Abercrombie and Fitch’s policy of not stocking women’s pants larger than a size ten, or women’s sizes XL and XXL—though it stocks those sizes for men, because while men can be big because they’re muscular and athletic, there’s no way women could possibly be larger than a size ten without being hideously heavy or freakishly tall, apparently—is a long-standing one. But it’s been back in the news of late, and I kind of love this Ellen DeGeneres monologue about the company’s choice, which is of course Abercrombie and Fitch’s to make:
I was particularly struck by this line, when DeGeneres asks “What are we aspiring to? ‘Honey, do these jeans make my butt look invisible?’” It’s a crack that gets at the two options for women in mass-market fashion. If you’re heavier than a size ten, companies like Abercrombie and Fitch, and plenty of actual individuals would like you to disappear so they’re spared the sight of you wearing their clothes in a way inconsistent with their brand, or so they’re spared the sight of you at all. And if you do fit in the acceptable range of sizes, it means you’re within striking distance of shrinking into a different kind of invisibility.
You’d think a mass-market clothing retailer would be proud of its ability to make any consumers look attractive, rather than being very clear that it has no idea what to do with consumers who wear anything larger than a size ten. And you might also think that a retailer that wants to be an aspirational brand might consider whether it’s positioning itself out of the reach of its potential customers it wants to capture.
Reporter Stacy Lambe captured this terrific moment from the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Gala, in which Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence jumps into the frame of cameras taking pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker, who, in keeping with the event’s punk theme, wore a daring, mohawked Philip Treacy headpiece to the Ball. Marion Cotillard is caught in the .Gif laughing, and we laughed with her. It’s the perfect distillation of why Jennifer Lawrence has become a Hollywood sweetheart—and why so much contempt is heaped on actresses like Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow:
What’s striking about Lawrence in this image is the gap between her decorum and her self-presentation. She’s being goofy, and to an extent, she’s even making fun of one of her fellow attendees at the Met Ball. She’s displaying an awareness that there’s more than one way to win the Met Ball, and more than one set of observers watching the event. While Parker is posing for the credentialed photographers on the red carpet, Lawrence is disrupting their shots and mugging for us. It’s a savvy act of complicity, an acknowledgement that the event is ridiculous.
But it’s also one that lets Lawrence have it both ways. She’s at the Met Ball, after all, rather than staying home because she’s rather be doing something else, or out of active protest at the dog and pony show. Not only did Lawrence attend, she did so in a Christian Dior dress and a birdcage veil that wasn’t exactly in keeping with the evening’s punk theme. Maybe it’s less conformist for Lawrence to rock Hollywood glamour than to hew to the directions she was given for the night, but it’s not as if she was taking any risks to her image by rocking a ball gown, either. But unlike Anne Hathaway, who puts on a prim-and-proper demeanor to match her Prada (nice girls wear it as well as the Devil), Lawrence is careful to obscure the extent to which she cares what anyone thinks of her in a layer of quotations about going to see New York theater phenomenon Sleep No More and going to Walmart.
Ultimately, Lawrence is playing out an old game in a new medium. She’s a screwball heroine come to life, a woman whose behavior breaks the codes of her class and gender without ever becoming genuinely challenging or disconcerting. Sometimes that characters is annoying, a la Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. And sometimes she’s incisive and cutting, like Barbara Stanwyck’s con woman in The Lady Eve, who, in a famous speech about high-status women who are falling all over themselves to be introduced to her mark, a brewery heir played by Henry Fonda, is effectively serving up the same critique of women who play by the rules that Lawrence’s photobomb did:
These figures aren’t unimportant, and their behavior and their observations can stretch the limits of acceptable female behavior. But the extent to which they play by the rules is just as important as the small ways in which they break them. Stanwyck employs the same tools that the women she makes fun of do to land the exact same man—she’s just better at it, and in her slinky, solar-plexus-baring dress, sexier than the handkerchief-dropping battleaxes who are her competition. Hepburn may be a goofball, but she’s still a rich girl who ends up resolving her romantic quandaries via philanthropy. And it’s possible to appreciate Jennifer Lawrence the same way. Whether she’s performing or not, her performance at the Met Ball and elsewhere is a lot of fun. But that doesn’t make her a genuine rebel against Hollywood norms. And as long as we don’t mistake a screwball performance for a revolution, we might as well enjoy Lawrence for what she is.
