Fashion and the Female Form- Are women exploited or empowered by fashion?


The female form is controversially presented in the fashion industry; are women unfairly subjected and exploited by fashion? Conversely, some argue that fashion empowers the female form; and furthers that women no longer live in an outdated society whose appearance is restricted to what they can and cannot wear. With the diverse creativity, freedom and contemporary disposals of past limitations in fashion, many respect the credence that this industry is bringing liberation and empowerment towards building the modern woman of today. Nevertheless, there are still implications that women are subjected by this industry, especially through the predominating forms of fashion advertisement campaigns. However is it the fashion industry’s fault for the cause of exploitation within women; or subsequently, are women responsible for their own demise and cause of their sexualisation and objectification?

Figure 1: BECCI Fashion Campaign Photoshoot, Photography by Michael Morgan, Assistant Emily Grace Morgan, Model Amy Rose Mae, MUA Emily Thompson. This photo was presented controversially as the model is styled braless. Is this embodying female empowerment, or is it exploitative of her female form?

An unruliness is apparent, as the fashion industry’s exhausting pressures of utilising the female embodiment for emolument, instigates the destructive endorsement of sexualisation and objectification through the female form. Sexualisation of women in the fashion industry is undeniably ubiquitous, and this detrimental convention is being bequeathed further; burdening future generations with these unalterable societal expectations of women. The depiction of women placed upon society by fashion, transpires our own children into catalysts for the industry’s destructive power for wealth; utilising the affiliation of women. The importance of appearance can cause detrimental damage; especially to future generations and young women, who are transitioning into womanhood; as they sense that they are visible in society as sex objects, rather than becoming women visible of much greater importance and positive contribution, (Sherinah, 2018, p.3). This consistent sexualised exposure of women manifestly has taught society that it is morally acceptable to perceive them in this degrading routine; thus encompassing the ideology that due to this consistency, their exploitation has becomes less offensive and more customary, (Dahlberg, Zimmerman, 2008, p.75). Women are coincided to an ‘unconsciousness’, where they themselves are unaware of the extent of their exploitation, and the part they have play in its expansion.

Fashion encourages a false pretence that is coerced upon women- a perpetual yearning of an unrealistic aspiration of the feminine form, (Sherinah, 2018, p.2). In consequence, this indubitably transmits the furthering gender gap, (Sherinah, 2018, p.2), and how women are used palpably as a derogatory embellishment for the means of men. Yet this ‘unconsciousness’ reaps women; causing them to play victim to their own downfall. This industry exploits women, and simply turns round to iniquitously sell this exploitation back to them, (Garelick, 2017, p.1). This apparent unconsciousness has been bigotedly espoused within women to the degree that they no longer able to realise this profound exploitation and their involvement, due to its engulfing and formidable acceptance in our society.

Figure 2: BECCI Fashion Campaign Photoshoot, Photography by Michael Morgan, Assistant Emily Grace Morgan, Model Amy Rose Mae, MUA Emily Thompson.

Are we even aware of how the fashion industry is sexualising women? Have women today adopted an unconsciousness where they have become so used to being caught up in this societal ‘norm’ that they are unable to break free from this convention? Figure 2, portrays how an innocent model can evoke careless ways of engraving the irrevocable long term sexualisation of years to continue. As the model poses on the floor, suggesting a submissive, passive role and subservient status, her legs open evocatively, her lips suggesting an elusive and subtle sexual arousal, she is braless, exposing the majority of her body top to bottom, and her heels indicate an item typically stereotyped with what is required to be ‘sexy’ and attractive in regards to being judged on female appearance. Does this represent the hierarchy of women in society today and how women’s reputations and status are viewed upon by others? Contemporary society today expects women to casually accept the sexual objectification of their gender, (Dahlberg, Zimmerman, 2008, p.78).

