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Time to stop baring all in the name of female empowerment

By Jackie Mallon

Mar 22, 2018


With the glare of #metoo still burning our eyes, and so much evidence indicating that abuse of power in Hollywood, in media and fashion photography fueled the images we consumed for decades, women can only deduce that they have been reared on a daily manna of misogyny. Our self-view, cultivated but malformed, and held captive by systematic male oppression is finally being reconfigured, but it’s not clear that all of us are ready.

In the 80s when women were fed up of being excluded from the boardroom, they donned suiting and shoulder pads and mimicked the men to get ahead. As we seize power again in 2018, there is a predictable return to tailoring on the runways. But in this new era of protest dressing with slogan T shirts on runways, pins on lapels, and award ceremony dress codes, will a certain type of eternally male-friendly “femininity”––the skintight, low-cut, highly slit, all-exposing kind––finally fall under scrutiny?

The announcement of Phoebe Philo’s exit from Celine was met with the kind of universal dismay not heard since the mid-2000s when Jil Sander and Helmut Lang walked away from their respective companies. Their clothes, like Philo’s, encouraged women to feel more than the mere sum of their body parts. Built into the seams of a Sander’s jacket or Lang jersey dress, a Celine shirt, are an appreciation of culture, rebellion, humor, sexiness, but with their codes scrambled. Helmut Lang regularly wove bondage elements, rubber, and bra straps into his pieces, but the results were far more elusive and subversive than words such as sexy or feminine could convey. The cerebral swagger experienced by the wearer spawned fanaticism, and made Celine one of LVMH’s most successful brands with sales, according to analysts, over the last decade rising from 236 million dollars to 828 million dollars.

Sex sells

But sex sells goes the old advertising axiom. Not so, says a study by the University of Illinois published in the International Journal of Advertising in June 2017 which analyzed close to 80 advertising studies over three decades and found that sexual imagery in advertising does not lead to increased sales––although it revealed that males do respond more positively to the sexy content than females.

Regarding Philo, veteran fashion journalist Cathy Horyn told The Cut, “In writing about her collections, I never felt that I nailed one to my satisfaction — a sense I don’t have with shows by Miuccia Prada or Rei Kawakubo or Nicolas Ghesquière. In each of those cases, there’s at least one or two seasons where I felt the review properly conveyed what was fulfilling (or maddening) about the collection.” Couldn’t her words also reflect the wonderfully fulfilling and maddening nature of womanhood itself––difficult to pin down, ever-evolving, unobvious?

Representation in the media is important, but what if it is misrepresentation masquerading as representation to which we’ve become accustomed? Emily Ratajkowski, who subscribes to the idea of flashing flesh for feminism told January’s Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, "I think a lot of people really feel that the idea of a woman being sexual or being sexualized is the opposite of feminism. When I feel like, in some ways, that conversation itself can be oppressive to women, because you’re telling them how to dress and how to act, which is actually the opposite of feminism.” But what if it’s this shallow, simplistic, binary you’re-either-with-me-or-against-me argument that’s the opposite of feminism?

At this watershed moment smart women are beginning to realize they’ve been at the mercy of a form of deep state, to co-opt a loaded political term but one that describes the coordinated effort over most industries across decades, and arguably centuries, to govern, manipulate and corrupt how women view themselves, in order to influence how they act and are perceived. It’s insidiously entrenched and multi-tentacled and it draws all its power from the obsessive relationship women have with their bodies. Baring all and going viral on Instagram to 17 million followers is undoubtedly one’s right, but it’s merely a distraction when confronted with the prospect of the enormous reboot that needs to occur. In gearing up for the full exploration of the vast untapped potential of the female gaze, it might even be time to search for a more cerebral response to challengers than the knee-jerk “slut shamer,” which already sounds retro in the current climate. We need a more penetrating perspective from new disruptors, but hopefully the Gen Z Emmeline Pankhursts will leave the Emily Ratajkowskis in the dust while blowing the persistent patriarchal standards to dust.

Watershed moment for society

56 percent of US Gen Zers know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, according to 2016 study by international trend forecasting site J Walter Thompson’s Innovation Group, compared to 43 percent of people aged 28 to 34 years old. Those belonging to Generation Z also rejected the gender binary while shopping—only 44 percent said they always bought clothes designed for their own gender, versus 54 percent of millennials. A societal change is underway and as we move beyond “his and hers” we will hopefully be transported to a more individualistic, instinctual, less prescribed portrayal of our sexuality.

Embrace your femininity, chastise those who believe skin to be their most powerful currency in the feminism argument. But many of us reject such an oversimplification of what it means to be feminine. We’re not looking for a cheap hit of confidence that comes from scraping the bottom of the social media barrel but a well-constructed reserve with foundations that go deep into the ground, a Hoover Dam of self confidence. We’re no longer embracing self-delusion, the reduction of the argument, the cleverly-spun narratives, the inadvertent role-playing, the Victoria’s Secret bra-clad warriors, and all the other masks and disguises of commercial feminism.

We will, however, embrace naked ambition, the drive to eradicate poor policies and pay gaps and to propel progress––the philo sophy will continue without the Philo. Now who’s going to step forward and take her place to dress this woman of substance?

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos: homepage image Moschino SS2017 via Catwalkpictures; Celine.com; arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst. London: Virago Ltd., 1979. Originally printed 1914 by Hearst's International Library Co. USA. ISBN 0-86068-057-6; Victoria’Secret, Jewel Samad / AFP

Emily Ratajkowski
Female Empowerment
Phoebe Philo