South Africa has been engaged in some hefty gender debates lately, and with good reason. But on a more subtle level, the lens through which women are viewed is being bent in a hundred creative ways on the world at large’s catwalks. From powerful women in tailored outfits to models in sexualised positions, from a celebration of the female body to its abuse, fashion itself wobbles between the best and the worst. By EMILIE GAMBADE.
On the morning of Valentine’s Day, one could have been forgiven for wishing that one (South African) part of the split-screen would disappear in the ether of bad, bad horror fantasy. From the bottom of Africa and in the eyes of a fashion reporter, the news was divided between flashes of the New York Fashion Week and the horrible death of Reeva Steenkamp. While some were celebrating women modelling in a creative frenzy of the latest designs by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs, braving the blizzard left by the snowstorm Nemo, others were still stunned by the brutal deaths of Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp.
In many ways, the paradox between women being abused, their rights being scorned all over the world, and pictures of models walking down the runway in luxury outfits, heels hammering the floor, projections of powerful and confident women, is rather ironic.
But it is not unsurprising: fashion battles with its own schizophrenia, partly iconic and inspiring, partly domineering. Fashion is pulled between feminism, a plea to empower and beautify women through their clothes and, on the opposite, an ultra-sexualisation of the woman’s body with a tendency to present models as objects instead of human beings. As feminist writer Meg Clark said, fashion is “An instrument of gender oppression and a means to feminist liberation.”
It is, without a doubt, dichotomous; on the good side, it is a symbol of women’s playful self-expression, a tool that can help shape someone’s public persona. Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan explains that “fashion is the way we choose to present ourselves in the public square. It captures whether or not we choose to be on trend, but also addresses those people who have a belligerence towards fashion and are very stern in the announcing of their lack of interest in the subject.”
Fashion could also be a liberation: French designers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet freed women from corsets and stiff structures in the 1920s, liberating their natural curves; years of social caging suddenly disappeared. Coco Chanel inspired many to think for themselves, “aloud”, offering sportive masculine silhouettes, short haircuts, wide pants that made ruffles and long skirts look very passé. Yves Saint Laurent dressed women in ‘le smoking’ (a tuxedo for women) showing off what the New York Times called a “lavishly moneyed kind” of woman, comfortable in her own pants.
Economically, the fashion industry, mainly the Haute Couture houses, kept shining a bright light on craftsmanship, showing the importance of technical skills and hand-made works. Parisian atelier François Lesage is one example of prestige given to craft. The incredible embroideries added finesse and sophistication to clothes and brought local workmanship back to the front stage, a deep contrast with the today’s controversial trio of fast-fashion, cheap labour and poor quality.
On the darker side, fashion rhymes with gender oppression. Fashion imagery is often scandalous, offering women’s ti(r)ed, battered and strapped bodies to the public eye as a socially acceptable and even desirable norm. Photographer Helmut Newton, the master of ‘porn chic,’ who transformed fashion photography with his breathtaking black and white portraits, depicted a woman that was either a femme fatale or a femme objet. Although men were often seen servile in the background, it didn’t go without some heavy controversy, the idea that a woman cannot be anything else but a sexual object.
Photo: The work of Helmut Newton
Last year, Bulgarian magazine 12 made the fashion headlines for choosing disturbing images of battered women for its editorial “Victim of Beauty” in an attempt to present the art and ‘magic’ of make-up. The result was shocking, as the series depicted abused women as possible fashion icons. At its best, it did show how effective special-effects make-up could be. At its worst, it was an outrageous shoot by Vasil Germanov, using violence on women as a possible trend-setting fashion editorial.
Fashion is also the driving force behind a long-lasting stereotype that defines a ‘beautiful’ woman as eternally young and skinny. The ghosts of anorexia still haunt the backstage of fashion weeks, and magazines, although they sometimes welcome front covers with curves and voluptuousness, mainly feature androgynous girls.
Naomi Wolf noted in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Thinness persists, and millions of women still bend under the weight of their scales, echoing the silent scream of an all-too obedient woman, who wants to please and appeal, prisoner of her own image.
Also on the list of controversies is the use of animal fur, which is a recurrent drama on the catwalks, PETA on the starting blocks of every fashion weeks, buckets of fresh blood in hand. Not to mention the race debates: white firmly remains the new white as seasons go by and racial diversity seems forever forgotten on international ramps; the fashion industry often sparks some heavy controversies about under-age labour in Asian countries.
