July 6, 2008

Kids these days don't dress slutty like they used to 5 years ago

I've already shown that young people's behavior has become steadily less slutty since about 1990, but many still complain that regardless of their actual behavior, girls these days sure do dress like sluts. Setting aside the fact that everyone always says that, no matter how wildly different the styles are, let's look at what the declinists see as the unholy trinity of contemporary slutwear: the thong, the low-rise jean, and the tattoo. Just as soon as these items became popular, they faded away or are in the process of going "out."

First, the thong. I did a simple Google search for "+thong +sales" to confirm my hunch that it is no longer popular -- I remember them being very popular in college (1999 - 2003), and I still recall that silly "Thong Song" booming from every car radio, but that seems like another lifetime. Sure enough, a pile of results show that the thong, while still present, has been vanishing since at least 2004. Here is the most recent account I could find, and it shows that the downward trend holds in Canada, the US, and the UK.

At the height of thong sales in Canada, NPD reports that the cheeky underwear represented slightly more than 16 per cent of the national underwear market. But by 2007, thongs had slipped to a 12-per-cent share, indicating a 4.3-per-cent fall.

In the U.S., NPD shows thongs have gone from representing 23 per cent of dollar sales of underwear in 2004 to 17.7 per cent in 2007. As in Canada, the decline is the steepest of any of the seven major styles of underwear observed in that period.

The U.K. has seen the biggest drop of all, with thongs having represented a third of all underwear sales in 2003 but just 12 per cent of sales in 2007, according to British retail analyst TNS.

Be very cautious about imputing a cause to the decline post-hoc, such as a change in women's underlying preferences. They were crazy about thongs before, and now that they're no longer trendy, they make up a story about having matured and seen the light. Women will conform to whatever bizarre crap that Elle and Vogue give them the green light to wear, and journalists will then divine in the zig-zagging some deeper purpose.

What's replaced the thong, by the way -- something even more indecent?

"Boy shorts" are to today's lingerie market what the thong was in the early part of the decade. . .

In Canada, NPD shows sales of boy shorts are up 15 per cent over 2004. In the U.S., the style is up a whopping 64 per cent over that same period.

Lest you think this is confined to those who are presumably already mature enough to desire modest clothing, take a look at uber-trendy American Apparel's underwear selection. They target primarily 18 to 29 year-olds (maybe just 18 to 25), and there's hardly a thong to be found, just boy shorts galore.

Now, to aid the next round of groaning about slutty styles, I will point out that, while boy shorts are the opposite of thongs in terms of covering the skin and obscuring a girl's butt cleavage, they often resemble the underwear of adolescents or children. So, isn't this supposedly modest underwear really a way of sneaking naughty schoolgirl items into the mainstream? Phew, turns out they're slutty after all. (The pointlessness of this way of thinking is why statisticians use Bonferroni corrections.)

Second, what about low-rise jeans -- they still seem to be very common. Perhaps, but they too are on the way out. Here is a 2006 report from Newsweek. Let's check in with teen favorites Wet Seal and Forever 21 to see if high-waisted pants have made any progress there. What do you know? There are quite a handful of high-waisted jeans and pants at Forever 21, as well as among the jeans and pants at Wet Seal. Their growing popularity is also evident in the shorts and pants offerings of American Apparel. As long as they can be made to look cute and trendy, girls will wear them.

But in the meantime, we'll still have to endure those low-rise waists and midriff-baring tops, right? Can you remember the last time this look was very common? What I've seen more of over the past few years is this look:

Some girls wear one really long shirt that goes halfway down their butt, and to keep it hip they layer another, shorter shirt over the protective one. By the way, the fact that girls are always tugging down their shirts and sweaters in the back is evidence that they are wearing these things to fit in, not because they prefer them deep down. And while we're talking about tops, what about the recent popularity of babydoll tops like the one pictured above, or of Empire waist tops and dresses? They don't cling at all to the body below the chest, and they flow pretty far down below the waist of a girl's pants or jeans. This trend contradicts the view of ever eroding standards of decency, so it has gone completely unnoticed.

(As an aside, high-heels are supposed to be sexy -- I don't think so, but that's what they say. Taking that for granted, though, girls are wearing less sexy footwear in recent years too, as the popularity of ballet flats has skyrocketed. Again, something that's gone unmentioned since it doesn't support the declinist view.)

And finally, the tattoo -- even if she wears high-waisted pants and a tunic over top, what about that tramp stamp lurking beneath the surface? Tattoos also show a sharp downward turn in popularity. I will write more on this topic at GNXP.com sometime soon, but for now, I note that according to the only existing national, representative study of body art demographics, tattoos held steady in prevalence among those born between 1953 to 1964, increased steadily up through the 1977 - 1980 cohort (of whom 42% are tattooed), but dropped off among the 1981 - 1986 cohort (of whom 33% are tattooed). Body piercings decline starting in the '77 - '80 cohort, although not as sharply as for tattoos.

To sum up, sometime around 1999 or 2000, the unholy trinity began to spread throughout the culture, reaching a peak around 2004, but has begun to fade away since then. I won't say that slutty clothing followed this course, since you can read something slutty into every year's trends: if waists rise, they may still fit tightly in the pelvis, or too tightly through the leg, or whatever else. If tops cover the midriff and then some, they may still show too much of the collar, or too much cleavage, too much shoulder, or they may fit too tightly, or none of these but have suggestive images on them, or again, whatever else.

