Boys who dress girls: Who really dictates what we wear?

The fashion industry is one which is overwhelmingly focused on the woman. It seems almost too obvious to point out the fact that the vast majority of clothes shops and designers gear their collections and advertisements towards women, with male clothing taking something of a backseat.  But despite this industry being so orientated around the women, it seems to be the men who are really in charge.


Many, if not most of the premier fashion houses are led by a male figurehead as Creative Director: Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Raf Simmons for Dior, Christopher Bailey for Burberry, Heidi Slimane for Saint Laurent Paris… the list goes on and on. Men are in control, so where are the women, who surely know better than anyone what a woman might want from her wardrobe? The old and somewhat stereotypical argument goes that women are simply expected to do things like this, so when men delve into this world it’s all the more shocking and deemed more noteworthy. Why are Gordon Ramesey and Michel Roux Jr. chefs, while Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson are homey cooks? When the time came to replace Nicholas Ghesquière as the figurehead of Balenciaga why were the names bandied about so overwhelmingly male: Christopher Kane, J. W. Anderson, Tom Ford and the eventual successor Alexander Wang. Mary Katrantzou only considered as an outside bet, strange, for a company that is so adamant in its advocacy of the powerful woman.


There seems to lie a contradiction in the masculine dominance at the very top end of the fashion industry. Those companies who celebrate the female form with all its possibilities and wonders are not embracing the practices they seemingly preach. These companies could be representative of the best of feminism, women expressing themselves in positions of great influence, enabling other women a similar level of confidence and power through their inspiration and design. But it’s easy to see how a critic would argue that the industry is inherently sexist, perpetrating stereotypical, objectified images of women and ultimately allowing for male control of the female body. The designers make the clothes they wish to see on women. Even those who don’t follow fashion, those who attempt to actively avoid it, can’t quite escape the influential, trickle-down effect of high-end – who can forget Miranda Priestly’s scathing analysis of Anne Hathaway(/Andy)’s cerulean sweater in the The Devil Wears Prada?

But in reality this isn’t exactly the case. Perhaps in years gone by women wore clothes that were selected for them, whether by societal conventions or literally chosen by a mother or relative desirous of a certain appearence. But now, the women who buy high end are often extremely high flyers – a generation of self made women. If you are working in the kind of job that pays well enough to buy you a designer wardrobe then the kind of life you lead is probably not going to revolve around the desire to please and conform. The powerful, female consumer and what she wants has a direct impact on what is produced. In the end a fashion house must listen to what its customers want, meaning that really the men at the top weave their creativity around what a woman wants to wear.

Vogue eds at FNO Tokyo

Added to this are the plethora of influential female figures powering the fashion industry in other areas. While the high end of design may house a lot of men, it would be a struggle to find anywhere near as many male fashion editors, journalists and stylists as you would find women. Is this where the woman’s power lies in the fashion industry? Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue USA is surrounded by myths of authority: a simple shake of the head spelling disaster for an entire collection. Editors of other fashion magazines hold similar levels of power, what they print dictates what sells, and the purse of the consumer is strongly swayed by their hand. If an item appears in British Vogue it is more or less guaranteed to sell out. These women have a lot of power.

It is not just in this sphere that the editors hold influence. More and more are taking a stand against negative aspects of the fashion industry particularly in terms of the portrayal of women. Alexandra Shulman of British Vogue and 11 other editors worldwide recently signed a pledge against the use of models who were under the age of 16 and those who seemed at risk due to their low weight. This pledge combats the designer tendency to provide samples in ‘unrealistic sizes’. Although the models are still extremely thin, they are healthy, and Shulman stresses the role of Vogue as artistic and creative inspiration, not one that is realistic.


Another positive move for women in fashion is the growing status of the model. Although these women, more often that girls, are still used for their bodies there are finally people aiming to help them avoid the objectification and mistreatment that has seemed to be rife in the modelling community and Erin O’Connor’s Model Sanctuary pops up every fashion week in support of vulnerable young models. Equally, models are becoming more than just faces and bodies; with the internet and chat-shows they are taking the chance to express their personalities, becoming known for more than just their looks. Lily Cole and Karlie Kloss both have successful charities while Joudan Dunn works with Jay-Z hosting a cooking show for his YouTube channel and Miranda Kerr recently launched her own business venture.

Hopefully all this indicates that fashion is becoming an industry which truly does celebrate women in every sense. There are women at the top in design, such as Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace, women who are celebrated equal to male designers. With the ever increasing focus on gender equality, magazines are focusing the spotlight on these women, so that hopefully in years to come the industry can be perceived to be full celebration of femininity.


Harriet Brown


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