Fashion vs. Feminism:
The Politics of the representation of women in Museums and Art Galleries.
I’m in a dream. I’m Carrie Bradshaw from an episode of Sex and the City. Due to popular demand, me and my galpals are back. This time we’re older, richer and somehow whiter.
As Carrie, I’m a writer with strong circulation, trying to make sense of a whole lot of fashion trends. Like the fashion of being another woman in fraught relationships with other women, on TV. As entertainment. Like the fashion of insatiable consumerist desire, I play that out in each and every episode. I ask myself beguiling questions, posed in a voice over narration, whilst looking hot. I’m lying on Carrie’s bed, wearing mismatched Collette Dinnigan sexy knickers, a frilly camisole and a pair of ‘follow me home and fuck me’ red soled Christian Louboutin heels. I really shouldn’t have bought them, but I’m a good, committable consumerist. I just had to have them. Somehow, owning these shoes helps me locate meaning within the fragility of existence. If I can’t afford to eat for a week, well that’s good too. You can’t skip round New York like a preteen model wearing womanly curves.
My bed tussled hair, as Carrie, is worn loose, a butterfly clip nonchalantly constrains the bedlam of my thoughts. I punch away at the keys on Carrie’s cute little Mac book Pro, with a child like earnestness. I’m dragging on a post coital cigarette, one I shouldn’t be having. Big has just left, to run the world, he looked hot in the Saville Row tailored suit we purchased on our last trip to London. It cost what some families live on for a year, but Big must look professional. To run the world.
I’m working to deadline and feeling it’s pressure. Asking questions is part of my creative process. I share this process with my viewers so they can understand where my magic comes from. ‘What’s with all the blockbuster fashion shows in museums the world over?’ I ask, as Carrie, an inquisitive furrow trying to break through the paralysis of my botoxed brow. ‘Multi national fashion brands set up shop in art galleries and pretend to be art! Sure, we’ve all got to strive to be looking our best each morning, we all have that in common, but what’s with society’s fashion obsession? Is it because fashion designers are better artists than artists are? Is fashion the new art? And what are the implications of this preference for fashion to our culture, long term? Have museums accidently turned themselves into shopping malls? Or was it no accident at all?’ I pause, exhausted, inhaling deeply on the cigarette I couldn’t give up.
‘And what of fashion and the objectification of women? Or fashion and feminism, can’t they be gal pals, like Samantha and I? Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs, Sam and I, Sam now appears next to me; we’re on high swivel chairs at a dream bar. ‘Once I even accused poor Samantha of being mutton dressed up as lamb’, we smile at the memory, but that’s all been ironed out now. Samantha said just the other day, ‘if feminists all took more care with how they looked, women might have achieved equal pay long ago!’ We skolled down our cosmopolitans, threw back our coiffured heads and cry laughed. Then a pregnant pause, for effect, the screen fades to black, and I wake up, in a cold sweat.
The Cultural Trend of Big Business Blockbuster Fashion Shows in Art Galleries amped up in earnestness a short while back. Celebrity and the media have a lot to answer to. The Alexander McQueen Retrospective, Savage Beauty, was until recently, the best-attended art show of all time. And its not even art. Is it? Lee was the working class British wunderkind who showed the French how to do it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P13oZsD-t4s Alexander McQueen, the best performance artist of recent memory, this work was inspired by a Rebecca Horn piece, where she positioned guns, to shoot paint at each other.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rm8Tu36d-PQ Time lapse exhibition build. The success of Fashion Shows in museums is dependent on Exhibition Design. Here, the purse strings are wide open, and luxury rules.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=542vMeyma4g Alexander McQueen ‘Cutting up Rough’ 1997, early BBC documentary, with Isabella Blow and his Mum, before success turned it all to shit. ‘It’s all right, its only clothes’, says Lee. ‘His critics were often left wondering if his models were being decorated or violated’.
