Perhaps this is a chicken-egg question, but which came first: Fashion or Exploitation? Whether it’s the neutered body of a waifish model, or the eroticized body, fashion has always used women to play out, fabricate and exoticize women, cultures, and the body. The virile body, the paradoxical body, the armored or mechanized body, the postmodern body, the objectified body, and the Orientalized body. Fashion and art, after all, have always been about the body. Clothes activate the body, and the body animates the fantasy of clothes.
“Fashion, which has always been as much a narrative about the body as it is about clothes, has rarely taken kindly to the idea of flesh. Much as we may wax nostalgic about the Rubenesque ideal or the buxom, wide-hipped wenches of Restoration comedies, in its modern iteration fashion has steadily downsized the human scale. Flesh suggests messiness, privileging the indiscipline of life over the fierce control of art, the unaerobicized body spilling over the contours of an artificial silhouette…Flesh also suggests the threateningly female, moistness and blood, the hothouse clutches of a heavy-breasted mother — off-putting images for male fashion designers, who are more often than not gay.”
So begins Daphne Merkin’s “The F Word,” a sharp essay on the fickle presence and taste for flesh in fashion and beyond. Merkin’s take on the oft gay-male dominated fashion designer penchant for rail-thin and eternally juvenile models reinforces the societal pressure for women to maintain a svelte physique. The female body endures the “purgatory of size 14” more brutally than the male body. (Recall Karl Lagerfeld’s disdain for a German magazine’s decision to use only regular-sized women in their photos: “No one wants to see curvy women. . . . You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly.”)
Contrast the William Klein photograph, Club Allegro Fortissimo, (above, which accompanied Merkin’s essay) with a similar bathhouse scene from Vogue. Deborah Turbeville’s Models in Public Bathhouse in New York (Vogue, May 1975) contrasts blatantly with Klein’s Rubenesque bodies. In fact, to find bodies of undulating flesh or resplendent thighs and bosoms in the pages of Vogue, one has to be prepared for the grotesque (Irving Penn’s Large Nude Woman Seated (“Epic Proportions”), Vogue, April 2004) or grotesquely fetishized musculature (Annie Leibovitz’s Tina George and Natalie Coughlin, Black’s Beach San Diego, Vogue, July 2004).
Even the magazine’s annual “size” issue is less an experiment in diversity and more a careful warning that curves are one thing, flesh is another. In fact the magazine’s colorful Editor-at-Large André Leon Talley, a man of sizable stature, has noted publicly that “Ms. Anna” (Vogue’s long-tenured Editor Anna Wintour), “doesn’t care for fat people.”
In fact, in the case of both Penn and Leibovitz the non-waif female form is borderline androgynous (fully so in the case of Penn). Is Penn’s Large Nude Woman Seated recognizable as a woman without the caption? Her eyes are closed, her face slack, resting on the folds of her neck. Her breasts undulate seamlessly into the layers of folds around her torso, which in turn hide her nipples and vagina amongst planes of flesh. From a distance would we debate her gender? Surely. Is that the point? Perhaps. Penn’s portrait is not that of a fertility goddess. Venus of Willendorf she is not. She is not the thick hipped, lushly thighed women of a Titian or Rubens painting.
No, her flesh is meant to be grotesque, it is meant to scare us, to caution us against consumption. Her flesh is not the making of her sexual allure but the undoing of it. We aren’t to gaze upon her like an Odalisque. Rather, we are to judge her, her sloth, her girth, her de-sexed genitalia.
Annie Leibovitz’s portrait, on the other hand, isn’t about the excess of
flesh, but flesh draped over muscles. Leibovitz’s women aren’t sexualized because of their femininity, but rather for their masculine virility. Their biceps flexed, their thighs and calves strained, their breasts recede seamlessly into their pectorals. Are they women? Even if we aren’t certain of their femininity, we are certain that we aren’t to think of them as women. We admire their forms, the forms the artist captured, the way we admire the David or a Bernini. This portrait is about the artist’s capturing of the body. Can we admire the strength of these women? In a different situation, context, sure. But here, their faces intense, their muscles taught, the ominous sky, this is the Laocoön. The added layer of racial dichotomy only enhances the othering and the grotesque tone.
But the grotesque isn’t just about pointing fingers at the large and abnormal, it also comes in distorting, hybridizing, mechanizing the body. From a rib crushing corset to Thierry Mugler’s cyborg post-modernism and Alexander McQueen’s outlandish heels, the female form has become an anthropomorphized hanger. Breast, hips, thighs are present only when they need to be accented. But even then, their power as sexual objects, of femininity are often diminished or distorted.
The body often takes a backseat to the clothing, ornament, mask, the assorted accoutrement, and becomes a quasi didactic illustration or a vaguely anti-illustration illustration. Or vice versa. Often the clothing, the mise en scène is what falls by the way side and the body or the effects on the body take center stage. The images become less about shilling a product and more about using fascia, skin, musculature, and faces to construct a fantasy.
Eva Respini notes in “Paradox and Provocation” in Extreme Beauty in Vogue (SKIRA, 2009), that:
“The grotesque, which differs from the colloquial usage, can take on anumber of guises – crude, vulgar, and monstrous, but also whimsical, fanciful, and humorous. With its combination of disparate parts, it is the embodiment of paradox and contradiction.
