By Sabrina Ruia
“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” said Plato and if we were to apply this to fashion, we could say, that for a long time fashion has indeed been manipulated and informed by the male gaze. How has fashion evolved in a patriarchal world and does it practise its own particular form of feminism? More importantly, in a world where the construct of binary gender is being dismantled, who are we letting represent us?
For centuries, fashion has been a tool for us all in our quest for identity and freedom. Fashion has gone beyond its functional role of keeping us warm and preserving our modesty, to becoming a form of self-expression, especially in the Western world where women enjoy a greater degree of cultural independence. Yet, this freedom to dress as we want is itself weighed with centuries of social conditioning and involves a conscious thought process; how do we wish to express ourselves? How do we want others to see us? How do we want to feel? John Berger, in the BBC documentary ‘Ways of Seeing,’ claims that a woman’s “own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” This has been exacerbated by the celebration of the female form as an object of beauty and desire through the ages in art and cinema too, and suggests that by dressing in a certain style that pleases the male gaze or accentuates her own femininity, a woman is abdicating responsibility for dressing for her own pleasure. She is, as John Berger said, in effect “turning herself into an object — and more particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Social media sites and women’s’ magazines are inundated with articles such as, ‘Which Clothes do Men Really Find Attractive?’ Or ‘How do Men Really Want You to Dress?’
Yet, despite this alarming reliance on fulfilling cis male expectations, I would maintain that attitudes to fashion have evolved through the ages, morphing from sexualisation of the female form to more utilitarian or creative forms of clothing. From the runway to the streets, it appears that all those who identify as women, have become the principal surveyor of their own appearance. In high street shops we now see the growing popularity of ‘grandma’ cardigans, long skirts and flared trousers. Such clothes that certainly aren’t designed to appeal to the male gaze but instead allow women to experiment with style and role-play. Contemporary fashion icons like Leandra Medine have helped to create a shift in mind-set, encouraging women to dress for themselves rather than to impress others. Medine certainly remains loyal to her self-proclaimed title of ‘man repeller’ created to promote fashion which is not considered conventionally ‘attractive,’ or pleasing to the male eye. Her sartorial choices, which range from wearing dresses over flared trousers, vests over polo necks, and extremely baggy shirts (which could be mistaken as a bin bag) are not made to appeal to others.
This refreshing approach to fashion has also emerged on the runway. Fashion houses like Comme des Garcons, Rick Owens and Marni prioritise creative experimentation and innovation over ‘flattering’ clothing. Although progress in women’s style has been made and is to be lauded, how valid is this progress, when the fashion world is still dominated by cis men? Who are we really letting define femininity and identity?
Women occupy only a third of top jobs in fashion, with the majority, from Tom Ford to Nicolas Ghesquire to Marc Jacob, being gay men who have their own particular perceptions of the female figure. Even though male designers are capable of empowering women, such as Alexander Mcqueen who said “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” the fact that an industry created for women is not shaped by women is problematic to say the least.
Of the 92 womenswear-fashion week shows, female creative directors ran less than 30. Tom Ford defends this dominance by arguing that, “men are often better designers for women than other women. I think we are more objective. We don’t come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies.” He believes that designers who identify as women focus more on practicality, rather than fantasy as “sometimes women are trapped by their own views of themselves.” Michael Vollbracht, the current designer of Bill Blass, believes that gay men make better designers as they create an idealized fantasy of the woman. He said “women are confused about who they want to be. I believe that male designers have the fantasy level that women do not.” This fantasy can be seen in the fashion of Dolce Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli, whose clothes exaggerate the femininity of women with an over-reliance on flesh baring clothes.
Thankfully, all is not doom and gloom, whilst the fashion world still remains a Boys’ Club, there are female designers striving to empower women. The legendary Coco Chanel was the first to liberate women from the shackles of corsetry and coy dresses, allowing them to adapt to a world where they were economically independent and socially mobile. Even the mini-skirt was introduced as a symbol of freedom and sexual liberation by Mary Quant in the 1960s. More contemporarily, Phoebe Philo of Celine, Stella McCartney and, of course, Miuiccia Prada are powerful women creating their own perception of what it means to be a woman.
Perhaps the most impressive breakthrough of this year occurred at Dior’s recent spring/summer show at Paris Fashion week where Maria Grazia Chiuri, the new creative director, unleashed a feminist statement showcasing a t-shirt that read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk title, ‘We Should all be Feminists.’ However, slogan t-shirts are just a tiny step forward. There is still a long way to go for female representation in the fashion world. Young women especially need to define for themselves their own idea of fashion and beauty and not be moulded by male or societal expectations. Indeed, until this happens, fashion will remain a ‘man’s world.’
Another question still remains: who is representing the trans community in the fashion world? Indeed, the past few years have seen a rise in trans designers and trans models like Hari Nef and Andreja Pejić. Gogo Graham, a leading New York based trans designer believes that the “trans aesthetic can only be expressed authentically by trans people.” She showcased her collection during New York Fashion Week and told the Huffington post “the show was a moment of celebration of trans femininity and specifically the individuals that participated. All trans femmes are beautiful and have such important stories to tell.” She understands that designers, cis or trans, will always be incapable of completely representing the stories of all individuals as she says “I could not tell those stories for them, but I hoped to contribute to creating a stage that allowed the girls to be visible in a state of exaltation.” Gogo emphasizes the importance of trans designers in the fashion world. As a trans woman of colour, she has experienced discrimination and “can only hope that [her] own identity and skills can be used as tools to help relay the urgency of that message.” However, while there are trans women – both models and designer – garnering acclaim, there is a distinct lack of acclaimed trans men and people of a non-binary gender in the industry.
Ultimately, if we want to see diversity and progress in the fashion world, the change needs to come from the top. The only way the industry can become representational of the world is if it starts to accept and promote designers of all gender identities who have the power of giving a voice to the voiceless.