Demonstrating the demise of the unholy trinity will likely not convince the declinists that girls have begun to dress more modestly; they will keep worrying. Sluttiness in clothing is a suitably equivocal charge that you can always point to some shred of evidence to get a guilty verdict from an eager-to-convict jury, while slutty behavior is pretty specific and can be easily disproven by data.


  1. Sales of low-rise jeans and pants may be declining because more and more young women are coming to the realization that these fashions just don't look right on them. There is the dreaded muffin top effect, which can result if the wearer is even slightly pudgy, not to mention the decidedly unsexy plumber's crack. If anything, it's surprising that it took so long for young women to catch on to the generally unflattering nature of the low-rise look.

    As for the allegedly declining popularity of tattoos, comparing different age cohorts as in that cited report may be misleading because people get tattoos at different ages. In other words, the relatively low percentage of tattooed people in the 1981-1986 cohort may be in part attributed to the fact that many simply haven't gotten around yet to getting tattoos. Keep in mind that there's a minimum age of 18 in almost all jurisdictions.

    As for the declining popularity of thongs, I haven't any idea.

  2. The '81 - '86 cohort was 20 - 25 when the study was done, so they had plenty of time to get tattooed. The complaint is that younger girls have them, remember, not 40-somethings.

  3. Sales of low-rise jeans and pants may be declining because more and more young women are coming to the realization that these fashions just don't look right on them.

    But remember that can't be true since they've been all the rage for at least 6 or 7 years -- doesn't take that long for a girl to realize she doesn't look good in them. It's purely a fashion trend that changes just to change.

  4. Here's another item that has gone out: the belly button ring.

    I was talking with a 17 year old and a 20 year old recently and they both deemed them "trashy". 10 years ago, they were cute and sexy.

    Agnostic might be on to something here.

    -Steve Johnson

  5. 91-96' or so was the 'sweet spot' for trashy-chic.

    I think by 98' or so things were cooling down out there a good deal.

    Kids now look pretty darn-near prepster to me (which is a good thing). Only hardcores seem covered in tats with piercings, grimy T-shirts, chains and underclass accoutrements for style. Another good thing.

  6. One thing I think you should analyze: cleavage. The thing that always strikes me is that a little cleavage is de rigueur today, but that it wasn't 10 years ago.

  7. Re: cleavage, that's what I mean when I say you have to correct for all the hypotheses you're testing.

    Female clothing has so many aspects that could be slutty, and the null hypothesis is that they're just oscillating according to fashion.

    If you look at every aspect of female clothing, you're likely to find *something* that's slutty just by chance, like shirts are cut to show more cleavage, but nothing else suggests sluttiness. Well, the cleavage result is a fluke: it's just the way the wind is blowing today in that part of clothing.

    Moreover, even if you found several aspects getting sluttier, that could also be a coincidence. It seems like waistlines, tattoos, and thongs go through fashion cycles at different rates -- e.g., thongs came and went within 5 years, while waistlines are taking longer to rise, and it took decades for tattoos to become popular.

    At some point the three will all show a sluttier trend purely by coincidence. Similarly, two faucets dripping independently at different rates will eventually drip in synch with each other, magnifying the sound of each drop.

    However, that's a passing phenomenon -- pretty soon, the faucets drip completely out-of-synch with each other.

    In physics, this is called "beats," and the same thing must happen in fashion cycles that proceed independently of each other at different rates. It seems like around 2003, there was a "beat" in sartorial sluttiness, which the majority of observers were fooled into thinking was something deeper than a fleeting coincidence.

  8. And make the "beat" analogy more explicit, after the trends are all slutty by chance, they go out of phase, but then after that, they all go in an anti-slutty direction -- again by chance.

    We're starting to see the "beat" on the non-slutty side, and when it really resonates in a year or so, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that there's some deep driver of anti-sluttiness in the culture, let alone something we have control over.

  9. The clothes aren't less slutty. They are now dual use for pregnant women versus non-pregnant women. It's pregnancy chic since 911 in styles. If you are shopping in target, the maternity wear can be indistinguishable from the other clothes.

  10. I was a teenager back in the 1980's, and while there was sluttiness aplenty going on, we dressed extremely modestly. High waisted jeans, big baggy sweaters, giant shoulder pads, turtlenecks, oversized menswear-looking jackets, combat-looking boots...it was really not a very sexy decade clothingwise.

    We did, however, wear WAY too much makeup. Tons of black eyeliner, three shades of eyeshadow, etc.. So although our clothes were very modest, our faces sure looked like what my mother used to call "a two-bit whore."

    A large portion of teen fashion is designed solely to annoy one's parents and to differentiate one from previous and presumably more fogey-like generations. So, the covered-up but overly-made-up and overly-hair-sprayed 80's girls gave way to the minimal makeup, flat haired girls in scanty clothing.

    I recall, as a 16-year-old back in 1984, seeing somewhat older women in tight 70's jeans, platform shoes and halter tops and thinking they looked so hopelessly tacky -- because they were ten years out of date. Our modest dress was not due to some sort of superior wholesomeness, but was born out of a need to differentiate ourselves from those fogies who were stuck in the '70s.

    I would say, however, that society in general has gotten more slutty in the past twenty-five years, which one could plausibly blame on my own generation as we are now the adults yet many of us persist in acting like hormone addled teens.

  11. I hate this trend. Bring back the skin.

  12. This page and comments must be full of sarcasm...


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."