Stop Bowing Down – Feminism in Fashion


Stop Bowing Down – Feminism in Fashion

Fashion: the one regime that women can rule, right? Iconic Coco Chanel, modern-royalty Diane von Furstenberg, and dozens of other female powerhouses leave their individual trademarks on the ever-changing industry. It’s refreshing to see a change in the gender-unequal norm; however, just as quickly as fashion rights some of society’s wrongs, the business has taken on some new spins in sexism, thus giving feminists a new angle to approach.

Top-paid male model Sean O’Pry: $1.5 million.

The first imbalance is the opposite of what we are accustomed to seeing: Fortune found earlier this year that top female models are being paid millions more than top male models (2014 top-paid female model Gisele Bundchen: $47 million; top-paid male model: Sean O’Pry: $1.5 million). The usual answer is that males are lower maintenance when it comes to preparation (shorter hair!), but the truth is that female models are typically more revered than their male counterparts. Because the fashion audience remains largely comprised of women, there remains an imbalance in pay. One generalization is that men are typically more prone to react “defensively” against accusations of interest in fashion. Straight males are “afraid” of the prospect of their sexualities being questioned, and therefore back away for fear of being stereotyped. While this carries greater implications in problems of LGBT acceptance, the most immediate effect of the issue is that it creates a never-ending cycle, leaving fashion little chance of expanding its mostly-female demographic.

Yet here’s the plot twist: among designers, men are still in the lead. Designers have openly stated that male homosexuals have a “more acute eye” for design than women, and consequently hire them over their female or straight male counterparts. According to Tom Ford, men don’t come with the “baggage of hating certain parts of their bodies.” It’s an imbalance that we really haven’t seen before. The same New York Times article that Ford was featured in noted that there are 121 women and 156 men on the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and 36 women’s and 69 men’s (majority of these 69 being gay) entries in the Encyclopedia of ‘Clothing and Fashion.’ On the one hand, is it so bad? Homosexuals are a severely underrepresented minority, and they finally have the upper hand here. However, the problem lies in the oversimplification that homosexual men would be inherently better at design than other groups, especially for having more confidence.

Designer Tom Ford, whose brand has been dubbed “highly sexually-charged.”

Here lies the perfect example to why feminism, just like past civil rights movements, is exactly that: a movement. There are so many different facets to gender equality—and really any type of equality—that there will always be some kind of controversy. I don’t think that there will ever be any grand answer, but I also think that that is the nature of progress.

Sometimes, when skeptics question the ethics of feminism (because let’s be honest, the name is a tad misleading), they look to gender-neutral options. Why not use unisex clothing as a metaphor for gender equality advocacy? It seems like an all-encompassing compromise, especially with today’s increasing acceptance of gender fluidity. The problem is that fashion uses this tactic with the “wrong” idea in mind: they create unisex styles not as a solution, but as a marketing strategy—something new to put forth for with-the-times consumers to drool over.

Just like in any business, the most immediate solution is fair pay and fair opportunity. I can’t say that I know the surefire method of achieving these ends, which is why I am also skeptical of acknowledging the urgency of the dominance of homosexual male designers in the industry (although I do uphold that the reasoning is unquantified). Just as with most problems of inequality in the workplace, the issue stems from a prejudiced mindset. Fashion remains a world seen as only accessible to women and gay men, and it’s time for society to allow the industry to expand its borders.

Nicki Minaj at the 2015 Video Music Awards.

We also need to go back to the basics of fashion. Fashion is self-expression. In the best case scenario, style is viewed as a form of liberation, a chance to put forth any image of ourselves that we would want to show to the public. As much as fashion is a so-called “woman’s world,” clothing choices are still very much dictated by men’s tastes. A friend of mine once argued that Nicki Minaj is not the feminist that she proclaims she is, on account of her revealing outfits. Why, he insisted, would she wear clothes that subordinate her to men if she believes so strongly in girl power?  His argument failed to consider that self-proclaimed Queen Nicki could be dressing that way because she is choosing the image that she wishes to produce. This is her self-expression, and if that happens to create a portrait of desire—not availability—then so be it. That becomes her upper hand, not the men’s. By the same token, women who choose to wear pants to their next cocktail party are not trying to “repel” men, or even to fit in with them.

The bottom line is empowerment: we (and by this, I don’t just mean women; I mean everyone) should be able to wear whatever helps us feel like the best versions of ourselves. By allowing us to dictate our representations, rather than letting our peers generalize for us, we hold the power to pursue any interest or industry. Let the straight men dabble in fashion, and let the women wear suits to their next business meetings. Let fashion be liberating.

 -Grace Lee

Images courtesy of: CoverMen MagFerrvor, and International Business Times.  

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