The representation of gender within the fashion industry
The aim of this essay is to demonstrate how, through historic societal changes, gender has been represented within the fashion industry by the following three key factors; the representation of women, the representation of men, and how gender lines are being blurred and the concept of gender is becoming a thing of the past in the fashion industry today.
Firstly, the question of what is gender will be discussed and how gender and fashion intertwine in society. Gender and sex are two concepts that can be easily mistaken. Sex refers to anatomical differences such as sexual reproductive organs, whereas gender refers to cultural differences (Mcleod S, 2014). Gender is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “…Either of the two sexes (male or female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones…” (Oxford Dictionary, n.d). However, complications from this definition can arise in todays modern society as gender is viewed as a spectrum, rather than a strict male/female binary. Joanne Entwistle (The Fashioned Body, p140) describes how clothes are worn to draw attention to the sex of an individual so that another can tell about their gender upon first glance. The relationship between fashion and the gendered body now starts at birth, with children being dressed in pink if a female, and blue if a male. Pink is considered to be the more feminine of the colours and delicate, with blue being the more masculine and dominant (Mcleod S, 2014). This colour association based on the gender of a child may be seen as a juxtaposition of how the norm male and female characteristics are expected to be in society.
Fashion plays a fundamental role in society, and as Joanne Entwistle states, is a basic fact of social life (The Fashioned Body, p6). She goes on to describe how the body is dressed in some way by all people, whether this is through clothing, accessories, tattoos or piercings, all depending on the culture as no culture leaves the body undressed. In further evidence to this statement, it has been discovered that even people in isolated tribes have a way of dressing to show their culture and hierarchy within their community so despite not being out in society, how the body is dressed still has an important influence. Jennifer Craik (The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, 1994) explains how fundamental fashion is to the modern consumers’ identity and how making judgements about an individuals appearance is more damaging than a criticism of an individual’s personal belongings or house, thus proving a strong link between appearance and personal identity. Historically fashion has been used in society as a way to represent an individuals identity such as their economic status or class. However, until the 18th century, there has usually been an obvious difference in dress depending on the gendered body. Before this time the dress of the body wasn’t focused on gender, clothing was almost genderless with men and women both wearing costume-like clothing to show their social class with the more extravagant clothing showing higher wealth (Davis, 1992). However, the 19th century is when clothing became gendered, and dress became a symbol of sexual difference and not just social hierarchy (Steele, 1989). This was just the beginning of a long history of inequalities through the representation of gender within fashion when people began dressing for gender roles and a woman’s fashion became a symbol of weakness and men dressed for power.
In the past women have been poorly represented in the fashion industry, despite freely having the most choice in terms of dress. Historically, women have been considered ‘the other’ in society, having fewer rights than men in almost every aspect of life including pay gaps and representation in the workplace as high earners. Inequality between men and women in regards to representation in fashion dates back to the Shakespearian era, when Queen Elizabeth was in power between 1558-1603 (Stigler B, no date), theatre productions were on the rise as entertainment. Despite this, there were restrictions and what could be in production and anything to do with religion or politics was strictly prohibited, this also included women being allowed to perform in plays. To overcome this, Shakespeare used cross-dressing as a way of still introducing female characters in an all-male cast. It could be argued that Shakespeare did this to add dramatic irony to his plays, or on the other hand, Shakespeare has played on and exploited the inequality of women through the use of clothing, but none the fewer women were ‘the other’. The concept of the other comes from the sociological perspective of opposites in society, women are seen as the other not just in terms of gender but in the concept of being inferior to men. According to Dr Zuleyka Zevallos (2014) the other is “…set up against the hegemonic “universal human being” – that is, white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied cis-men.” and goes on to quote Simone De Beauvior’s book ‘The Second Sex’ (1949)
“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.” (Zevellos, 2014).
Although dating back to 1949, Simone De Beauvoir’s statement is still to this day an accurate portrayal of the exploitation and poor representation of women in the fashion industry. From a feminist perspective, women are seen as objects within the fashion industry, expecting to change their bodies to meet dangerous standards to fit into tiny clothes. Finnigan and Sawer (The Telegraph, 2011) explain how model representation sets unrealistic body standards for both women and other models in the industry, revealing how in 2006 the space of a few months 22-year-old model Luisel Ramos passed away from heart failure as a result from starving herself for a fashion show, then later on 21-year-old model Ana Carolina Reston passed away under similar circumstances by complications from anorexia. This infatuation with skeletal like models is just one way of demonstrating how the fashion industry values sales and profits above the wellbeing of the women who are modelling these clothes in the first place.
In addition to being ‘the other’ in the fashion industry and society, women are exploited by the concept of the male gaze. The gaze is a film theory that was introduced in the 1970s with reference of how visual representations are observed (Simmons, 2016), and although directed at film studies, the concept of the gaze correlates to the fashion industry through the use of promotional content. Feminist studies have adopted a concept from the original gaze theory called the male gaze, which was originally introduced by Laura Mulvey (1975), however, Simmons (2016) described it as “… woman is visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire. Her feelings, thoughts and own sexual drives are less important than her being “framed” by male desire.”. Mulvey’s (1975) approach introduced her adaptation of Freud’s Psychoanalytical theory of his idea of scopophilia and how this is prevalent in film, meaning that there is a heterosexual male sexual pleasure from the portrayal of women and their bodies and how this is projected in entertainment in a patriarchal society. The study of the male gaze strongly relates to how fashion media portrays women. Companies use the objectification of models as a marketing scheme, in menswear, it translates to ‘if you buy our products you will be more attractive to women’, and in womenswear, the over-sexualisation and objectification appears to say that if you buy our products men will find you more attractive.
Figure 1: Suit Supply Toy Boy Campaign Imagery (Source: Marieclaire.co.uk, 2016:online)
Figure 2: Suit Supply Toy Boy Campaign Imagery (Source: Marieclaire.co.uk, 2016:online)
Figure 1 and Figure 2 (marieclaire.co.uk, 2016:online) demonstrates just one example of the lack of respect towards the representation of women in fashion media. Dutch brand Suit Supply caused a huge backlash when they released their highly misogynistic SS16 ‘Toy Boys’ campaign featuring men in their clothing completely objectifying and degrading women. Their campaign images went along with the slogans insinuating that men are living in a womans world (Proudfoot, 2016). These abhorrent statements and campaigns are a disgrace to the work that feminists across the world have done and the danger they have put themselves in for basic human rights, for no other reason than having different sexual reproductive organs.
Despite the evidence against the male gaze and how this negatively represents women, a major limitation is that it could be considered biased especially with consideration to radical feminists views on men, that in the fashion industry men are also represented in this over-sexualised way yet there isn’t much emphasis on the female gaze. Although there are key differences between the representation of the genders because the main concept of the male gaze is the power difference in men and women. It can be argued that the female equivalent is an admiration for men which may be demeaning but not as demeaning or degrading as the males view on women. A key piece of evidence of the hypocrisy of the male gaze is the 1985 Levi’s laundrette commercial, featuring a stereotypical attractive male undressing to wash his Levi jeans with women watching him undress to just his underwear (501 Levi’s Laundrette Campaign, 1985). The main concern surrounding this campaign is what makes it acceptable for it to be the male who is being sexualised instead of women, which comes to the question – if this was a woman undressing, would it be frowned upon?
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