What about fashion weeks? Apart from being a barometer of international trends, a marketplace for buyers from around the globe, and a recurrent live show for fashion controversies, it sometimes is and should be an epitome of femininity mixed with feminism, a tribute to women’s persona, as they are, ultimately, the clients. Madeleine Vionnet used to say, “The final aim of our métier is to create dresses that make a harmonious body and a pleasing silhouette. It is about making beauty. That’s what it’s all about.” Yves Saint Laurent claimed that what was “important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”
This is a concept that shone brightly at some of the collections presented this season in New York and London; the art of empowering women seemed to find its way between feminine and masculine combinations, ample and restrained volumes, round edges and sharp cuts, heavy fabrics and sheer layers. For Autumn/ Winter 2013-2014, designers who managed to dress the woman’s body with attention, engaged in a look that embraced genders’ union.
Timo Weiland in New York showed a ‘strictly comes Manhattan’ look that was extremely flattering. It was boyish without lacking femininity, the yin and the yang combined in blue marine checked pattern, red chiffon and above-the-knee long leather and sheep shearling coats; they added a touch of elegant fun with inverted-bowl-shaped caps by South African Albertus Swanepoel.
Photos: Timo Weiland
Tommy Hilfiger also played with the feminine-meets-masculine, wide coats floating over the body, empowering women with classic elegance. Victoria Beckham’s voluminous silhouettes and tailored cuts, in herringbone, tweed and tartan were definitely modern, while Max Mara went for wide shapes, men’s coats, pyjama’s style in shades of bronze and deep black.
Photo: Max Mara
A similar trend was seen at Alexander Wang, the new fashion ‘chéri’ at the helm of Balenciaga, with elongated silhouettes punctuated with bombers, hooded pullovers in cashmere and long gloves in black fur. At Pierre Balmain and Rag & Bone, the woman rocks, simply, an air of decisive confidence on her shoulders, black leather pants, tailored jackets and pointy boots.
Photos: Alexander Wang
In London, Paul Smith painted his manly women’s collection in bright colours, pleated pants, men’s shirts and reefer jackets. It was impeccable and casually chic.
Not all shows presented collections with a masculine twist, and the ones that didn’t were still remarkable. But pictures of an urban woman, showing that confidence, spirit and strictness are not mutually exclusive and that fashion and feminism can work, were refreshing and soul-soothing.
Photo: Paul Smith
And then there were the barbarians.
The few designers who thought that caging woman’s body in some impossible outfits or leaving them naked, maybe under the idea that fashion is art, was somehow appealing.
Thom Browne, a relatively low-key designer until Michelle Obama graced the world in one of his coats for last January inaugural day, produced an interesting collection, borderline between the witch from Snow White and a woman jumping out of a geometry book. Shoulders were wide; patterns were straight and in line and roses were red. All in all, his woman looked stiff and stuck in some motionless era. This said, once deconstructed and pieces taken individually, it could work.
Veteran British designer Pam Hogg went for bold outfits, as in loud and extravagant, and uncontrolled hats; imagine an infatuated Chapka in white fur toping up a full body transparent jumpsuit, with bits of bunny hair hiding the chest and the pelvic area. She also was inspired enough or lazy enough to present models in total nudity, pushing the ‘less is more’ to the new depths of meaninglessness. She should have listened to Robin Givhan’s comment: “What’s troubling is when you come across a rogue expression of sexuality or one that is disrespectful or dismissive of women’s power. If you express sexuality without a sense of power and control, fashion enters very troubling waters.”
Photo: Pam Hogg
Also in London, Ekaterina Kukhareva’s knitwear collection was interesting, but the Desperate Housewives impossible hairstyle and higher-than-high platform shoes seemed fitter to Lady Gaga’s shows than to real life. Women do want to have fun, but not at the price of a broken leg.
After Paris, Johannesburg will host the AFI Fashion Week, from the 7 to the 9 March, and the South African Fashion Week, from 10 to 13 April. In the end, it will be a month and a half of fashion weeks.
“It pains me physically to see a woman victimised, rendered pathetic, by fashion,” said Yves Saint Laurent. In the light of the recent murders and the rise of violence on women, it is more than necessary that fashion stops trivialising women’s bodies, featuring restrained limbs, battered figures as something desirable or even trendy. Our troubled culture doesn’t need fashion to be a bitch; it needs inspiration and respect. Urgently. DM
Some firing squads are all issued with blank cartridges with the exception of one person. This helps alleviate personal responsibility for the execution squad.