Let’s Hear it for the Girls

The Issue with the Underrepresentation of Lesbians in Fashion

Yesterday morning, as I was drinking my coffee and pursuing fashion news, an article on Fashionista.com instantly caught my eye:  ‘Girl Crush’: Why the Lesbian and Queer Women Community Is Fashion’s Major Blind Spot Seeing the article nestled between news of Sarah Jessica Parker’s fantastic layering skills (she’s wearing a shirt…under a dress!) and the top trends from the FW14 collections actually surprised me.  I feel like fashion tends to table the less than glamorous issues plaguing the industry.  Sure, we’ll talk about animal abuse and the anti-fur campaign like it was last night’s episode of The Bachelor, but when it comes to actual human rights—specifically women’s rights—there is a static silence.

cara michelle

Cara Delevingne, the world’s most talked-about model, caused an uproar when allegations arose that she may, or may not be in a relationship with actress Michelle Rodriguez.

Image via Celebuzz

Take, for instance, the topic of the female objectification within fashion advertising.  The media has glazed over certain aspects of the subject; dramatizing portrayals of mainstream fashion and editorials as harming women’s “body image,” and accusing publications of fostering a culture that holds women’s bodies to an unrealistic standard of expectation.  However, few have gone deeper and actually asked why things are that way to begin with.  It’s easier to crucify a 19 year old model’s body than ask ourselves hard questions about the cultural tenets that police our society’s perception of “femininity”.

The article written by Tyler McCall argues three main points: the underrepresentation of openly gay women within the fashion industry—largely stemming from a fear of coming out and being treated differently by female colleagues, the heteronormative assumptions that dictate fashion advertising, and the fetishization of lesbian women as a fashion trend.

McCall states that gay women who work in the fashion industry are less likely to come out than their male colleagues. It’s no secret that openly gay men are a dime a dozen within the world of fashion.  Also, it’s generally assumed that they are non-threatening since they have no sexual interest in the overwhelming majority of female co-workers within the industry.  The bottom line is that lesbians working in fashion are more reluctant to be open about their sexual preferences and personal life out of fear that they will be marginalized and treated differently within the workplace.  Consequently, it’s noted that women who do come out tend to be “tall, thin and white,” and opt for an androgynous or feminine style a la Jenna Lyons.

jenna-lyons

Jenna Lyons’ distinct style is a unique blend of preppy classics with a dash of androgyny.

Image via Forbes

Moreover, this issue isn’t simply a matter of HR or personnel complaints, but rather a marker of our culture’s inability to accept lesbianism in the same way we accept, and at times glamorize, male homosexuality.  Lesbianism is still largely a taboo within our cultural discourse, and when the topic is brought up within mainstream media it is largely through stereotyped portrayals, or as a term to put down a woman who shows leadership initiative or “masculine” characteristics.

Why stop at sexism? Let's throw some ageism into the mix, too!

Why stop at sexism? Let’s throw some ageism into the mix, too!

Image via MSNBC

Take for example, Hillary Clinton, whose sexual proclivity has been under harsh speculation since before I was even born.  Right wing media, particularly conservative men, are so eager to label Clinton a “lesbian” (I use this term in quotes due to the fact that the word is in this circumstance is not a label for sexual preference, but rather a cultural indicator of a perceived lifestyle or fashion choice) because of her strong leadership and penchant for pantsuits.  Rather than being a label of sexual identity, “lesbian,” “dyke,” and “butch” are used as derogatory terms towards women who do not fit into our society’s mold of femininity.

This brings me to the question:  We have accepted and praised the bravery of openly gay public figures countless times—why can’t we embrace our lesbian sisters as well?

Relating back to fashion, the taboo of lesbianism largely stems from our widespread cultural assumption that everyone is heterosexual until stated otherwise.   Women’s lifestyle magazines teach you “How to Please Your Man” rather than your partner.  Advertisements encourage us to buy product so you will be object of a man’s attention.

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Really? Was the bread really necessary?

Image via Dolce & Gabbana

Take for example the above campaign image from Dolce & Gabbana’s SS14 collection. the relationship between men and women is articulated through the roles of object (woman) and the viewer (man).  The female’s purpose within this advertisement is to serve as a receptacle for the male gaze.  Her stance is overtly sexual, and attention is drawn to her oral fixation with a phallic symbol (bread). The men to both the left and the right of her are gazing at her with excitement.  The message this ad conveys is:  If you buy into this brand, you will be instantly sexy and desired by all the men around you.

But where does this leave lesbians, or those who don’t want to be the object of a man’s attention?  Why can’t we just have advertisements and articles written about female empowerment without having to take into consideration or target someones sexuality?

Finally, I will address McCall’s point of the de-legitimization of lesbianism as a lifestyle within the fashion world.  Particularly now more than ever—with Miley Cyrus’ short haircut and Rihanna’s appropriation of baggy pants and high top trainers—the term “lesbian” has been used to describe a fashion style.  Take for example this rather alarming piece from Style.com on the “Lesbian Chic Trend” of Spring 2013:

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Click on the image to view the original article

Not only does the article treat lesbian women as if they are some rare unicorn that has suddenly been spotted, or a rare species that we need to observe before they become extinct, but it makes lesbianism seem like a new trend rather than a lifestyle choice.  The article addresses lesbian women as if they are participating in a frivolous fad you can take up and then drop whenever you feel like it.  (If a woman wants to do that it’s her personal choice, but I’m speaking in terms of generalization.)

So, do you think there is a problem?  If so, why are we this way and how do we change to accommodate everyone?

