Fashion, Gender And The Gaze

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Fashion is a symbolic object and an intangible construction imperative to the development of gender identity. As gender roles are changing and many societies are no longer living in the stereotypical constraints of what was considered socially acceptable, designers and artists continue to influence the fluidity of gender in the political, social, and cultural landscape of our time. This is especially true in the fashion industry.

This article will discuss the divergent paths of the notions ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, how dressing and fashion have changed for both genders how the ‘gaze’ of men and women has developed over time. It explores the cause of restraints of the stereotypes that relate to masculinity and femininity, how these stereotypes have broken down over time, and the reciprocal relationship between fashion, gender, and society.

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Influential designers of the past and the present will be discussed and be used as a point of reference within this essay: Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcon and how she had pioneered androgynous dress for women and questioned the social norms of the body, Phoebe Philo while she was creative director at Celine and how she designed for the women and not for the male gaze, and Alexander McQueen who questioned the norms of expected beauty in women trough conceptual collections and shows.

‘Clothing’ is a material product and ‘fashion’ is a symbolic production that is institutionally “constructed and culturally diffused” (the Japanese revolution page 1). Fashion is a symbolic manifestation of clothing, designed to be worn, and is paralleled to patterns of social stratification, cultivated by various cultural facets. Its intangible construction holds a symbolic role, one that both influences and is perpetuated by various attributes of people from different strata. As society changes and progresses over time, in particular perceptions and roles of gender, so does the role and influence of fashion. Notions of ‘masculinity and ‘femininity’ are inseparable from fashion. However, their paths have diverged from being isolated to being interchangeable.

Andrew Benjamin states that fashion is “inextricably linked to a certain conception of historical time”, and claims that because of this, the ephemeral nature and temporal status of fashion is “part of the construction of culture” (fashion and time of modernity page 1). When exploring the temporal rhythms of fashion, we are naturally drawn to its gendered characteristics. In doing so, it can be seen that its development is unavoidably linked with representations of gender through definitions of ‘masculinity and ‘femininity. Fashion is not only a medium that is “obsessed with gender”, but it is one that has the potential to materialise theories and politics over time.

Previous conceptions of gender have been largely influenced by the psychoanalytic concept of ‘the gaze’. “The gaze is not just a look or a glance. It is a means of constituting the identity of the gazer by distinguishing her or him from that which is gazed at. At the same time, the gaze makes us aware that we may be looked at, so this awareness becomes part of identity itself” (N Mirzoeff 1999 An introduction to visual culture, London, Routledge). The concept of the gaze is inherently male and is vital in analysing gender identities in social and cultural contexts. Gender roles, and more specifically, women and the notion of femininity, were stereotyped through the gaze. In this process, the individuality of women, along with the complexity and diversity of women as a group, have been overlooked. It is also apparent that the way in which women have been depicted has been out of their control, along with how they are valued and how they value themselves in society.

During the 1970s, the writer John Berger drew parallels between images and the position of women in a broader social context. (John Berger – Ways of Seeing 1972 Penguin London – seen in more than a fetish). In analysing historical European paintings, Berger observed conventions of representation that objectified women by making them a purely visual phenomenon. In examining the concept of ‘masculinity, Chris Breward references historical documents, namely those produced by the tailoring industry, in demonstrating how “concerns of manliness at the turn of the nineteenth century are stitched in the very seams and tucks of the modern man’s wardrobe” (Dress body culture pg 3). Breward demonstrates how the stereotypical male body was seen as “active, vigorous, even erotic, but also increasingly commodified in ways which had potential to threaten its masculinity”. (Dress body culture pg 3).

The idea of the ‘gaze’ has been applied to studies of fashion, utilised to critique how femininity and masculinity are understood. However, it can be seen that depictions of both men and women, and in fashion, in particular, have the capacity to influence and manipulate expectations of both as social groups, and as unique individuals. As early as 1929, the psychoanalyst Joan Riviere (2011) contended the widely accepted tendency to see masculinity and femininity as an essence rooted in nature. Riviere viewed feminity as a ‘reaction formation (more than a fetish pg 56). giving rise to the idea that social, cultural, and political perceptions of gender are alterable manifestations.

Changes in standard expectations in fashion over time are of conceptual interest as they can be paralleled with changes in women’s and men’s societal status. Women’s position in society appears to have augmented over the past five decades, where there has been a shift towards greater balance and equality. Modern fashion has allowed for a new representation of the feminine body, where boundaries of gender and interrogations of the ‘gaze’ have been furthered by numerous designers who resist stereotypical tropes.

