Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why high fashion is about pleasing straight men

Recently, I speculated about the relationship between, on the one hand, the ubiquity of ever-younger, ever-thinner high-fashion runway models, and, on the other, the male gaze.  The runway waif is not what most men would consider ideal, but most men probably do want (or feel they ought to want) women thinner and younger than are readily available to them. The waif is thus chosen not as a type with a great sex appeal to men, but rather as an exaggerated version of what insecure women feel they ought to look more like, for Society, but also, in more banal terms, for men.

In other words, even if we can readily agree that high fashion is not about pleasing men, it does not exist in an entirely unrelated sphere. The image of the preadolescent gamine isn't a straightforward reflection of What Men Want, or, for that matter, of what women want to look like, but more like a distorted one. It's not, as popularly understood, that the high-fashion build is something that women or gay men happen to prefer. It's about selling clothes, perfumes, a brand, and the typical female consumer probably does think she'd be more attractive if younger and thinner.

But we are meant to understand that fashion (and no, Victoria's Secret, despite the runway format, doesn't count) is about women trying to impress other women, or, in more homophobic than misogynistic interpretations, about women adhering to the oppressive standards set for them by some cabal of gay men. Straight men, meanwhile, are more than happy to explain, at every opportunity, that they don't care if women wear high heels or makeup. In fact, enlightened beings that they are, they're concerned for the women who spend unnecessary time and money on their appearances, who go around uncomfortable. They will tell us that they prefer a natural-looking woman (a 22-year-old bikini model) to an overly done-up one (a 45-year-old with whom they'd actually have a shot at getting a date).

They will ignore that, in telling us this, they're missing the broader picture, which is that women need not make all or any such choices according to what will please men. There are a good number of women out there who are for whatever reason (monogamously coupled, single but not looking, lesbian) not particularly trying to attract any men sexually; of the subset of women who are, there's no reason to think they care what you, random dude on the Internet, would go for.

My earlier thoughts on this topic were that high fashion serves as a break of sorts from the male gaze. That it's liberating, kind of, to wear your nails blue, your hair pink, your heels chunky (and for those not big on fashion, these things may sound "alternative," and certainly didn't originate on the runways, but they all make their way there), because it looks cool, heck, because you saw it on a fashion blog, but not because it will increase your appeal to the opposite sex. I thought that Leandra Medine made a good, if poorly-executed, point.

But there are those pesky caveats. "Man-repelling" clothes are never actually about repelling men. They're about partially obscuring conventional "natural" beauty under an unconventional artificial exterior, as Medine herself admits. "Ugly" looks are about the contrast - the more out-there the clothes, the less out-there the features of the woman wearing them. For most women, a short enough skirt is more than adequate. But it's the rare woman who can have a line out her door while in sweats, or, for that matter, avant-garde high fashion. The miniskirt, the carefully-applied makeup, the perfectly-done hair, these signal, in this framework, that one is not in possession of traits that, alas, are destined to allure.

So is it no-win? Dress to please men, and you're dressing to please men. Dress not to please men, and you're really just distinguishing yourself from the kind of women who require a looks-boost from their artifice, announcing that you're so good-looking that you can get away with pink eyeliner and frizz. A bind indeed. The obvious answer would be to simply not phrase things in terms of the male gaze, but surely that's too straightforward.


Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

Phoebe, your insight here is remarkable, especially this: "The miniskirt, the carefully-applied makeup, the perfectly-done hair, these signal, in this framework, that one is not in possession of traits that, alas, are destined to allure." I've sort of been stuck on the earlier part of the equation--the idea that "man-repelling" clothes can be a part of women executing fashion as a sort of code to other women, but you're taking it to the next step here and I'm so glad I found this! (Which I did via Rachel Hills, btw.)

As far as not phrasing things in terms of the male gaze--I'm not sure if we even can. I think most of us have internalized it to the point where, for me, there isn't really a distinction any longer. I don't objectify myself, no, but I'm supplying my own male gaze with constant self-surveillance. Um, sorry if that sounds like a bummer!

Anonymous said...

Or you could ignore fashion and wear whatever you wan't to wear.
I quess that and part of male priviledge is that while picking an new piece of clothing the first concern is how practical is it and not "Does this make me look fat?".

Helen said...

Why are you my favorite? I love everything about this. Can we start an overly analytical fashion blog together? I am only partly joking.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks, and I'm delighted to have found your blog as well! Dissertation-breaks, here I come.

And yes re: the male gaze becoming internalized. Even if one is not always getting dressed so as to be picked up at a bar, one is never not dressing to please men.


That would certainly be a part of male privilege, but I don't think it's as straightforward as women dressing to look thin. It's also thin women wearing unflattering clothes so as to show that even thus clad, they look slender.


Thanks! If the blog were actually called The Overly Analytical Fashion Blog...

Eternal*Voyageur (Venusian*Glow) said...

I think there is a yet another dimension to this: no matter what intention you dress with, others will interpret it in their own way. And many will assume you are (or should be) dressing to please the male gaze.

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog through the beheld. I found myself nodding in agreement while reading this entry. Yes, as a 45 year old woman (living in Israel btw), I am not dressing to attract the male gaze, nor to spite it. I actually find myself feeling much more free to play with clothes, try out makeup, or whatever now that I am ensconced in a happy marriage, mother of 3, feeling much more secure than I did when I was younger. Anyway, eager look through your blog - thanks!