Sea Cliff was treated to a special exhibition presented by visual artist and photojournalist Sarah Hughes. Hosted by the Sea Cliff Arts Council, “Safe & Sexy” documents women from across the world, focusing especially on the themes of vulnerability, power, comfort and attraction.
Hughes, a Sea Cliff resident of six years, first began working on the project in 1999, while studying at the California College of Arts in San Francisco. Hughes noticed that she often packed several different outfits with her when she went out, and would change her clothes to match the event or job she was going to.
She then did a social experiment where she asked people “Do you have the time?” wearing a different variety of outfits, from business suit to more revealing clothing such as jogging apparel.
“That’s really how the project started, from my own personal experiences,” Hughes said. “From there I decided to play around with that concept a bit, and I started photographing my friends in two different outfits; safe and sexy.”
Hughes initially started with her friends in San Francisco, where she found a stark difference in everything from their clothing to their body language and posture. After receiving a grant from the American Scandinavian Foundation, she moved to Sweden for several years, where she continued the project.
One of the things that struck her most from her work in Sweden was the difference in social norms regarding women’s appearances. Contrasted with the American subjects, the Swedish women she photographed dressed very similarly in both photos, which Hughes said emphasized the differences in gender equality between the two countries.
From there, the project continued to expand, with Hughes photographing women of all ages, identities and backgrounds in as exotic locations as Brazil, South Africa, Swaziland and Turkey. Hughes found that what had begun as a social and artistic experiment developed into a discussion about politics, culture and society.
“I’ve always been interested in international relations and exploring various cultures,” Hughes explained. “I thought it would be interesting to look at the pretty significant shift in gender roles.”
The exhibit is up throughout March, and the walls of the Arts Council building are covered with contrasting photos of women in their safe and sexy outfits. In addition to the photos, Hughes also recorded dozens of conversations with the women, which accompany the photos and provide background and explanations of the different outfits the women chose to wear, and why.
The Arts Council approached Hughes to ask her to hold an exhibit in the village. Mark Sobel, the Arts Council’s producer at large, said they were excited to have the opportunity to host such a thought-provoking exhibit.
“The concept is really amazing,” Sobel said. “Particularly since it’s Women’s History Month, we wanted to do it this month more than anything.”