Sex itself has little to do with clothing in a direct sense. Sure, sexy lingerie and fetish wear would disappear in a world without it, but you likely aren’t including these in your non-erotica world-building anyway. However, sexuality and sexual attraction have a significant and undeniable impact on how we dress ourselves, because they affect the way we view the human body. And more specifically, how we view the female body.
Women’s clothing has often been designed to do two things: accentuate the female form or cover and obscure it. On one end of this spectrum, there are nun habits, burqas and burqinis, conservative Mormon prairie dresses, and most western-based fashions of earlier centuries. On the other end, you have bikinis, ultra minis, stilettos, Kim Kardashian magazine covers, and the infuriating practices of U.K. tabloids.
Even in the world of red carpet fashion, men need only choose formal wear with bold patterns and colors to make a statement while women who wish to be newsworthy must wear gowns that flirt with nudity (or emulate a swan.) Feminists still land on both sides of whether baring increasing amounts of skin sets us back or sets us free. Yes, female fashion has always been a tug of war between too much skin and not enough, and both sides were often historically cultivated at the cost of the comfort, health, and even safety of women.
That’s not to say that men’s clothing has always been comfortable. Three-piece suits, priests’ robes, and the dishdasha—all worn to satisfy professional and religious expectations—are not the picture of comfort and ease. However, the difference is that those expectations are levied and reinforced by men themselves on a societal level. Women have not possessed that same agency because the laws, mores—and often, the trends—that dictate what we wear are also designed and reinforced by men.
Consider the illegality of women baring their chests in public—even for something as utilitarian as breastfeeding—while men in western societies may run around with nipples out. A visit to most beaches outside the French Riviera will confirm this. This is because the female breast has been sexualized by cishet male-dominated governing bodies that make the rules while the male chest has (officially) not. Even baring a sports bra in the “wrong” venue can be frowned upon or fined.
Would such disparity exist if sexuality didn’t factor into the way we dress? I think not. Or at least if it did, it wouldn’t stem from a strictly male gaze. I hesitate to say “no” definitively because even if we remove sexuality from the wardrobe, other influencers would take its place. Culture, religion, nature, hygiene, safety, and good ol’ comfort would all affect clothing styles, and some of those—namely culture and religion—would also change in a world without sex.
Consider again the issue of female breasts. In a world without sex—but one in which mothers nurse their children—the breast might be praised as a symbol of nurturing or viewed as purely functional, and in either case, women wouldn’t be shamed for baring them. It could also swing the other way. Procreation in a world absent of the sexual gratification that now precedes it would be an intentional act. It might then be idolized and even fetishized as a sacred ritual of human propagation. In that case, the female breast might also be viewed as sacred; vital to the newborn and thus kept hidden.
Perhaps humanity would undress a bit more in a sex-free world. If the sexual significance of bare skin, breasts, and genitals no longer existed, the human form might be appreciated as a natural work of art or a solid piece of engineering. Without sexual shame, what’s to hide? On the other hand, without sexual attraction, people might prefer to cover up based on the dictates of religious modesty or an increased deference to the way the sun ages our skin. And again, don’t forget the importance of hygiene: the feasibility of public seating demands solid underwear.
I believe the most significant impact on clothing of a sexually-neutered world would be the degree of disparity to which men and women cover up. The current gap would likely disappear, with societal rules on baring skin being equally applied and enforced. If an outfit that reveals a woman’s bare back is considered titillating and pleasing, it will also be so for men. On a related note, this could also change hygienic habits in regard to body hair. A world without sex might see the porn industry replaced with a thriving depilatory one with hirsute men being its largest consumer base.
The dynamic of baring skin also leads to questions of how such a world might affect traditionally-gendered clothing styles. Modern history has codified that, in western societies, dresses are feminine and pants are masculine. The women’s rights movement, the sexual revolution, and gender fluidity have ushered in major changes in the last century. In most venues, women are now just as likely to wear pants as skirts and dresses, though a woman wearing trousers on the red carpet is still an unusual—and assumed political—move.
And yet, the idea of cishet men routinely wearing dresses—outside of kilt or costume—is inconceivable. But go back to ancient history (or to more specific environments in modern history) and you’ll find skirts and tunics were standard wear for men. In a world without sex, sexuality, and sexual attraction, these practices may not have been quashed except in instances where practicality demands trousers. And in that event, the practicality would likely have extended to women, as well.
There are limitless possibilities for dressing characters in fictional worlds free of patriarchal influence. Simply remove the sexualized view of women’s bodies and you can dress all genders equally in clothing designed for comfort, fashion, or other societal considerations you create for your world. Hell, you can even dress your men in swan dresses, if you so wish. I’d buy that book.