by Alison Bancroft
There are a number of popular ideas about fashion: That it demeans and oppresses women, or that it is a capitalist plot to extract money – either that they do not have, or that they do have but do not appreciate – from the gullible and the credulous. Attached to both of these is the idea that fashion is vacuous fluff, something trivial that is only of interest to women and gay men and thus pointless by virtue of those who are interested in it. If it were serious, significant, relevant in any way, shape or form, then straight men would take an interest in it. The fact that, on the whole, they don’t take an interest in it, and the people that do are, on the whole, marginalized and discriminated against, is enough to move fashion to the back of the queue for cultural and political importance.
In this short essay I would like to propose another way of looking at fashion, one that will emphasize the ways in which it reframes notions of gender and sexuality. What makes fashion so remarkable is that it has zero regard for heteronormative ideas about men and women, masculine and feminine. In fact, it offers one of the only cultural spaces there is for variant models of sexed subjectivities. In fashion, the usual categories of man and woman do not apply.
Also, before this essay continues, it should be said that fashion here refers to creativity in dress and bodily ornamentation. It is a branch of the avant-garde that makes people say “but you can’t wear that” as if a garment’s unsuitability for everyday life is a problem when, actually, it is the whole point. Fashion is not about shopping, and if you think it is, you have missed a trick. Fashion is not going to change the world, of course. It is never going be truly revolutionary. It is seditious though, it subverts from within, offering challenges to the presumed naturalness of existing hierarchies within the terms that are available to it.
Sheila Jeffreys is the most vocal exponent of the standard criticism that fashion reflects and serves to maintain female subordination. In her book Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West she argues that the appearance of the drag queen Ru Paul in adverts for MAC cosmetics and on the runway for the designer Thierry Mugler is a testament to how much fashion hates women. By Jeffreys’ logic, using a drag queen as a model tells the world that fashion thinks women are irrelevant.[i]
Unfortunately for Jeffreys, anatomy is not destiny. It is not the case that fashion hates women so much it makes them redundant by using a man in their place. Instead, fashion ignores the very idea of men and women from the outset, and it puts men in the place of women, women in the place of men, and trans becomes the default, the norm, rather than an oddity or an abasement. This disregard for the usual categories of man and woman is evidence firstly that gender binaries are irrelevant in fashion, and more generally that gender identity is not located in the anatomical body anyway. For anyone familiar with the development of Queer Theory in the last twenty years, this second point is no surprise. Queer Theory, though, is a bit niche, and beyond the confines of the humanities and liberal arts departments of Western universities where it is researched and taught, no-one has really heard of it. For people outside of universities, the ideas of Queer Theory are communicated differently – and fashion is one of the ways in which queer ideas become culturally active. Indeed, it could be said that fashion was queer avant la lettre.
There have been a number of recent examples of models that could be called queer. Lea T is a transgender model who is a muse at Givenchy and has appeared in editorials for magazines including Vogue, Hercules Magazine, Interview Magazine, Cover Magazine and Love Magazine, where she was photographed kissing Kate Moss. Andrej Pejic is a model who identifies as a man, but who has appeared in a number of womenswear shows and photoshoots,and his clients include Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs. He has been so successful that in 2011 FHM magazine referred to him as “it” and then voted him as one of the top 100 sexiest women in the world – editorial decisions that testify to the bewilderment of the testosterone-fueled journalists at a UK lads magazine when faced with a man who is not macho. Recently, one of the most successful menswear models has been the former Olympic swimmer, Casey Legler. Signed to Ford Models in New York, she identifies as a woman but rejects the definition of that category as being contingent on the body, and has appeared as a model for Michael Bastian and AllSaints.
The advertising campaigns for the MAC cosmetics company are also remarkable in this regard. Where most other cosmetics advertisements feature stereotypically “beautiful” women, MAC’s most recent ad campaign features the female body builder Jelena Abbou, muscular and Amazonian, in a black PVC ball gown.Other campaigns have featured a drag queen (Ru Paul), Lady Gaga, Wonder Woman and Miss Piggy. Where make-up is, in our modern age, quintessentially feminine, MAC deliberately rejects popular or clichéd notions of obedient, heterosexual femininity. Instead they are disarmingly frank, showing, through the use of a-typical models, how their cosmetics are a part of a feminine masquerade that, according to Michèlle Montrelay, “man has always called […] evil.”[ii] MAC models do not pretend to be “natural” and they have no desire to pass as straight, desirable women. They offer another vision of femininity, one that has at its core the idea that the feminine has nothing to do with anatomy. The idea of femininity that we see in MAC models is one that is beyond the body but present in and on the body. It is a model of femininity that is profoundly destabilizing. In psychoanalytic terms, the threat of castration and the subsequent dissolution of the social order is writ large in MAC models.
In all of these examples, the sexed identity of the person is constituted at the level of the psyche, and not the biological body. Sigmund Freud believed that we are all a little bit bisexual, at least in terms of how we choose the object of our desire, and regardless of how much this desire may be repressed in adult life. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan shows us how our sense of ourselves as masculine or feminine is the outcome of unconscious processes that take place in the human mind, and has nothing to do with what and how our bodies are. All these models engender a particular identity in their professional lives, lives that embody and enact the contradictions of human existence. They offer a real, tangible rejection of gender binaries, as well as any fixed corporeal answer to the question of “who…..?”
This is not simply a question of androgyny, either. Androgyny is lazy journalist shorthand for the situation that arises when onlookers cannot tell whether the person they see is a man or a woman. It maintains the gender binary, but implies that sometimes it is a guessing game. These models, with their demolition of gender binary, are not androgynous. They are queer.
It is instructive that the only cultural form to embrace the queer idea of gender plurality is fashion, and it does this because fashion is the only cultural form that defaults to the feminine. All other cultural forms are by default masculine, with feminine as a subsection within that. The book The 100 Greatest Women Artists of the Twentieth Century does not have a companion volume for the greatest men artists, because the assumption is that all artists are men, and women are the minority. Likewise with literature – there is literature and there is women’s writing. And so on. The feminine is as much of a minority interest in culture as it is anywhere else in life. The only exception to this is fashion. This is why fashion is a radical creative space where heterosexual gender binaries are irrelevant and queer is the default setting, and it is also why fashion is routinely denigrated and dismissed.
Fashion doesn’t just break down socially and culturally determined ideas about sex and gender – it provides ample evidence that those ideas were a fiction to start with. In doing so, it undermines the social contract. However, because fashion is feminine, it is marginalized and excluded, and its suggestions can only be proposed in a specially dedicated space. Like Bakhtin’s carnival, fashion is the charmed enclosure where the usual rules can be subverted but only temporarily and never in a way that would encroach in real terms on the rules themselves. Fashion shows us the reality of the impossibility of gender, but the only way it can do this is within a space set aside especially for this purpose. Fashion is seditious and subversive, and inherently queer, but, sadly, it is unlikely to queer the world.
[i] Sheila Jeffreys, Beauty And Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices In The West. London and New York: Routledge. 2005
[ii] Michèle Montrelay, ‘Inquiry into Femininity’, m/f, 1:1 (1978) 91-116, p. 93.
About the Author:
Alison Bancroft is a British writer and cultural critic. She has a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of London, and writes for a number of publications, including SHOWstudio.com and Gaze: A Modern Review. Her interests include modern and contemporary visual culture (particularly fashion and photography,) psychoanalysis and feminism. Her first book, Fashion and Psychoanalysis, was published in 2012 and has been nominated for the Feminism and Womens Studies Book Prize.