This societal ‘norm’ has been engraved so strongly by modernisation, that women are no longer able to emancipate themselves from this convention. Women are no longer free to ask themselves what is suitably permitted to be depicted of them by the fashion industry and in media campaigns. Women are no longer able to ask themselves what is defined as ‘sexy’; instead they are prescribed delimiting manuals from the fashion industry that to be ‘sexy’ is to be submissive, weak, desirable, and passive- and conclusively requires redemption from a masculine figure. Ultimately; a women must destitute their personality and existence from oneself- voiding them from any individuality, and devalue themselves down to only their sexual attractiveness and physical appearance. Women are commanded by the fashion industry to conform to these pressures, in order to aspire into the ‘idealised’ image of the female form. Henceforth these women are silenced and retracted of their own desires, and are used as objects for male consumption and pleasure, (Gill, 2008, p.37). Women’s concern for physical attractiveness, (Dahlberg, Zimmerman, 2008, p.2), only supplements their exploitation by this industry.

However, the constant strive within fashion to push the boundaries of sexualisation in purpose to facilitate the public’s attention is clearly notable in a campaign shoot for Dolce and Gabbana. In 2007, a particular photograph stirred up a series of anger, as a female swimsuit model was shown restrained to the floor by a strong masculine figure, surrounded by a group of men.

The Dolce and Gabbana 2007 campaign that was banned in Italy by the Advertising Self-Discipline Institute. This campaign demonstrates a shocking depiction towards the female form, however its prohibition may indicate that there is a boundary to how far women can be exploited by fashion. The male model is presented as aggressively pinning down the flaccid, alienated expressed female model to the floor, (Duncan, 2015, p.2). Dolce and Gabbana have vacated the female of her emotion and personality. She is immobilised and subjected to man’s will (Duncan, 2015, p.2); thus signifying the power and hierarchy the masculine figure dominates. Many people noted the campaign as a ‘gang rape scene’, however designer Stefano Gabbana defended the photo as an intent to show an “erotic dream, a sexual game,” (Duncan, 2015, p.2).

The advert is an extreme violation of the female form. However, this radical example of exploitation expressed the limits to what the fashion industry can produce, as the publication was banned in Italy and Spain. The campaign that according to the Advertising Self-Discipline Institute; offended the dignity of women, (Duncan, 2015, p.2), and therefore burdens society with the proposal that it is adequate to present the feminine figure in this degrading manner, (Duncan, 2015, p.2). Subsequently, women’s only choice is to use their sexualisation in this industry to their advantage, by empowering themselves.

The sexualised portrayal of women in fashion, can be accredited as empowerment. Beyond the notions of objectification and identification, the images of half-naked women can be perceived as aspirational, (Ringrow, 2016, p.74), as these women participating in these campaigns and advertisements, etc, are voicing the conception that females should embrace their sexuality. This identification of sex as power, subsequently furthers women’s’ equality with men. Women have chosen to prioritise their sexual attractiveness, as they wish to seek validation in society, (Gill, 2008, p.5). Women coalesce their sexualisation and their sexuality to their advantage, into ability and strength; as they know that their physical attractiveness is ultimately men’s weakness. Women want to appear desirable, and therefore agree to let fashion present them in this way.

Significantly the fashion industry has become increasingly more responsive of women baring their antagonism towards female objectification, and the unwanted pressures of women made to embody an unrealistic image of femininity. Consequently this has forced more strain onto the industry to reconsider their engagement with consumers, in accordance to this they have had to alter their representation of women, (Gill, 2008, p.9). This insinuation of a new movement for the female form could be the neoteric future towards building the modern, current, empowered woman in contemporary society today. The expounding use of varied body shaped models in fashion campaigns, establishes an intention to remind women to love and appreciate their bodies. Importantly this has led the industry to flourish signs of being proficient at allowing transgression into revolutionising the definition of what the idealised women should be. Consumers, now apathetic by images of silenced woman in advertisements, with the industry’s anticipation that ‘sex sells’; is too clichéd, and this overused endorsement no longer outrages the public, as it has already been seen countless times before. There is no longer nothing left to uncover to hold our interest and intrigue, (Llado, 2012, p.3). Fashion has had no choice but to evolve, and therefore presented society with a contradictory approach to what it once generally conveyed.