According to Vanity Fair, now that Downton Abbey is a bona fide hit in the United States, the show’s creators are planning a major licensing campaign that will include Downton-branded housewares, beauty products, wallpaper and furniture, and clothes. Normally, I mostly look to product deals as an indicator of what’s resonating in American culture more broadly, whether it’s Mad Men‘s relatively high-end fashion deal with Banana Republic, the way Girls cut deals with everything from SoulCycle classes (a favorite of series creator Lena Dunham) to nail polish lines, or the branding power of Sons of Anarchy, which goes largely unacknowledged in the press because it doesn’t involve fashion or beauty. But while it’s not particularly surprising to me that Downton would get franchised like this, these announced plans actually raise a question that’s important for something other than aesthetics and brand power: what are the clothes going to look like?
Part of what makes Downton Abbey visually entertaining to watch is precisely how different the fashions on the show are from contemporary styles—and how they treat women’s bodies differently. Clearly, we’ve lost nothing by moving away from standards of full corsetry and other restricting clothing for women. But as Downton’s timeline has moved forward, the stylish Crawley sisters have liberated themselves from their stays started wearing styles that have dropped waists and that deemphasize their bustlines. Lady Mary’s wedding dress was a perfect example of these kinds of simplified lines:
Lady Sybil’s pants ensemble may have been daring for the time—and may look funny now—but the cut of the pants, at least, is one we’ve seen come back into contemporary styling in recent years, mostly as part of revivals of the eighties:
Mad Men‘s been so influential on commercial fashion in particular (I distinguish this from designer clothing which, in part because it caters to a narrower market, can afford to have a wider range of influences and experiments) because it’s set in one of the eras that we’ve recycled multiple times since the nineties, and because the beauty standards for women at the time, though they allowed for women to weigh more than norms do now, still emphasized the kinds of busts and curves that are still considered desirable, if in adjusted proportions. Downton Abbey, if the clothes licensed from it bear any real resemblance to the things the Crawley sisters wear on the show, would have much longer skirts, men’s-wear-influenced styles that have high necks, and more amorphous silhouettes than a lot of what we’re seeing in mass market fashion. If the show is powerful enough to bend the curve on those kinds of elements, and on the presentation of women’s bodies, that would be a powerful sign of influence indeed.
io9 has a wonderful gallery of fully-clothed superheroines, drawn by the artist Michael Lee Lunsford. I particularly dug this sketch of Power Girl:
What really struck me, looking at the images, is what they reveal about the state not just of sexism in the comic book industry, but of the laziness that sexism has bred in costume design. In artists’ eagerness to show off superheroines’ breasts, legs, and buttocks, they’ve become duplicitous and dull, utterly failing to think about what costumes might aid their characters in their jobs, much less reflect their personalities. Tony Stark’s tinkering with his costume is an essential element of his character, but the most creativity the people who draw her can bring to Power Girl is a cleavage window? I can imagine some very talented Hollywood costume designers working in film and television who would have a thing or two to say about the utter embarrassment to their profession represented by this dereliction of duty.
Buzz Bissinger’s long, strange chronicle of his shopping addiction, particularly to Gucci, which was published yesterday in GQ makes the case for many things, including higher taxes on anyone who can afford to blow $638,412.97 on luxury clothes, mostly from Gucci, over a period of three years, and gag orders to keep parents from hopelessly embarrassing their children. But in between Bissinger’s tossed-off mentions of the medication he’s taking to treat bipolar disorder, his meandering and inconclusive discussions of his evolving sexuality (some of which seems shockingly at the expense of his wife), and his cluelessness about the extent to which his Gucci personal shopper must be having a high old time taking him for a very expensive ride, there’s a kernel of an interesting idea, particularly appearing in a magazine that does a lot to set the standards for men’s fashion.
Some of the clothing is men’s. Some is women’s. I make no distinction. Men’s fashion is catching up, with high-end retailers such as Gucci and Burberry and Versace finally honoring us. But women’s fashion is still infinitely more interesting and has an unfair monopoly on feeling sexy, and if the clothing you wear makes you feel the way you want to feel, liberated and alive, then fucking wear it. The opposite, to repress yourself as I did for the first fifty-five years of my life, is the worst price of all to pay. The United States is a country that has raged against enlightenment since 1776; puritanism, the guiding lantern, has cast its withering judgment on anything outside the narrow societal mainstream. Think it’s easy to be different in America? Try something as benign as wearing stretch leather leggings or knee-high boots if you are a man.
Whether stretch leather leggings look good on Bissinger is one question. But the other, more relevant one, is how does men’s fashion relate to men’s bodies and men’s sense of their own sexual self-presentation? And how will men’s fashion and male body image issues change, particularly as men start to have an experience that’s been most squarely the provenance of women: being objectified?