In other art galleries we see Jean Paul Gaultier of Eurotrash fame; we see Fashion Shows about the history of wedding dresses; we see Jackie Kennedy and her dresses; dresses that reveal the ‘real’ Marilyn Monroe (haha) to her adoring fans; we see Princess Grace aka Grace Kelly’s dresses; we see The People’s Princess, Diana, another clothes horse, and a gift to the Women’s Magazine Industry she was too, we relive her life, through the dresses we watched her wearing though her brief, immaculately costumed life.
You can’t swing a cat without knocking into a fashion blockbuster at and art gallery or museum near you. Fashion loves celebrity whereas Art pretends not to be impressed by Celebrity, but really art is as dominated by branded celebrity as every other facet of Western culture. It’s just less honest about it.
Fashion, like everything else you do daily, is the most political field in which to delve. On the one hand perception is everything, all those theories about how quickly people judge you. But on the other hand, if you are lazy and judge people by how they look, then you’re a conservative, pretentious wanker. On the one hand, I can see that how you dress is your daily gift to all those who look at you. But occasionally, a trend emerges that really winds me up. Like women dressing up as 50’s housewives, in retro frocks and frilly aprons, offering up trays of cup cakes to all comers. And I want to puke. Then my inner Queensland bogan comes out. Then I’m like, ‘Do you think dressing up like Betty Draper off Mad Men, when she was still with Don, is helping you live the life you deserve? Next you’ll be telling me you’ve signed up to Oprah Winfrey’s Weight Watcher’s!’ Anything that riles the hell out of you should be closely examined.
In the introduction to her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Women Are Used Against Women (1988), Naomi Wolf writes ‘More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than ever before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret “underlife” poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.
It is no accident that so many potentially powerful women feel this way. We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s achievement: the beauty myth. It is the modern version of a social reflex that has been in force since the Industrial Revolution. As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it waned to carry on its work of social control.’ (p.10)
Art Galleries and Museums don’t mind you looking at women, objectifying women, but don’t finger the women. I mean the dummies, the mannequins wearing the clothes too expensive to own. ‘Look at women’ museums are saying,’ but we don’t want you thinking about the rights of women. Ok. Isn’t that a pretty frock? Look at that stitching, don’t you wish you were rich enough to own your own Dion Lee suit for the Spring Racing Carnival. See now you have something real to work toward!’
In rides Fashion, from stage right, like a Prince on a white horse, ready to save big art galleries and museums from oblivion, with a kiss, of love, bang on the lips. Museums are the sleeping Princesses, lying dormant, motionless, waiting, wanting, to live again. Museums make excellent pop up retail outlets for fashion houses always hungry for new markets. And location, location people, museums are plonked down on real estate to die for, often with parklands surrounding.
What do people love about fashion? Fashion designers are cult heroes, and people lose the balance of their minds when they join cults. Fashion isn’t scary like art can be. Art isn’t always an easy interaction.
Fashion can take a joke better than art can. Fashion loves laughing at itself, Zoolander, Eurotrash, Absolutely Fabulous, my favourite Sacha Cohen character Bruno Gehard all hang shit on fashion tirelessly. And the industry that is the bunt of the joke, loves it. Art does itself no favours by being humourless. The public prefers a joke to almost everything else.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oca2RG269aA 4.47 mins Bruno in Hollywood with the messiah of Makeovers.
Most days I’d rather go to the mall than an art gallery anyway, and I’m an artist! It’s not just the upmarket food courts that appeal, the whole family can hang out together, window shopping, that’s the shopping you do when you’re not buying, you’re just looking. Looking and yearning for what you would buy if you could afford to. It’s a never-ending game of catch up, because everything wears out, no matter how carefully you look after it. Products get upgraded, fashions move, and looks change.
A philosophy of fashion:
‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only the relations of men to women, but the relation of women to themselves.’
It’s political being a woman. Keeping abreast of what’s hot and what’s not, that’s a fulltime job right there. It’s one of the reasons it’s easier to start fashion trends, rather than follow them. Laziness is an excellent motivator. