When Jane Fonda and Robert Redford sleep together as newlyweds in the 1967 comedy Barefoot in the Park, she wears an oversize men’s pajama shirt the morning after. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt reconcile their marriage by having sex in the 2005 thriller Mr. and Mrs. Smith, she reaches for his button-down shirt—and nothing else. When any woman sleeps with any man in any movie, the likelihood that she wears his shirt in the next scene is so high, it’s almost expected.
It’s the post-sex shirt, otherwise known as the “sexy shirt switch” trope—an incredibly common cinematic trick to imply that sex had taken place. And it dates back to the 1950s.
A few factors helped contribute to the existence of the post-sex shirt. For one, it was a way for directors to avoid censorship. It was also during a time when post-war attitudes had shifted, sparking a sexual revolution that coincided with second-wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement. By wearing a men’s dress shirt, it symbolized independence, sexual freedom, and a desire for gender equality (the thinking was that men’s or masculine clothing is equivalent to be taken seriously in the workplace or in society). “(It gave) the impression of independence because she came (without) a nightdress or a nightgown and she doesn’t have her stuff there,” Moya Luckett, media historian and professor at New York University, once said on the topic.
It appealed to men, too, because it indulged this playboy fantasy a la James Bond, “seeing these infinitely disposable women passing through Bond’s life, cycling women through his apartment in a Playboy image of what he hopes female sexuality could be,” Luckett continued.
In the 1980s, shirt brand Van Heusen capitalized on the trope and launched a campaign to sell dress shirts with the tag line: “For a man to wear. And a woman to borrow.” In the commercial, a series of women go about performing mundane activities, like brushing hair, drinking coffee, or eating an apple—all in men’s shirts. “If you think I look good in this Van Heusen, you should see Jeffrey—after all it’s his shirt,” one woman says. “Peter said I could have anything I wanted, so I took his Van Heusen shirt right off his back,” another says. It’s an overtly sexual ad, and while, sure, there’s an act of subversion at play, these women are, nevertheless, seen under the male gaze. They’re objects of desire.
In the end, it shows a woman’s “receptivity to more masculine ideals of feminine pulchritude and sexuality,” Luckett explained.
And that ultimately brings us to the problems with the post-coital shirt. For something so prevalent onscreen in movies and TV (Gilmore Girls, Pretty Woman, Gossip Girl, Mystic Pizza, Sex and the City, Iron Man, The American President, Goldfinger—the list is endless), it’s not as common in real life. While one could argue that borrowing a man’s shirt is an act of intimacy, it’s hard to ignore the fact that not only does it play into a male ideals of femininity, but it also perpetuates a certain body type: petite and skinny.
And in light of today’s body-positivity movement and fourth-wave feminism, perhaps filmmakers will finally phase out the trope and leave deliberately outsized or menswear-inspired clothing (suiting, boyfriend jeans, utilitarianism, and so on) to the designers.END
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