There’s something fitting about the fact that Bissinger’s screed dropped the same day as these new Gillette spots which, in the interest of getting men to buy new shaving products, is encouraging men to start acting rather like women. Specifically, the company wants men to start worrying about how much of their body hair they can retain and still be sexually attractive to women like Kate Upton, who apparently doesn’t like back hair, New Girl’s Hannah Simone, who likes a smooth stomach, and a third lady who wants her gentleman friends to go completely bare:
This is a natural expansion of Gillette’s business, of course. Once you’ve got women removing as much hair as is humanely possible from their bodies, you’ve got to start targeting other people, and other body parts if you want to crete new markets.
These business interests have real consequences, of course. Hair removal is one thing—razor knicks and skin irritation aside, it’s not as if there are long-term health consequences to shaving your legs or chest, or a lot of Olympic swimmers would be in a fair bit of trouble. But what about steroids, or heavy lifting regimens among teenage boys who are still growing? Men’s sizing for things like suits is more nuanced than sizing for say, women’s dresses, but how will more off-the-rack sizing, and popular cuts of clothing, shift to accomodate new expectations of male body size?
Body image expectations and grooming requirements have long been more stringent for women than for men, but women and women’s fashion have responded with a great deal of innovation, and flair, and fun. Men seem to be at an earlier point in this cycle, when the standards are rising, but fashion norms haven’t yet broadened as dramatically as they are for women. Someone other than Buzz Bissinger will come up with something more insightful to say about what it means for men to get pulled more aggressively into an alternately enamored and antagonistic relationship with fashion and their bodies—and what it means for that relationship to expand to include men who aren’t worried about trying to fit into tight-fitting made-to-measure Italian suiting. But Bissinger is not wrong to argue that there’s powerful, unexplored territory out there when it comes to men, fashion, and the presentation of their sexuality. He’s just missing the fact that it’s not just his personal style, but powerful business interests, that are going to push that discussion forward—and in ways that he and other men might find as difficult and uncomfortable as women have for years.
Romola Garai, in the course of commenting on some of the regularly-discussed indignities of being larger than a size six in Hollywood, makes two very important points about what our skewed perceptions of beauty do to us:
“Everyone’s aware of it. It’s partly because fashion, film and television have become so interdependent. Increasingly, it’s actresses doing the big fashion advertising campaigns and now there’s no distinction between actresses and models. “There’s no way I could ring up a company that was lending me a red carpet dress and say, ‘Do you have it in a 10?’ Because all the press samples are an eight – I would say a small eight. If you want the profile, you have to lose the weight.”…
The actress conceded that men in the industry also feel pressure to lose weight, referring to a report that Jason Segel, the Hollywood actor, was told to lose 30 lbs for his role in a romantic comedy. She said: “Executives said it just wasn’t credible that anyone would want to have sex with him the way he was. “I think that is such a profound misreading of what people want out of sex and relationships. And I want no part of that. I wouldn’t want to sit in a room and have someone say to my face, ‘No-one is going to want to have sex with you’. No job is worth that.”
That conflation of actresses’ and models’ role is important because it provides a homogenous beauty standard. When there was a clear distinction between how models wore clothes on the runway, and how actresses wore clothes in their version of the real world, that created a continuum between models, actresses, and those of us whose bodies and faces are not our living. Forcing models and actresses to meet the same standards, even though a diversity of body types would make both industries more interesting (a point that’s illustrated to a certain extent by this slideshow of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show), creates a polarized dynamic rather than a range, a right body type and a wrong one rather than the sense that there are a lot of kinds of women who need to wear clothes and can look incredible them.
But even more important is her point about sex. The idea that having good sex is a matter of how you look rather than how comfortable you are in your body, how well you know your needs and desires, is one of the worst, most persistent misconceptions in our mass culture. Good sex is about sensation, about communication, about all kinds of things that are totally disconnected from how well you’re posed while you’re having sex, or how you look in clothes you take off prior to having sex. Denying that means we have worse sex than we deserve in our popular culture, and perhaps as a result, fewer ways to articulate what we want and what would make us feel good. It’s no mistake that Garai is a wonderfully engaged actress in her sex scenes in The Hour, which is back in a couple of weeks, and is terrific, and in The Crimson Petal And The White. Our pop culture would be better off if we had more actresses who thought–not to mention looked–like her, and more people who wanted to write and direct with these ideas in mind.
