Why Are Designers Still Telling Women To Dress 'Sexy?'
"Sexiness" on the runways doesn't reflect the way the world is evolving, and the industry needs to reconsider how it's conceiving and selling perceptions of women back to them.
“You get authority from the stuff you put on the runway,” wrote Cathy Horyn in her joint review of the Maison Margiela and Saint Laurent collections at the recently-concluded Paris Fashion Week. Designers are not just arbiters of skirt lengths and bell sleeves; the most prominent ones can, through their clothing, encapsulate and influence female selfhood. Fashion can be approached as a delightful diversion, but it does not exist separately from the realities of what is going on in the world — and a lot going on in the world right now is unimaginably grim.
Over the course of this past Fashion Month, the runways unveiling the spring/summer 2019 collections featured some stereotypically "sexy" clothes — mini shorts, teetering heels, skin-baring pieces. Given the continuing conversations around misogyny, consent, and gender equality, contemporary identity is shifting — and so is the attire that goes with it. Diet Prada wrote, with not a little contempt, in an Instagram post: “Maybe there was something in the @thombrowneny show notes we didn't see, but we're finding it hard to grasp the need to show women literally bound and gagged on the runway at this particular moment in time. In an era where women’s accusations are consistently doubted and dissected at every step, this showing reads as tone deaf. If this was somehow a response to end the silencing of women, it missed the mark.” (Some of the hashtags to match: #metoo #registertovote #callyoursenator #mask #horror).
At Hedi Slimane’s Celine debut, Vanessa Friedman mourned — like many — the loss of Phoebe Philo: “She gave Celine an identity that for women meant a great deal, because it was clearly for them, not an image of them,” she discerned. It was, ultimately, “something that spoke more generously to those with multi-dimensional lives” (as opposed to, as she compared with a slight jab, the “pouty, infantilizing” looks by Slimane.) Slimane’s collection for the label instigated not just an aesthetic shove but a psychological one: sophisticated women were bulldozed for a more juvenile look. It was yet another instance of trivializing women when we want to be considered with more subtlety. “Slimane doesn’t seem particularly interested in addressing the mundane issues in a woman’s life,” Robin Givhan wrote. “His designs are about his vision.” “His vision” — ah, the bull-headed men thinking they’re the gatekeepers of what’s best for everyone, especially female bodies. It’s front row ostrich ignorance.
Viewing women’s sexuality through a masculine perspective is a problem. It’s time to parse with greater severity what is empowering to women versus pleasing to men. Not in order to police fashion, but rather to reach into the underbelly and ask: What do you want? The accent should go to the third word: What do you want? A woman wants to be desirable to a certain extent, but what does she want to say about herself? Being sexy might not look the same when that question is deconstructed with honesty. This is when we realize: MY GOD, put women in charge of fashion houses so they’re designing for their peers.
“Sexiness” used to be equated with bad taste — admittedly, in the present tense too — but it is now maybe considered, more than that, outside the zeitgeist. Anthony Vaccarello, Saint Laurent’s creative director, pulled heavily from the well of YSL's 1960s and ‘70s louche archive, when women luxuriated in the sexual revolution. Friedman remarked that “showing the most leg, the most cleavage, the most sheer, made for a revolutionary statement back in the 20th century, but not a particularly nuanced or relevant one in the 21st… it was hard not to think that as women have moved on, so should the clothes that allow them to express their physicality.” Does a model outfitted in feathered pasties (see: Look 51 for Saint Laurent), or wearing two oversized little-girl bows across her chest (see: Look 41 for Saint Laurent) feel empowered? It would be somewhat surprising to hear. That's not to say women should cower or refrain from wearing whatever the fuck they want to celebrate their own bodies. “It’s that thing: whether you’d actually want to dress the way Vaccarello sees women or not, you have to defend the right of those who do,” wrote Sarah Mower in her review of the Saint Laurent collection for Vogue. Moreover, sexual assault is never triggered by what we a woman was wearing — that’s not its problem.
In her review of Dries Van Noten, Friedman stated: “it is almost a shock to see a collection made with a three-dimensional woman and not a two-dimensional image in mind.” What a depressing sentence! Designers cannot dress the female body today as if the spike in feminist activity never happened. There are designers like Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and the ever-odd Rick Owens who provide different templates that strengthen female identity instead of flattening it. It was nearly half a century ago that feminist British film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” in an essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” She wrote: “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” A twitch has been imposed upon the male gaze. A woman's erotic impact is not all she is.
The reclamation of anger in culture and pop culture means that the opposite of “sexy” is not “covered-up” or “demure” — it’s self-possessed. Women are requiring crucial, large-scale change. Expressing sexuality is our right, yet our priorities have shifted as lawmakers are coming for our reproductive rights, our political agency. We’re trying to redress just how starkly underrepresented we are professionally, across all industries. We’re ringing the alarm because we’ve been excluded and cast aside. Quintessential political subversions and revisions — from the energizing surge of Women’s Marches to deeply reported investigations of all-powerful predators — forced many women to pivot from their quotidian complacency pretty damn quickly. Those who feel unaffected and complacent within this context are not putting forth anything interesting (or capable of empathy, for that matter).
What does it mean to be daring today? Rebecca Traister wrote: “Women — 27 years after Anita Hill, 12 years after Tarana Burke’s Me Too, and one year into #MeToo — are refusing to stop speaking about their experiences, their perspectives, their memories. By doing so, they’re expanding the boundaries of what kinds of stories must be taken seriously — and bringing a much fuller picture of female humanity into view.” To be daring is to voice harrowing, previously-muffled realities about men who have silenced women, about business structures that have systematically paid women less despite doing good work. This exposure that requires risk is not skin-baring: It’s emotional luggage, exiting the strongbox of the psyche even at the risk of being pilloried by misogynists and trolls.
Fashion needs more anarchy. This is an industry powered by, and targeted at, women, and yet it still doesn't serve them well. It is an industry with a noxious amount of environmental waste and racism, and it keeps promising to do better while ultimately doing very little in practice.
There was no oracle to anticipate that Paris Fashion Week would dovetail with the debate over a Supreme Court nomination or as Bill Cosby was sentenced for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. Moreover, these phenomena color a uniquely American political landscape: #MeToo is lived differently in Europe than in the United States, which has its own history and evolution about attitudes towards sex and sexiness. But fashion is a global industry, and rethinking female identity is not specific to one territory; it’s a cultural conversation that has been extending, and needs to extend, everywhere. There is plenty of local available realities to draw from — like the public sexual harassment laws on France’s own terrain — and mull over and utilize.
"Sexiness" on the runways doesn't reflect the way the world is evolving, and the collective industry needs to reconsider how it's conceiving and selling perceptions of women back to them. Hannah Gadsby is rethinking what comedy is; what art history is. Edward Enninful has recast who is featured in a magazine. Illustrator Jasjyot Singh Hans draws fashion illustrations that accommodate the bodies the runway still won’t. That is part of what gives a designer their authority: not just a presence on runways and through billboards, but re-considering how they can provoke new thoughts about what the heck is going on.