This new trend to empower women in fashion and its industry confirms signs that designers are ready to listen in regards to what women want, displaying a commodity of equality between men and women. Mary Katrantzou underlines irrevocably how it was the female designer who championed removing corsets from the everyday and liberating women to the modern woman of today, (Ilyashov, 2017, p. 3).

Figure 4 & 5: Photo Yannis Vlamos / Indigital.tv, source from Vogue.com

Figures 4 & 5 from Dior’s spring 2017 Ready to Wear Collection at Paris Fashion Week. Dior’s famous slogan t-shirt, particularly appeals to the next generation of females to be part of this new feminist movement, (Mower, 2016, p.3). The collocation of attire such as an army styled jacket (figure 5) juxtaposed with a tulle skirt illustrates the experimentation Maria Grazia Chirui has chosen to present in order to break down the once typically gender stereotyped pieces The collection represents garments that stipulate the power of the female form. Maria Grazia Chirui questions in this collection, what does ‘femininity’ mean in today’s world, (Mower 2016, p.3). She produces a liberal and distinctive freedom with what the answer could encompass, by presenting this in her collection.

This new movement is now being bestowed further by women within fashion into hopefully something more secure for future generations to possess and experience. Fashion houses, such as Dior’s spring 2017 Ready to wear collection, displayed at Paris fashion week; emblemised a disassembling of boundaries in regards to what was conventionally foreseeable in women’s appearances. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s powerful questioning of what femininity means, inexplicably left one message- “that there is not one kind of woman”, (Mower, 2016, p.3). Nonetheless, Dior’s slogan stricken t-shirts, entitled with “we should all be feminists”/ “feminist AF”, have been interpreted as a mere appeal for attention, (Oliva, 2017, p.2), opposing with the views of Mower. This “commercial gimmick” (Oliva, 2017, p.2), solely for the prosperity of the brand, and are void of any true intent to indicate a sense of meaning. This desperate means of attention latches onto the pretence that its ‘empowering’. Retrospectively, it could be argued that slogan tops like these are too blatant; and in fact it is the subtle features in fashion that really create a stronger message. However, perhaps fashion’s correspondence and presentation of women requires a clearer message spelt out for the world to understand. This indistinct line of whether fashion is choosing to empower women for prosperity, or are truly wanting to give power to the female form can sometimes be unclear. Subsequently, by using their sexuality as strength, women have taken the chance to empower themselves; evidently this is clear in contemporary society today. Women are relinquishing the opportunities to make their voices louder; using the fashion industry as a vessel to display their empowerment; denunciating any previous ‘passive’ and ‘weak’ depictions of the female form.

Fashion has had no other choice but to gradually alter its representation of women, as Sacai’s designer Chitose Abe, discusses how it is becoming increasingly stronger that is it the female designers who are shaping fashion today, (Ilyashov, 2017, p.3). Evidently this conflicts with Sherinah’s views as she believes the female body is “inevitably being controlled by patriarchal norms”, (Sherinah, 2018, p.3.), yet it can be clear that women are currently able to possess an eminence in reducing themselves of exploitative representations. Women are choosing to defend their own new symbolisation of the female form and what it encompasses; and these are just the gradual progresses to creating the woman they want to be. The endorsement of breaking down of the once ‘idealised’ and ‘unrealistic’ form of how a female should be, has moved forward, allowing both fashion and women to embrace and design for all different kinds of females, from different shapes, sizes and generations, as indicated by Simone Rocha, (Duncan, 2015, p.3). The fashion industry can never be completely void of exploitative manner, as there are so many different forms in which this utilisation can take place. In order for women to present themselves as an active, desired sexual subject to achieve their power, (Gill, 2008, p.13), and further their equitable equality with men; they must accept some milder forms of exploitation. This new movement in fashion, presenting a new voice for women, channelling egalitarianism between genders, women designing for women, (Ilyashov, 2017, p.1), and ultimately generating empowerment for the female form; will hopefully continue to strive to the future generations. This new heightened desire for fashion to appreciate and represent women as an empowered individual, rather than an exploited object continues.

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