Over the past couple of days, I’ve been following the response to a truly idiotic move by fashion house Paul Frank. For Fashion’s Night Out, an annual shopping event, the company decided to host a party called “”Dream Catchin’ with Paul Frank,” where, according to blogger Adrienne K., who is Cherokee, attendees posed with tomahawks, bows and arrows, and feathered headbands. It’s a colossally insensitive move, and hardly a novel one, given that the appropriation of so-called “native” culture has been a big deal in fashion for a couple of cycles now.
Normally when a company or an individual does something this clueless, promoting justifiable frustration from the people they’ve appropriated and stereotyped, they make a statement and a donation, and the beat goes on. But according to Adrienne, Paul Frank reached out to her and other Native American bloggers for their feedback, and outlined a comprehensive approach to shut down the campaign the event was based on, and to educate other people in the industry about how Paul Frank went wrong, and they can, too:
The phone call went so much better than I could have even imagined. Elie was gracious, sincere, and kind from the beginning, and truly apologetic. He took full responsibility for the event, and said he wanted to make sure that this was something that never happened again, and wanted to learn more so he could educate his staff and colleagues. We talked about the history of representations of Native people in the US, and I even got into the issues of power and privilege at play–and the whole time, he actually listened, and understood. Such a refreshing experience.
I could go on and on about the call, but enough background, here are the incredible, amazing, mind-boggling action steps that the company has taken and has promised to take in the near future:
-They have already removed all of the Native inspired designs from their digital/online imprint
-The company works off a “Style Guide” that includes all of the digital art for the company, and then separate manufacturing companies license those images and turn them into products. Elie and his staff have gone through the style guide, even into the archives, and removed all of the Native imagery, meaning no future products will be produced with these images.
-They have sent (or it will be sent today) a letter to all of their manufacturers and partners saying none of this artwork is authorized for use and it has been removed from their business
-Elie has invited Jessica and I to collaborate with him on a panel about the use of Native imagery in the industry to be held at the International Licensing Merchandisers Association (LIMA) conference in June. This would reach a large and incredibly influential audience all in one place.
and the MOST exciting part:
-Paul Frank Industries would like to collaborate with a Native artist to make designs, where the proceeds would be donated to a Native cause!
I excerpt this at length because I think this kind of response is a model for the kinds of actions both companies and publications should take when they clown themselves this epically. Can you imagine what would happen if a fashion magazine—say, French Vogue—after publishing an editorial of a model in blackface, held a roundtable with bloggers of color, explained the editorial process that lead to the editorial being commissioned and run, and outlined the changes they’d made along the way to prevent themselves from publishing content that was both emotionally and editorially unworthy of their brand?
Organizations love to apologize without making process changes or explaining them. ABC News chief Brian Sherwood’s explanation that he’d rebuked Brian Ross after the latter speculated that Aurora shooter James Holmes was affiliated with the Tea Party, coupled with his evasions on which internal procedures lead to the information going on the air and what they’d changed, is a textbook example of this kind of approach to crisis management. It is embarrassing to reveal that, say, you don’t employ anyone who might have the perspective to point out to you that a “pow-wow” is not an okay thing to do, or that a news organization airs information it found on Google without verifying it. But cauterizing those wounds and explaining how you’ve worked backwards to make sure you don’t make the errors again is a short-term pain it’s worth enduring.
I was reading through this hugely depressing article about so-called Oscarexia, the rush by actresses to lose weight before they hit the red carpet before Hollywood’s biggest night. And while the whole thing is deeply distressing, including the credence the article gives to the idea that you can drop a lot of weight suddenly and be healthy, this detail struck me as the most insane:
It’s the price you have to pay to vie for the most coveted clothes. “The Council of Fashion Designers of America has been trying to implement model guidelines about weight,” says longtime Oscar-watcher and stylist Tod Hallman. “Recently, two models fainted under hot lights — and not because they were hot! If gowns are being made to fit on these girls, how are actresses going to get into them? One celeb PR person told me, ‘Well, they HAVE to fit!’ I’ve seen people during the course of two-week fittings get smaller and smaller. If the designer’s people say it’s a model size 4, that means it’s really a 2. If you want to wear Dior or Versace or Chanel or Elie Saab, that’s the bottom line. Women hate themselves when they can’t fit in the dress — even if it’s a 0, they blame themselves. Hence the shrinkage. And don’t tell me anybody’s really working out that much!”
