A story by Hebe Street
Most of the major, high-end fashion houses we know today were originally founded and brought to life by men. Over decades, fashion has twisted and turned with trends and popular culture, but all this time men have tended to be at the helm. In this way, it is easy to understand how fashion has become the maleable clay under the thumb of the male gaze.
The male gaze is a phrase coined by British film critic Laura Mulvey, and used to describe the theory that females are represented under a certain light in the visual arts. It ascertains that females are represented through the lens of the heterosexual, masculine viewer, and thus are often portrayed as sexualised, or at least simplified characters. In effect, the dominance of the male gaze in the visual art that circulates around our media obsessed society, perpetuates a negative and inferior view of women. Research suggests that it also invokes female self-criticism and self-objectification, as well as encouraging a sort of hyper-fixation on the female body and form. The male gaze can perhaps most overtly be seen as shaping the world of film. Think of James Bond or The Wolf of Wall Street…. it is less how the female characters are written in these narratives (although the male gaze does permeate into authorship), but more how they are portrayed through casting selections, camera angles, and costume design. The female figure is always accentuated, but the character of the female is always dimmed.
In understanding the male gaze, it leaves us questioning how this point of view shapes other aspects of our visual culture. And, arguably one of the most important art forms in our present society is the art we chose to wear. The corset, the mini skirt, and the high heel stand as proof of the infestation of the male gaze in fashion. But this invasive point of view hasn’t just taken a hold of the way men design and create, it has encaptured the way women themselves dress and thus influenced their creativity within apparel too. The sweet and sticky male gaze has become a successful life-long marketing campaign for figure hugging style. Historically, only men have had financial independence and thus the consumer field has been male dominated. Artistic representations created under the male gaze have had raging success with the heterosexual male audience. If it sells if goes, and thus the male gaze has been lapped up by the whole world of fashion, dragged behinds us on rope like a leaden weight into the present day. Fashion photography has become deeply riddled with female hypersexualisation, and now the photos seem to sell a body or an eroticism, not the garments themselves. Sex has been fuelling fashion industry sales for far too long.
Despite the fact that the influence the of male gaze has been soaked up by both genders, the gender inequality in the fashion industry is undeniably a contributing factor to its continuation. Despite accounting for 70% of the total work force in the fashion industry, staggeringly only 25% of leadership, decision making positions, are held by women. The glass ceiling has morphed into the glass runway. But, with more women assuming Creative Director roles in our top fashion houses, perhaps we are at the crux of change. Let’s take a look at the development of Calvin Klein as they move away from the perviness of the 1993 obsession shoot and Mario Sorrenti. Jessica Lomax has been appointed as leas global designer at Calvin Klein, and we have seen an interesting take on casting in the 2021 ads. The underwear brand still boasts an unavoidable sexiness, but they are showcasing more diverse and fully-grown body types (not 14 year old girls!) through Meghan the Stallion and Koffee. Their casting also showcases female success stories, through utilising admirable characters from the music industry. The recent collaboration with Heron Preston this Spring has also revealed a whole different dimension to the brand, and perhaps ignited them in a new direction. The collection features multi-seasonal and genderless pieces, and a reinvention of basics. His short-film campaign still has ties to the historical sentiment offered by Calvin Klein, by focusing on the beauty and sensuality of youth, but ditches the voyeuristic tendencies of the brand’s earlier photography. Featuring rappers Nas and Lil Uzi Vert, as well as plus size super model Ashley Graham and Kaia Gerber, the film hosted a variety of talent. Interestingly, the campaign photographer Renell Medrano also showcased some of the collcetion’s underwear, perpetuating the relaxed feeling of the campaign, it’s frivolous nature and the idea of mismatched youthfulness. Most importantly the collection screams of identity inclusivity, moving far from any of Calvin’s earlier campaigns.
It is hopeful and promising that larger fashion house are beginning to move away from styling for the male gaze. And, it is likely we will see these changes trickle down into the high street fashion brands, and less gendered styling will become available to consumers like us. However, maybe the success of this somewhat feminist upheaval relies partly on the attitudinal changes from the masses, and their drive to dress for the female gaze. Dressing for the female gaze is not synonymous with enforced modesty or dressing in a conservative manner so as to avoid the attention of men, it is far from this. Dressing for the female gaze is all about refusing the notion that female fashion should be modelled on the perception and appraisal of ANY voyeur (not just the male heterosexual one), rather than the wearer themselves. It is about taking ownership of your own preferences, styles and comforts and asserting these, rather than fixating on how your look will be received for other people, a feeling and thought process I definitely know too well. To be blunt, dressing for the female gaze is about stamping on the idea that clothes should either show or not show your bum, tits, legs, or waist in a certain way. It is about retracting all sexualisation or desexualisation away from fashion, and regaining a sense of personal autonomy over what we wear. In a world where we are bombarded with visual culture everyday, the process is unavoidably slow and piecemeal; debunking and re-evaluating your own views and philosophies is a tiresome challenge. But it’s exciting surely, the notion of reaching a complete state of stylistic self-governance. So, let’s go….
Congratulations, from now on you have been appointed as your own Creative Director.