Rei Kawakubo is a highly influential Japanese fashion designer whose work defies singular readings of gender and forces others to reconsider preconceived notions of masculinity and femininity in society. Since her debut show ‘Destroy’ in Paris in 1981, Kawakubo has challenged the status quo of menswear and womenswear with an extreme departure from standard norms in fashion. Her initial garments presented controversial alternatives to the Western conventions of fashion design, disregarding tailoring that accentuated the female form in favour of enshrouded layers or loose-fitting fabric, abstract shaping, and asymmetric hemlines. It is still rare that Kawakubo reveals the human body in her garments, and her works seem to focus more on distorting the shape of the human form – in turn proposing new and abstract ideas of femininity and masculinity. Even today, she strays away from the traditional definition of clothing and focuses more on ideas and abstract ideologies.

Kawakubo has never undermined current standards in fashion, and although the non-gender specific and seemingly odd clothing was initially seen as absurd, it simply offered an alternative perspective on the ‘gaze’ of masculinity and femininity that has since been incorporated into modern society. Designers like Kawakubo have enhanced the idea that external influences such as fashion can lead to a democratic shift in societal, cultural, and political perceptions of gender.

The reverse however can also be said to be true – as clothing and fashion can be used to draw inferences about one’s gender, it can also be consciously appropriated to manage understandings of masculinity and femininity. Rose Marie Hoffman, in analysing the effects of masculinity and femininity for counselling, claims that “both women and men are displeased with and unfulfilled by traditional gender-related restrictions. Restrictive definitions of femininity and masculinity allow only limited expression of both women’s and men’s humanity”. The implications of stereotyping gender roles and traits can be said to have the same effects on men and women through fashion.

The distinctions between masculinity and femininity have blurred over time, and the androgynous construct that emerged from research on the psychology of gender has become widely accepted. This is not only due to designers not conforming to preconceived stereotypes, but also due to social, cultural and political progress in the latter half of the 20th century. Over the last five decades, there has been a large increase in gender equality, namely the push for female equality. The rise of academic credentials, and in turn their status and roles in society and the labor force have strengthened.

Whilst the creative director at the LVMH Celine, Phoebe Philo designed garments that were for the ‘new woman’ – women who were career-driven and didn’t want to conform to society’s expectation of her youth and sexuality. Philo drew inspiration from her male counterparts’ wardrobe with an all Navy look, sharp lines of the trousers, and exaggerated coats. In doing so, Philo brought about an androgynous style, using stereotypically masculine tropes in a female garment.

Social movements such as the rise of gender and racial equality, and growing acceptance of the LGBTI community, have led to an increase in expanding social awareness. In addition to this, youth culture along with other subcultures from the 1960s, 70’s, ’80s affiliated with the music scene helped transcend the definition of gender with these cultures blurring the lines of what is gender to any individual by using garments from either sex to create a DIY look. The desire to represent individuality regardless of sex, led to the experimentation of gendered dress, which in turn started to grow in the cultural landscape of the fashion world.

The English fashion designer Alexander McQueen was known for his controversial and shocking designs that interrogated the norms of accepted beauty. He was heavily influenced by events during the 1980s and 90s that brought about social upheaval and controversy. His collections and shows proposed a challenge to viewers, often presenting darker concepts and themes and did not confirm standard perceptions of gender and beauty. McQueen’s most controversial collection, ‘Highland Rape’, often misunderstood as misogynistic and oppressive, depicts the dynamic ability of a specific cultural context to influence fashion, and that fashion, in turn, to diffuse and become ubiquitous in society.

Whilst it was regarded as ‘unwomanly in the 1960-the 90s, today androgyny can be considered as a defining point for an individual’s style or social queue. Clothing for men and women are more than ever inclined to borrow traits from the opposite sex. The general public no longer wants to be told what to wear and how to wear garments, they want to form their own identities and communicate with each other through dress, with the belief they can be whoever they want regardless of sex.

Fashion is leading the change for genderless dress as lines between masculine and feminine have become blurred over time. Gender characteristics that were once seen as opposite ends of the same spectrum have become fluid and interchangeable. Designers like Kawakubo, McQueen, and Philo have both influenced, and been influenced by their specific cultural context. Although it may be unclear whether one has more influence on the other, what is clear is that there is a reciprocal relationship between fashion and the societal/cultural context it exists. It might be fair to say the fashion holds similar political stakes or even the revolutionary capacities of modern society itself.   


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