Regardless of your stance on Fashionista’s article. the bottom line is that ALL WOMEN regardless of race, sexual orientation, religious preference, or political views should be treated with equal respect.  If we don’t stand up for and respect each other, no one else will. 

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Or, we can all subscribe to Ellen’s philosophy.

XxMO

29 Comments

  1. August 27, 2014 / 12:46 pm

    Great and important post! It’s definitely difficult for lesbians in the fashion industry to even come out, and lesbians interested in fashion not to get annoyed at the obvious heternormativity in fashion marketing and advertising. It’s even harder that the only representation of open and out lesbian women in fashion are usual androgynous, as though feminine women cannot be lesbian and are therefore not “legitimate” lesbians. Lesbians and feminine or “femme-identified” queer people should have more representation in the fashion industry. After all, we love fashion and buy clothes as well!

    In addition, I also believe that it’s much easier to be an out gay man than to be an out lesbian in the fashion industry for the same reason that it is in many other areas of life: misogyny. Lesbian women are not sexually available to men, which makes many view them as a threat to masculinity (especially if they are feminine lesbians).

    Much love,
    Becca

    femmeviolet.com

  2. laralizard
    March 17, 2014 / 4:17 pm

    Now as you stated – I can see this when I consider what I have seen and what I haven’t seen on the world wide web.

    Tbh, I never noticed this in my country, since I was a kid I knew what does homo mean and I never thought there was something strange or special about that.

    Also there are several celebs in my country who are gays or lesbians and no one makes a huge deal of their sexual orientation (apart from some very conservative people, they are a minority tho).

    Yup it’s quite stupid to consider homosexuality as some sort of trendy thing – as you stated, it’s not a choice but something you just are.

  3. March 16, 2014 / 6:22 pm

    Intriguing subject, with some sound points made. My view is that lesbians are frequently treated worse than gay men (in and outside of the fashion industry) because they are women. We often overlook that factor. Misogyny is so deeply entrenched in modern thought that it permeates even the gay community. (Don’t get me started on how badly everyone treats transgenders…)

  4. March 15, 2014 / 4:15 pm

    Came here from Links a la Mode! It is great that you are placing this issue on your blog!

  5. March 12, 2014 / 11:40 am

    I love that you’re talking about this! I think it’s great that Cara went so public with her relationship, but then again, she’s never seemed to care what people think. Being gay needs to be more accepted than simply just a way to sell editorials.

  6. March 11, 2014 / 11:43 pm

    I feel so guilty for not noticing this massive gap in fashion. Great read. Great points.

  7. elb743
    March 11, 2014 / 11:36 pm

    Sorry about my frequent typos, I am terrible typist and my Ipad is often naughty .
    XX, Elle
    http://mydailycostume.com

  8. elb743
    March 11, 2014 / 11:35 pm

    Beautifully written post about seldom pursued questions. I agree men who are gay seem to be celebrated today, and that is wonderful, or better, anyway, since celebrating something does infer “different” , but I am off topic.
    Women are marginalized in today’s society in every arena, add her lesbian status, and I can imagine who daunting they may feel.
    Don’t get me started in advertising, I have been tempted to do a post on the way woman are portrayed there…but I think I will let you take the wheel. You are a better driver .
    Great, thought provoking post miss Madame !
    XX, Elle

    http://mydailycostume.com

  9. March 11, 2014 / 11:22 pm

    This is actually a very well written article, and good use of current examples of cara, jenna, and hilary. I am a gay guy, but I consider myself a boy tomboy when it comes to style. In my head I’m a very boyish girl, but the world will only see me as a feminine guy, perhaps even treating me badly because of it. I just feel like Lesbianism and girl culture in that sense is less mediaized and ‘loud’ as opposed to male homosexuality. Since men are generally more sexual and visual than women, the equal reaction of giving tips to women to please the male would obviously be resulted. But to be honest, isn’t it easier for a woman to come out in a straight women’s world, than for a man to come out in a straight man’s world. Not comparing here, but it’s a bit scarier to be a gay guy sometimes than a gay girl. Plus many girls who do have homosexual tendencies might not truly be gay, and ultimately return to men. Where as gay guys physically have a reaction knowing if they are definitely or not gay (or bi). Perhaps that’s why more men have a tendency to speak loudly of their sexuality, whereas women feel they could still have more ‘options’ etc…. Hope I didn’t ramble too much, but I do feel strongly about such opinions in the fashion industry.

    • Christine Buzan
      March 11, 2014 / 11:40 pm

      First of all, thank you so much for reading! Second, I completely understand what you mean. Our social construct of “masculinity” is so stringent. Coming out as a gay male could be especially scary coming out earlier in life during adolescence. Also, the fear of someone reacting with violence. I also agree with you that sexuality is not black and white–it completely makes sense that a woman would be hesitant to label her sexual orientation.

      Thanks again for stopping by and contributing to the discussion. You’re awesome! xx

  10. March 11, 2014 / 10:40 pm

    Amen to all of this! And there is the similar issue of little to no representation of transgender people in the industry.

    • Christine Buzan
      March 11, 2014 / 10:47 pm

      Thank you Raissa! I really appreciate it. I feel as if transgendered individuals at least receive an aspect of glamorization within the fashion world. However, it’s normally male to female transgendered individuals rather than female to male. I think this kind of fits in with the argument of gay men being perceived as “non threatening.” It’s more “okay” and safe to become a woman.

      By the way, did you see the Barney’s campaign featuring all transgender models? It was really fantastic. http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/02/barneys-transgender-campaign-bruce-weber

    • Christine Buzan
      March 11, 2014 / 10:49 pm

      Thank you so much Oriana!xx

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