogenous zones. But women's fashion dotes on them.
The areas in play are the secondary sex characteristics—breasts, hips, and derriere—and literally by extension, waist, shoulders, back, legs, ankles, and the midriff. When strategically surrounded by clothing, these areas function like traffic lights, stopping and starting points that direct the eye to a further destination—thus fulfilling what Freud regarded as a major component of the sex drive, "the libido for looking."
All erogenous zones rest on our tendency to fantasize. For years, says Harold Koda, associate director of the Costume Institute, women wore short, even thigh-high, skirts, and men adjusted their psyches to encountering untrammeled legs. Then ripped jeans arrived, and suddenly a mere sliver of skin was the object of rapt attention.
That's the nature of erogenous zoning. It's not about flagrant uncovering. It's about the strategic revelation of a portion of skin that then gets extrapolated by the mind. And it existed in women's fashion long before it had a name.
Through draping, Renaissance abdomens swelled as if in pregnancy—childbearing being a shared desire of 14th- and 15th-century women and men. Significant areas of female skin emerged in the 18th century, the dawn of modern social and sexual relations. By the Empire period, busts were suspended above the bodice, nipples exposed through veiling and fichus. The Victorian-era hourglass figure retreated from such transparent nudity; the compelling zones—hips and derriere—were trussed by elaborate bustles.
When, during the 1920s, the entire lower leg was finally exposed, erogenous zones acquired their name. J. C. Flugel, a Freud disciple, borrowed a concept—the progressive concealment of the body and civilization keep sexual curiosity awake—and a phrase, "erotogenic zones" and proposed that sexually charged areas of the body wax and wane as a means of maintaining interest. He called them "erogenous zones." Ever since, fashion historians have debated whether zoning changes reflect men's shifting interest in women's body parts or fashion's drive for novelty.
The midriff owes its moment of glory to the fitness movement. Aerodynamically correct sports bras allowed women to bare their midsections. The aim—freedom of movement—was strictly practical. But the look of taut abdominal muscles was quickly co-opted by the fashion industry. Crop tops soon followed, and hip-huggers, last seen in the 70s, returned with a vengeance, riding precariously lower than ever.
Whatever the next erogenous zone, its personal and cultural aftershocks will force us to reformulate our assessment of the body and what makes it beautiful. Asked to speculate on up-coming zones, Geoffrey Beene, whose midriff-baring silver panne gown is featured in the Met exhibit, suggests two: the back of the calf, and one so new it's yet to be named. "The haunch?" he proposes, faxing a sketch of a lean body with an asterisk atop the thigh.
To calf and thigh, Costume Institute director Richard Martin adds the upper arm. Yet fashion forecaster David Wolfe says he has a "weird feeling that after total exposure, we're going to start covering up again." He envisions the body enveloped, with erogenous zones becoming literal peepholes, revealing areas of skin never before singled out.
In an age in which virtually no region has been immune to display, it seems we have little left to bare.