”In academia, fashion is frivolous, sexist, bourgeois, materialist and beneath contempt,” Valerie Steele said. But one day in 1978, she was taking a seminar on European history when a classmate gave a presentation on the Victorian corset, questioning whether or not it was oppressive. The proverbial light bulb went on. ”I could have this new field in cultural history, in material culture, and study gender, sex and social psychology in fashion,” Ms. Steele said. That seminar led to her doctoral dissertation, which turned into her first book, ”Fashion and Eroticism,” published by Oxford University Press in 1985.