Bodily mutilations are regularly broadcast into out living rooms via video games, horror movies, TV crime shows, and terrorist beheadings on the Internet…Bee-stung lips, bodies crawling with serpents or spiders, heads covered with beads, feathers, and burlap. Women corseted, masked, bound and teetering on high heels. Bodies measured, bandaged, prodded, and poked. Women screaming, smiling, kicking and fighting while sporting swimsuits, hats, jewelry, or nothing at all…these grotesque fantasies and illusions propose new hybrids of beauty for an age in which the pursuit of beauty has become an extreme sport.” (7)
So many of the images included here, in this post, as well as in Vogue (or any other variation of the high end fashion magazine), accompany articles on the latest beauty cream, surgery, potion, promise, or fitness craze. They extoll the virtues of the multi-hundred dollar facial or multi-thousand dollar surgical procedure. Articles about lip-plumping, knee lifting, anti-aging, wrinkle reducing are as much apart of the othering of women as the images are.
While many have sung the praises of the whimsy, avant garde, and fantastical nature of fashion photography, but there’s a fine line between the thought provoking and the exploitative. While the nature of beauty is always up for debate, the manner in which the female body is consistently the target of manipulation and exploitation – whether the grotesque hybridizing of the body or face, the reified body into object or machine, or the Orientalizing of the body through ornament or clothing capitalizing on the otherness of activated body in cloth.
Take Irving Penn’s Sweetie (A) (Vogue, November 2002), a white-washed bust with a Fouchon collage of rock candy, licorice, candied fruits and dates. An image equal parts child’s art project and visceral body turned inside out.
Or take Steven Klein’s Medical Mistakes (Vogue, May 2008) or Intelligent Designs – Remote Control (Vogue, January 2006), two portraits that seem more like stills from a Cronenberg film or a Marina Abramovic performance as opposed to fashion photography.
Abramovic, widely considered the grandmother of the performance art movement, has said of performance: “Once you enter into the performance state you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do.” (Janet Kaplan, “Deeper and Deeper” Art Journal 58:2 (1999): 6-19)
This seems as apropos for Vogue‘s take on the body as it is for Abramovic, an artist infamous for her bodily transformations. Klein’s subject’s mouth in Medical Mistakes is made of grotesque oversized vinyl lips that mirror the sheen of the cut-out panels on the model’s designer dress. Is this image selling the dress? Sure, I suppose. But it’s selling the performance more. And the performance is dangers of plastic surgery gone awry.
The irony, of course, is that over the decades as plastic surgery has become more and more advanced and more and more pervasive, the models in Vogue have become more and more airbrushed and exaggerated in their shape and weight. Women who end up as plastic surgery punch lines or cautionary tales often do so in their pursuit to look like models. What is more dangerous: the grotesquely outrageous caricature in the Klein photo, or the reality of what occurs, what women do to themselves to look like what they see in Vogue?
Plastic surgery is equal parts science fiction and medical miracle working. With the tides of science fiction literature and film have come a change in fashion, in the way the body is treated and used by fashion to depict the mechanical, the hybrid, the postmodern. Take for instance the MET Costume Institute’s “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” an exhibition from 2008:
“Through the years, the superhero has been used to embody—through metaphor—our social and political realities. At the same time, it has been used to represent concepts reflective of sexuality and corporeality through idealized, objectified, and hyperbolic visualizations of the human body. Constantly redefined and reworked according to popular canons of beauty, superheroes embody the superlative.
Fashion not only shares the superhero’s metaphoric malleability, but actually embraces and responds to the particular metaphors that the superhero represents, notably that of the power of transformation. Fashion celebrates metamorphosis, providing unlimited opportunities to remake and reshape the flesh and the self. Through fashion and the superhero, we gain the freedom to fantasize, to escape the banal, the ordinary, and the quotidian. The fashionable body and the superhero body are sites upon which we can project our fantasies, offering a virtuosic transcendence beyond the moribund and utilitarian.”
The Hollywood concept of the “Superhero” and the fashion concept of the “Supermodel” have merged more often than not, and in doing so have brought Stellarc, the Terminator, Catwoman, and Donna Haraway’s cyborg out of the sphere of the unbelievable into the realm of fantastical possibility.
But the fantasy of science fiction and reified bodies encased in a Mugler armored suit is a form of Othering, of turning a woman into a postmodern hyperbole. But the more often invoked method of Othering within fashion is through the appropriation of the “Other.”
The exposed or covered body of the Eastern woman has long held the voyeuristic gaze of the West. Nochlin’s “Imaginary Orient,” Ingre’s Odalisque or Turkish Bath, or Lalla Essaydi’s self-Orientalizing Les Femmes du Maroc, or any number of Orientalist paintings or literature. But fashion has long harbored a fetish for the perceived exotic eroticism of the sumptuous East.
Take Givenchy’s “burqa” or John Galliano’s deconstructed, over-sized, monochromatic geisha kabuki ensmble, for examples. Whether the topic is “Muslim Chic” or the strange mix of fear and fascination induced by the sight of a burqa or abaya clad women, the conversation of fashion, women and the Other has incited a lot of discussion (here, and here, just a few among innumerable blogs, websites, etc.)
Does fashion help us with these questions of the body, of beauty, of the grotesque and the Other? Does it make it worse? The debate, it seems, is never ending, the evidence ever-mounting. The cycles of fashion or no different than the cycles of society. If fantasy helps erase fear of the body beneath the abaya, or the armor of a bustier then so be it. But if is infantilizes the discussion or perpetuates the separation between “us” and “them” or “West” and “East” then it’s the problem not the solution.
Fashion as all art is both reaction to and catalyst for the shifts in the world. To see it as anything else diminishes the impact it has, both positive and negative.
See related visual culture blogs: “The Sight of Blood: Vision, Violence, and the Temple in Etruscan Etruria;” “Oriental Naitonalism;” and “Body As Weapon: The Mediated Body of the Suicide Bomber.”