Are there any differences in meaning between 'provocative' and 'sexy' when they are used to describe clothes?

It seems to me that 'provocative' is almost always disapproving, while 'sexy' can even be approving.


3 Answers 3


The literal meaning "provocative" is just that the clothes try to "provoke" something. That doesn't have to be sexy feelings, it could be anger or any other strong emotion. A t-shirt with a political slogan might be provocative, for example.

However, when applied to clothes then "provocative" does often mean "intended to arouse sexual desire", and so it is synonymous with "sexy". Whether that is positive or negative depends on the context, and the intention of the speaker.

Using "provocative" can be a euphemism. That means that the speaker is avoiding using words like "sexy". That would often imply that the speaker thinks that "sexy is bad in this context" and means that "provocative clothing" would tend to be more negative than "sexy clothing".

So "provocative" is used to avoid saying "sexy" and is more likely to be used by people who disapprove of the clothes. But neither word is always positive or always negative.

  • 1
    Provocative as in violating dress code. Oct 7, 2019 at 7:39
  • Also, the same thing could be either or both, depending on the circumstance. If you were at a Boudoir night at a club, someone wearing a racy outfit to be sexy would not necessarily be provocative (because...context), while the same outfit worn to the office at 9AM monday would be quite provocative.
    – J...
    Oct 7, 2019 at 14:00
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    However, when applied to clothes then "provocative" does often mean "intended to arouse sexual desire", and so it is synonymous with "sexy". I disagree with your conclusion here. "Sexy" doesn't just mean "intended to arouse sexual desire". If something was intended to arouse desire, but was incompetently executed, it would be provocative but not sexy. And likewise, if something succeeded in arousing sexual desire, it would be sexy, even if it wasn't intended to do so. Oct 7, 2019 at 16:01
  • @AdmiralJota That's a bit pedantic, like saying that a car with a dead battery is no longer a vehicle, because it can't be used to travel. Also, "intent" depends on perspective -- do we mean the designer, the person who chose to wear it, etc.? I don't think these details are important in understanding the usual way these words are used.
    – Barmar
    Oct 7, 2019 at 18:47

One difference of connotation, which I don't believe others have touched on, is how they convey the speaker's subjectivity towards the matter.

  • If I say someone['s clothing] is provocative, it's a detached statement that I believe they're likely to arouse others.
  • If I say someone['s clothing] is sexy, it's possibly a statement that I find them arousing, or at least involving my own tastes.

The degree to which this applies depends on a lot of context involving sexual orientation and attraction, and sometimes the audience's incorrect assumptions about such.

Another way of saying this is that, if you talked about your own parent or child dressing provocatively, people wouldn't think much of it, but if you used the word sexy instead, it could be cringeworthy.

  • 5
    This is a really good observation. That includes your point about context, since an ESL learner should learn both the primary meanings of words and the ways that context can alter those meanings—a hard thing to teach. Another possible example to illustrate: My mother once described a female coworker as "wearing sexy outfits", but obviously the context there made it a detached observation, not an expression of personal taste.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 7, 2019 at 1:07

"Provocative" refers to the intent of the wearer, "sexy" to the clothes' effect. "Unintendendly provocative" is almost an oxymoron while "unintendly sexy" is more likely to happen. Also "provocative" can provoke by more than being sexy. Try wearing a long-sleeved pink shirt to a funeral, for example.

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