THE FE­MALE GAZE

Does the gen­der of the de­signer in­flu­ence his or her vi­sion, or is that a false no­tion?

Fashion (Canada) - - The Brief - By Clara Young

Two writ­ers ex­plore when, where and if gen­der in­forms and in­flu­ences artis­tic vi­sion in fash­ion, film and be­yond.

When I asked Toronto stylists Lea-Anne Bax­ter and Alex Gosse about the dif­fer­ence be­tween the fe­male gaze and the male gaze, they looked at me blankly. It took some time be­fore we fig­ured out that the con­fu­sion was a mat­ter of ho­mo­phones: They thought I’d asked about the dif­fer­ence be­tween fe­male “gays” and male “gays.” But af­ter we’d cleared things up and got into talk­ing about the dif­fer­ence be­tween how men de­sign clothes for women and how women de­sign clothes for women, things were as murky as ever—our ho­mo­phone mix-up turned out to be a telling de­tour around the man-woman ques­tion. Be­cause any talk about the dif­fer­ence be­tween how men and women look at things is mean­ing­less if you don’t ap­pend how their par­tic­u­lar sex­ual iden­tity (gay, straight, bi, ques­tion­ing, asex­ual and so on) af­fects that gaze, and then you tum­ble into the ab­sur­dity of even try­ing to cat­a­logue and as­cribe a cer­tain uni­ver­sal way that men look at and make things and that women look at and make things.

When the term “male gaze” came into be­ing in the mid-’70s, things were, seem­ingly any­way, sim­pler be­tween men and women. Men were rub­ber­neck­ers and women were rub­ber­nec­k­ees, the tar­gets of car­toon 360-de­gree head swivels. In film, which is where the term comes from, rub­ber­neck­ing takes the form of track­ing shots that linger creep­ily over the hills and dales of the fe­male fig­urescape. The corol­lary to the male cam­era, of course, is the fe­male one. Cine­matog­ra­phers like Rachel Mor­ri­son of Mud­bound and Maryse Al­berti of Creed and The Wrestler por­tray women as some­thing sub­stan­tially other than sex­ual prey. But is lech­ery all that dif­fer­en­ti­ates the male gaze from the fe­male gaze? Can’t a woman pho­tog­ra­pher or fash­ion de­signer lust af­ter a woman in her work? Can’t a man por­tray a woman as other than a sex­u­ally de­sir­able be­ing? Gen­der seems to be a fusty and not very sat­is­fy­ing way of think­ing about gaze. And yet if the al­ter­na­tive is fall­ing down the rab­bit hole of iden­tity, the sheer va­ri­ety of it makes any gaze a mat­ter of in­di­vid­u­al­ity: not male, fe­male, cis­gen­der, transgender, gay or straight but sim­ply “my.”

But then you look at what Hedi Sli­mane has pro­duced at Celine, wip­ing clean the Phoebe Philo slate, and it seems there might just be some­thing to the male gaze versus the fe­male gaze. In an in­ter­view he did af­ter the Spring 2019 show, Sli­mane asked, “Is a man draw­ing women’s col­lec­tions an is­sue?” It might be: The woman draw­ing a women’s col­lec­tion at Cé­line pro­duced as­sertive clothes for women who work, run board meet­ings, se­duce peo­ple, go gro­cery shop­ping and take their chil­dren to karate class, while the man draw­ing a women’s col­lec­tion at Celine pro­duced mi­cro party frocks for in­die-rock princesses. He also side-swiped the French lan­guage while he was at it. No doubt the Académie française is as ou­traged by Sli­mane’s ban­ish­ing of the ac­cent aigu at Celine as Philo’s fem­i­nists are of his dis­re­gard for cred­i­ble day­wear—un­less, that is, you count the men’s suits.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween Sli­mane and Philo is stark. Could it be that women (of any gen­der per­sua­sion) de­sign for liv­ing, breath­ing 24/7 women while men (ditto) de­sign for the imag­i­nary woman in their heads—a con­cept, a twi­light ideal? But surely Sli­mane is pro­duc­ing as much for the fle­s­hand-blood rock babes he hangs out with as Philo did for cor­po­rate A-types. And what about Dries Van Noten, the fly in the oint­ment to any the­ory that men solely de­sign for the fe­male fig­ment of their imag­i­na­tion?