Let’s be real here for a second: clothes are made in variable sizes. These are the the best-looking women in the world, and the Oscars are one of the biggest platforms in the world to showcase a dress. That actresses accept that clothes can only come to them in one of a couple of sizes instead of insisting that designers send over dresses in the size that actually fits them is absolutely insane. It makes no sense for actresses and stylists to act as if they have no power, when wearing a dress in a high-profile situation—say, an Inaugural Ball—can make a designer as Michelle Obama did for Jason Wu. And even if they don’t want to pick a designer who will actually treat them like a dignified customer and get them something that fits, these women are rich enough that, if designers persist in being awful and refusing to send them dresses in something other than a size 2 or 4, they can afford to buy clothes that actually fit them! We’ve been hearing for years about how designers refuse to dress Christina Hendricks, who is one of the most attractive women on the planet, because she doesn’t fit their sample sizes. And we should be really clear that such a decision reveals not the Christina Hendricks is too big, but that designers are crazy people. The only people who are crazier are the stylists and actors (and honestly the rest of us) who, despite the fact that such a worldview is demonstrably bonkers, acquiesce to it.
Scarlett Johansson Rips Santorum Sweater Vests |
Scarlett Johansson, star of last year’s We Bought a Zoo and this summer’s The Avengers, is apparently not a fan of Rick Santorum’s sweater vests. She told Us Weekly: “Oh gosh, so sad. My dad wore them, and, I mean, they’re charming for family photos I guess, and dinner with the grandparents. I think there’s an ironic way to wear a sweater vest but other than that I’m not sure!” It remains to be seen if the Dads of America will be swayed by Santorum’s sartorial choices, or by Johansson’s—she sports a lot of tight black leather as superheroine Black Widow in The Avengers.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was never quite my jam: it’s over my personal comfort threshhold for depictions of sexual assault, and the early financial stuff is some seriously heavy furniture, so I never read the subsequent books. That said, I’ve always been half-amused, half-depressed by the idea that this novel, originally titled Men Who Hate Women, and directly connecting capitalism and the abuse of women, is a huge American hit. Who knows what it is about this particular package that got these ideas, which would be radioactive in another context or presentation, into circulation?
All of which is a long way of saying that, no matter what you think about the novels and how they depict violence against women and the way those women recover, I don’t think creating a clothing line inspired by Lisbeth Salander glamorizes either the terrible things that are done to her or the things she does in response to them. That’s what Natalie Karneef is arguing in a post that’s produced a moderate buzz, rising up to ABC News. She writes:
And now, H&M, you have created a line of clothing based on her character: a woman who has suffered a lifetime of abuse, who is violently raped, and who is hunting down a man who violently rapes and kills other women. Lisbeth has been through hell, and her clothing is her armor. That’s her choice, and it’s an understandable choice. But you glamorize it, putting a glossy, trendy finish on the face of sexual violence and the rage and fear it leaves behind.
I wonder if you’ve considered how a survivor of sexual violence chooses her or his fashion choices…When I dress in the spirit Lisbeth Salander, it’s because I want to send a message to men: to stay the fuck away.
Anna Norling, the Division Designer at H&M, says that she is “so proud” of this collection, because Lisbeth is the “very essence of an independent woman.” Lisbeth Salander is independent woman whose mother was abused by her father, who was violently raped by a man in charge of her well being, who is harassed and bullied by men in public, and who is severely emotionally scarred.
Stieg Larsson was inspired to write The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because he witnessed a girl getting gang raped when he was 15 years old. I’ve heard it said that being raped is like getting a tattoo – it never goes away. I hope your shoppers bear this in mind before they emulate Lisbeth Salander.
There’s a lot going on here, so I’m going to unpack it step by step. It’s pretty hard to tell from either Karneef’s post or her statements to ABC, in which she says she objects to the collection because it “glamorizing surviving rape” whether she thinks Lisbeth Salander is a role model or not. Again, having read only the first book, it’s not particularly clear to me that Lisbeth is an aspirational figure. She’s painfully thin, has difficulty emotionally connecting to people, works in a field that allows her to isolate herself from human contact, and the violence she herself commits is both offputting and logistically out of reach for most women. Neither her experience nor means by and extent to which she’s recovered seem particularly glamorous.
And are we really supposed to find “glamorizing surviving rape” so offensive? Sure, a narrative where someone is brutally attacked and rises from their hospital bed dewy and saintly would be offensive, but it also would be so emotionally implausible that it wouldn’t resonate with people. Stories on the other hand that emphasize that rape and sexual abuse are horrific and difficult to recover from but that still celebrate the strength of survivors seem appropriate. But whom am I or anyone else to tell survivors where to find their role models or how to interpret the stories they find meaningful? Read more