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