The most recent issue of Interview magazine and its "Pretty Wasted" spread, complete with models Anja Rubik, Andreea Diaconu, Lily Donaldson, Daria Strokous, and Edita Vilkeviciute looking less-than-alive is an interesting one. While the Interview editorial may not exactly promote violence, per se, it does depict women as helpless victims, which apparently sells magazines and sells clothes.
Let us considering a few things; namely, for an industry that largely thrives on and thus, caters to, women (the womenswear industry is expected to exceed $621 billion in value in 2014, whereas the men’s fashion industry is slated to be worth $402 billion; and male models make about 1/10 of what females make), it seems that it is simultaneously skewed against women quite a bit. And don't forget that, save for the male fashion designs, fashion is an overwhelmingly female-run industry, and yet, we still find it rather "edgy" or artistic (?) to depict women as the victims of violence.
Take a few recent and relatively recent ad campaigns, for instance (and we are only considering ad campaigns because there are far too many editorials like Bulgaria-based 12 Magazine’s "Victims of Beauty" spread or Pop magazine's spread in which then 16-year-old model Hailey Clauson is being choked by a man): Dolce & Gabbana’s controversial ad campaign, which has since come to be know as the "gang rape" ad (pictured below); a similar rape-themed CK ad; the Standard’s recent ad; that Jimmy Choo ad starring Molly Simms and Quincy Jones; and even Marc Jacobs’ most recent ad starring Miley Cyrus.
Oh, and don't forget the short film released in connection to Louis Vuitton's F/W 2013 collection, which sparked controversy for allegedly promoting prostitution. What all of these campaigns have in common is that they portray women in unfavorable positions. What they also have in common: this treatment is being passed of as “Fashion,” as it has been for sometime now. Photographers, such as Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, for instance, have long used violence as a theme. Nowadays, Steven Klein, Peter Beard (remember the 2009 Pirelli calendar?), and even Lindsay Lohan's pal Tyler Shields have taken to addressing and/or perpetuating violence via fashion photography.
There is an array of explanations for why the fashion industry has an enduring fascination with depictions of women as the victims of violence. Some of these campaigns certainly are taking the shock-value as PR route - aka they are ads designed to shock and create controversy in order to get you to remember them, mostly using violence or sex. Others, I suppose, confuse the distinction between art and advertising, aka commercial art - the two are completely different types of businesses, conducted in a completely different ways. And magazines are pretty straight-forward. They do it because they like the attention and they like the ad revenue. Similarly, fashion houses like the brand recognition and the sales that result from that brand recognition.
More interestingly, however, is that others are likely a reflection of what is going on in the world right now, as fashion ads, spreads and collections are known to do. Jeremy Scott, for instance, showed a collection for S/S 2013 entitled, “Arab Spring,” which quite obviously intended to reflect world-happenings (and be controversial). Similarly, violence against women is a reality. So, maybe these ads are merely portraying an observation of the time we live in. And if that is the case, does that make it ok?
The Guardian touched on the topic of the fashion-forward depiction of female corpses on the heels of the release of Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2014 campaign. The Guardian’s analysis of the matter includes the following: “This obsession with death isn't so surprising, when you consider it as the obvious and ultimate end point of a spectrum in which women's passivity and silence is sexualised, stylised and highly saleable.” The Guardian makes another good point: “There's a reason these images proliferate. If the sexualised stereotype of a woman in our culture is passive and vulnerable, the advertising industry has worked out that, taken to its logical conclusion, there is nothing more alluring than a dead girl.”
Aside from the fact that this means we are generally deranged as a society, what may be worse is that advertisers are pushing off these images as #Fashion, as "edgy" fantasy scenarios, as a way to sell garments and accessories.
The backlash that followed Louis Vuitton's Fall 2013 "prostitution-promoting" video (the Huffington Post's words, not mine) sheds some light on the matter. Inna Shevcenko, the leader of women’s rights group, Femen, which is known for going topless to gain attention for the issues it is fighting against, spoke out about the video, suggesting that it was a mix of PR stunt and sex-sells advertising. She told the Huffington Post: “Once again, naked women are used to create a buzz or sell clothes.” A piece in France's Libération suggested a different line of reasoning, that this is essentially the ignorant glamorization of something that isn't glamorous at all: "What indecency, ignorance and indifference to play with the fantasy of porn chic: the social condition of the vast majority of prostitutes has nothing enviable, nothing fancy, nothing happy about it.'"
In this way, is "prostitution chic", as the Louis Vuitton film was deemed, or the violence against women in other ads, all that different from the "heroin chic" look that is continually perpetuated in fashion? As the Huffington Post put it, "Much of the imagery the fashion industry uses to communicate its messages at best echoes and at worst reinforces some of the wider culture's most negative ideas about women and girls." So, there's that. It may not be all that different. There is also the "fashion victims" argument, in which photographers/editors/brands claim they are commenting on the stereotypical girl who is "too" interested in fashion. Both explanations seem to be pretty lacking.
Doesn't this all really come down to the fact that the fashion industry, like the art world and other related fields, finds itself situated above the norms of general commercial industries, where the depiction of violence against women is generally not appropriate. We see this commonly in the use of race in ways that a large portion of readers find offensive. Most recently, Miroslava Duma's site, Buro 24/7, published an interview with fellow Russian socialite, Dasha Zhukova, including a photograph of Zhukova sitting atop a black woman chair indicative of a work by provocative ’60s pop artist Allen Jones. Not long before this, Metal magazine featured model Abel Van Oeveren in blackface makeup for an editorial shot by Johnny Dufort. Often, these controversial images and editorials are devoid of context and that, in my opinion, is where the problem lies.
A portion of the individuals in the fashion industry (think: designers, creative/artistic directors, stylists, probably even some editors) regard themselves as artists, and rightfully so, in many cases. However, unlike a lot of artists, when controversy is brought to light as a result of images, which are often deemed controversial for an array of reasons, the creators quite often simply pull the spread or the look or the short film, and then offer a statement that may or may not amount to an apology. End of story.
Sometimes designers use the runway as a platform for calling attention to such improprieties, for instance, the "No Racism" headdress that Walter Van Bierendonck showed for F/W 2014. This is somewhat rare. Some people take to blogs to call attention to these issues and others take to the comment sections to voice their opinions but that's about the extent of it. There is very rarely, if ever, a critical discussion of what message the creators' were trying to convey (assuming there is a message and it is not just a cheap publicity ploy, as it sometimes is), and thus, there is a lack of critical engagement. As a result, these "fashion victim" (or race, or heroin chic) stereotypes, and others, are perpetuated.
Coupled with this is the underlying nature of the fashion creator vs. fashion observer dynamic. I believe that it is not fashion's duty to comment on the designs that are shown on the runway or the photos that appear in editorials. (Designers can show skillfully tailored, expertly crafted garments and call it a day if they want. That's fine, in my opinion). Most designers prefer that their clothes speak for themselves and in this same vein, editorials speak for themselves, as well, save for the accompanying text. It is largely up to the audience to decide what to make of what they have seen.
But what about when the messages (inherent or completely obvious) are harmful. Does this change the 'We Show, You Interpret' relationship between fashion's creators and fashion's observers? While it feels as though it potentially should, it probably doesn't, and so, in this way, these ads may just be opening the door for discussion amongst their viewers. On the other hand, they may just be glamorizing violence against women. Thoughts?