What’s more, the fan­tasy women who float in the in­spi­ra­tional ether that clouds men’s imag­i­na­tion—in the fash­ion world any­way—are not pas­sive sex toys ei­ther; they of­ten lean more to the preda­tor side. Alexan­der McQueen’s muses were all women war­riors; he ar­moured them with corsets and knife-sharp tai­lor­ing. So were Thierry Mu­gler’s and Claude Mon­tana’s »

women with their pro­jec­tile shoul­der pads. They were mon­u­men­tal, they were Ama­zo­nian, but were they real women? No, but that wasn’t the point—at least back then.

Fash­ion this spring, how­ever, is full of real and fem­i­nine cloth­ing. There is ruffly froth at Marc Ja­cobs and Ro­darte, lots of gauzy net­ting at places like Dior and the boho thing at Chloé and Loewe with their cos­mopoli­tan ’70s vibe. The lat­ter es­pe­cially is stuff that’s sec­ond na­ture to Vanessa Se­ward. The French-Ar­gen­tinian de­signer who, un­til re­cently, was backed by A.P.C. is the French­woman’s go-to for clothes one ac­tu­ally wears. “I have a very in­stinc­tive ap­proach to fash­ion,” she says. “I see what the other de­sign­ers are do­ing, what’s go­ing on in the street, what my friends are wear­ing, and it un­con­sciously goes through my brain and then, voila, the col­lec­tion comes out.”

Nonethe­less, Se­ward, who used to de­sign glam gowns for Az­zaro, rebels against the idea that women de­sign­ers are only good at mak­ing prac­ti­cal wear, that they are in­sen­si­ble to flights of fancy. “It’s the idea that women know only how to do ev­ery­day cook­ing and men do grande cui­sine,” she says. “It’s like that in fash­ion: Men do cou­ture. But it’s not true. At the be­gin­ning of the [last] cen­tury, it was women like Vion­net and Grès.” As does Donatella Ver­sace, who hand­ily pro­duces both ready-to-wear and cou­ture. The Ver­sace woman whom her brother Gianni dreamed up and Donatella has nur­tured has never been a stranger to sex­i­ness, but Ms. Ver­sace’s stew­ard­ship of the house is a case study in the slow tri­umph of the fe­male gaze over the male gaze. The hall­mark gold/black colour scheme, slit skirts, plung­ing neck­lines and god­dess gowns still hover closely, but they have given way lately to some­thing bor­der­ing on Prada-like. Donatella’s women are not Gianni’s sex Bar­bies; they are slow burns and very much in keep­ing with her faith­ful though fa­tal­is­tic fem­i­nism.

So what does all this leave us with? Some wa­tered-down no­tion that men tend to start the de­sign process with an idea whereas women tend to start it with a per­son. But are we re­ally go­ing to fall for that? Be­cause re­gard­less of whether fash­ion houses are led by men or women, the run­way im­age they pro­ject of women is ex­traor­di­nar­ily sim­i­lar. The mod­els all look like im­plau­si­ble long-limbed, an­drog­y­nous uni­corns. A friend of mine who has headed up tai­lor­ing for many top houses (and who wishes to re­main anony­mous) told me that be­fore they be­gin the fit­ting and drap­ing work on Stock­man man­nequins, they have to pre­pare them. They plas­ter wet gloves over the man­nequin’s bo­som and leave it overnight to soften up. The next day, they pound the breasts down, like Mi­lanese cut­lets, and then pro­ceed to drape and pin around the newly vi­o­lated shape. My friend says that all the top fash­ion houses work the same way, mak­ing and trans­mit­ting images of anatom­i­cally fic­tive women. By the time the clothes ar­rive at the stores, what we get has been rel­a­tively adapted for real bod­ies—they have to sell, of course—but there is a pow­er­ful uni­sex ideal op­er­at­ing that has lit­tle to do with the way many of us are shaped. And who is shoe­horn­ing us into this? Fash­ion. And it’s com­ing from men and women.

Ms. Ver­sace’s stew­ard­ship of the house is a case study in the slow tri­umph of the fe­male gaze over the male gaze.

IDEN­TITY SWAP When news broke that Phoebe Philo was leav­ing Cé­line, Philophiles felt aban­doned. When Hedi Sli­mane re­leased his first Celine (sans ac­cent) col­lec­tion, they were en­raged. Left, Cé­line Fall 2018.

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