As I discussed in a previous post, I went to a talk about sexuality in fashion that turned out to be a little bit more focused on sexuality in general. However, I’d like to bring it back to fashion as I think it is an equally interesting issue. I thought about more than sexuality but about gender. Men and women, and our differences. More specifically, I’m thinking about the dominance of female fashion and the trivialisation of it. When did fashion become thought of as frivolous? Was it when women got involved?
Fashion, like most businesses, is a male dominated world. In fact, merely a few hundred years ago fashion was more important for men. They wore high heels and elaborate outfits (just think of old paintings of kings and the get ups that they wore), and red heels were associated with a position of power. I found a parallel between this and the infamous Christian Louboutin red bottoms, and the level of luxury which they connote. They convey status, exactly how the red heels used to back in the time of Louis XIV. Male fashion is making a return in a major way, especially because more and more famous men, especially musicians, are embracing a strong look and are willing to experiment more. However, when you think of people working in fashion, going to fashion school, you think women.
There was a historical shift at some point in time between men and women and who had to dress up. At some point, male fashion dropped out of the psyche and utilitarian clothes became the norm. But maybe it was always like that in the lower classes who typically weren’t painted in portraits? When we look at history we almost always hear about the upper class and royalty. In the past hundred years or so, female fashion has triumphed. Look at a photography book and the changing styles of womenswear is always exciting. From the straight waisted dresses of the flappers, playing down the female form and creating a boyish figure, to the wasp waists of Dior’s New Look and everything that has come since then, the major changes in female fashion always relate to the body. We either look super feminine, with emphasised curves, or young and waif-like with no hips or waists. Fashion doesn’t often have inbetweens, especially not groundbreaking, memorable looks. It is all about extremes, whether that is hem lengths or silhouettes. And who decides on these changes? More often than not it is men.
Dior’s New Look (1947)
Even though fashion is typically associated with females, the people in the positions of power are typically male. Dior got its first female designer in Maria Grazia Chiuri, before that it was all men. Chanel is headed by a man. Calvin Klein, a man. Almost all of the biggest fashion houses, especially the historical ones, are headed by men who design clothes that doesn’t even work for their bodies. They design clothes for women, to be worn by women, to make women look good. However, there is a very different treatment of the female body by homosexual men than heterosexual men, and the large majority of male fashion designers are homosexual. The straight male designers can be counted on one hand – Rick Owens, Christophe Lemaire, Christian Louboutin and a few others.
Mr Louboutin has stated that he doesn’t care if his shoes hurt to walk in, as long as they make the wearer look good. I think a female designer wouldn’t have the same attitude. Women designing for women often make a point of creating clothes that they know others could feel comfortable in, and look good. It is possible to do both but sometimes males don’t understand the female body in the same way. This may be a rather ridiculous example but I was watching an old series of Project Runway a few days ago and one of the designers didn’t know how to create a look for a woman with D cup breasts. Women would understand that.
Josephine Baker in a typical flapper look (1920s)
The homosexual male designer’s relationship with the female form is often different than a heterosexual male designer’s. They look at it with adoration rather than lust. They often idealise it too. That is not to say that they cannot partake in the objectification of women though. They can still create ultra sexualised looks. I personally think, as long as their is no ill intent, that this is ok. It is important that people remember that runway fashion is fantasy, not real life. I am aware of this but I know that others are not. Often people don’t understand that what they are seeing is an ideal to aspire to, not an order to replicate. Honestly, even the models don’t look like that on a daily basis.
The point that I wanted to explore was the seemingly frivolous nature of fashion. I don’t think it is fair that people have to constantly justify the validity of fashion as a career, as an industry. It is more than clothes when it comes down to it. It is a business that employs millions of people worldwide. It is a large portion of many counties economies – imports and exports are important. It is an industry that makes billions per year.
Jennifer Aniston in a slip dress (1990s)
Was fashion always thought of as frivolous it is this a new thing? Was it always just women playing dress up or was it previously thought of something else? All throughout WW2, British Vogue was published, never missing an issue, as a way to keep up morale in the country. That is significant. In a time of great struggle and pain, fashion helped to keep people going. Sometimes you need a distraction.
However, for people like me and many others, fashion is not just a distraction. In fact, it is my life. I don’t know any other world because it has always been my primary interest since I was a young child. I’d almost say I’ve been known as the one who “likes fashion”, but sometimes that is just reduced to “likes clothes”, and I don’t think it is fair to have to justify the industry as more than clothes and shopping, because when you think about it, the fashion industry has so many complex issues just like other industries that are perceived to hold more weight intellectually.
Another issue that I think is important, and related, is that if fashion is thought of as for women and gay men, what happens to all the straight men who are interested? I often wonder if there are any young straight men, who would like to be involved in fashion (either work in it or go to fashion school) but are too afraid to jump in for fear of being called gay or stupid? After all, people consistently make jokes about fashion schools being filled of girls and gay men. What about all the straight male designers that want to design for men? Or even that want to design for women? Virgil Abloh is straight. The Gvasalia brothers are straight.
Grace Jones in shoulder pads (1980s)
I think sexuality is perhaps the most complex of issues relating to the fashion industry and I have really just scratched the surface of this issue, mostly relating to the difference between the male and female treatment of the female body. It goes much deeper than that. I want to explore that further too. There are subcultures that shouldn’t be ignored yet I haven’t even touched on that today.
I also think that a major problem relating to the public perception of fashion and its frivolity is that women are the main focus. That’s what it boils down to. It is like people almost don’t want women to succeed and have an area to thrive in. It has to be diminished, to be lessened, when really it is as valid a business as banking, for example, and being a fashion buyer is just as important as being in procurement for a construction company. All roles are essential, all industries are essential, and all of the sectors are important, regardless of what people may think fashion is like.