Friday, February 22, 2008

Fashion Fascism

Recently the fashion catwalks have been walked by markedly skinnier men. If I was writing about female models, this wouldn’t be news! The apparent need for emaciated women in modelling has long been documented.

But traditionally, throughout the history of modelling, men have been allowed to keep their recognisably masculine form. In contrast, women are expected to be over average in height, under average in weight and more or less devoid of any notable breasts, buttocks, and hips:- the 3 usual signifiers of the female human form. Yes, male models have to look good – fit, healthy, more muscular etc. – and they definitely cannot be overweight. But they’ve never been required to be underweight.

In a New York Times article about the new skinny male models, one such model said that fashion designers “are looking for some kind of androgyne”. But what kind? For me, this poses 5 main questions:

1. Why is androgynous synonymous with skinny?
2. Why is fashion insistent upon skinniness, and somehow in conversation with the androgyne?
3. Why (with a few notable exceptions, such as David Bowie, for example) has it been mostly up to women, until now, to provide the androgyne model, and not men?
4. How has it been, that in the heteronormative set up or performance of modelling and fashion (especially on adverts) there is, instead of a model of Man and Woman, the model of Man and Androgyne?
5. Why has all that changed now and man has been merged into the expanded boundaries of the androgyne?

1) This is by no means a comprehensive response! This is only what I think! Briefly, the Human Body model—the figure of the human that you’ll see in medical/biology books, history books about Primitive “Man” and evolution—the human figure that you’ll see on traffic lights and road signs—is a male body. This is the normative body—the normalised body—the body without a distinctive sex. Any alterations to that body—the addition of breasts and hips especially—change that normalised, standardised, sexless body into a female body. It’s the addition of extra flesh that changes the body from an indistinct (male) body into a sexed (female) body. Therefore, in order to achieve sexlessness—something closer to the androgynous body—flesh (and as much of it as possible) must be removed (or a degree of recognisable ‘maleness’ added to female bodies, and vice versa).

2) Quite honestly—I don’t know! Answers on a postcard (or in the comments box) please! Just to surmise that fashion hates women, or fashion hates the body, isn’t enough. Why does it hate them? Doesn’t it depend upon them? And if fashion is art—or a form of—shouldn’t it be celebrating the diversity, the endless possibilities, presented by the human physical form? Instead of constantly wheeling out exactly the same figure on a perpetual catwalk-conveyor-belt? Perhaps it’s arguable that because fashion must fight for its right to be considered serious art, in an effort to present itself—to clearly project itself into social visibility and awareness—it must be able to, literally, stand alone: in effect, standing out and away from the human body presenting (and enabling) the art. So then the human must be invisible (or maybe indecipherable)—the art must be all that is seen—the human, almost non-existent. If the body is to be this skinny, then it was surely inevitable that it would turn to the androgyne for the modelling of its clothes.

3) If the androgynous body has always been closer to the male human’s than the female’s, wouldn’t it have made more sense for the man to provide it when needed, rather than fashion insisting upon an inexhaustible supply of androgynous-looking women? Like all these questions, answering this properly really requires lengthy analysis and research. This particular question especially needs a thorough look at the history of fashion and the point at which focus on women’s fashion overtook the focus on men’s (when both had been originally equal—especially during the Regency period), and how this has combined with the obsession with the androgynous body (briefly explained above) to form an industry reliant upon a relentless factory-line of dressed up (or dressed down!) androgynous female (living) mannequins.

Equation: contemporary fashion is more excited by women’s fashion than men’s + for fashion to be an art, the enabler must be seen to be unseen = female androgynes.

4) In other words, why have men been allowed to be men, while women are not allowed to be women—and what affect has this had on heteronormative performance when the man’s partner on the catwalk (or the advert or photo shoot) is a female-ish androgyne and not an actual woman? An answer to the first: the man, in the absence of breasts, large buttocks and hips, is closer to the androgynous body in his “natural” male form than the woman, and is therefore allowed to keep his extra flesh, as it doesn’t deviate from the androgynous form as much as the woman’s extra flesh does. An answer to the second: In my opinion: clearly defining the male body, while under-defining (undermining) and diminishing the female body serves to exert, underline, project and visibly bolster the male body. So his product (fashion, hair products, aftershave etc.) appeals to men because the model’s masculinity is established—its exaggerated certainty stamped on the picture—in comparison with the fading, diminished female. So his product, or her product, appeals to women because the model’s faded, diminished presence creates a space onto which women can project their own bodies, in order to get close to the ideal(ised) male body and, if not become the object of his attention and gaze, then become the foil to his sexuality that affirms her own: she is positively female against his positively male!

5) Now the big question: why has all this apparently changed? It could be this: our society has turned its attention once more to male fashion, perhaps for the first time in decades: it now takes an equal interest in the fashions and other aesthetics of men as it has of women; thus requiring the diminishment of the male body in order for male fashion to stand alone in art form. The intensified focus on men’s fashion, its exaggeration and exploration, and the layering of clothing onto the juxtaposition of a diminishing figure, is shaving off the flesh of men as it has shaved off the flesh of women.

I’d like to think it was for this reason: the female-ised androgyne has been so long alone, so long required to take sexual fulfilment from a body that is wrong in shape and form for her, so mismatched and unequal in relations, a body that is more than her, that her mating call of romantic longing has been answered; and a sexual partner been made-to-measure—prêt-à-porter—and is ready to wear!

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exoteric said...

The motivation behind skinny male bodies, to me, appears to be simply to make them look more like females. If this is so, the answers to your questions fall as so:

1) Skinny females lose their well defined breasts and hips, whilst skinny men start to show hips, whilst their frames become more slender and more like the female, which can be seen in your second last picture, particularly the left.

2)See 1. Typically, the more masculine of feminine the clothing, the more shapely the model - and this goes for both buxom females and muscle-bound males

3) Women, aside from being the predominant focus of fashion for the last hundred odd years, also have more freedom in dress thanks to historical rallying of early feminists freeing them to wear pants as well as dresses. Males, suppressed as they have been by feminist women, have yet to assert their equality and take to wearing skirts - though there is a developing subculture of men who are leading the push. The fashion freedom enjoyed by women has been the reason for them taking on the androgynous roles in greater numbers. Note that it has not always been this way, Shakespearean times for instance had males performing female and androgynous roles in drama.

4)Because female fashions have gone masculine, without male fashions going feminine. Currently, I feel fashion isn't androgynous when everyone is in a suit and tie - it is androgynous when everyone is in a skirt suit and tie. Only then can we say that the genders have mixed, rather than the female assimilated into the male as is currently the case.

5)Because times are changing, and men are adopting traditional feminine fashions such as close fitting clothing, colour and skirted fashions.

jennifletzet said...

Interesting responses - thank you for these.

I agree with a lot of what you think - in fact, the more I think about this issue, the more and more possible reasons and 'sub'-reasons seem to come out of it - there is a vast array of possibilities for the logic and psychology behind modelling.

I would only take issue with your assumption that men have been suppressed into rejecting skirts and dresses solely by feminist women. I think definitions and expectations about 'masculinity' - largely defined by men themselves (although also, of course, affected by women's expectations and definitions as well) - are what keeps men in trousers: for the same reason why women have adapted to trousers sooner than men have adapted to skirts - it has to do with masculinity being perceived as a more desirable characteristic and attribute than femininity... I know I am not the only person with feminist persuasions who would be absolutely delighted to see men in skirts!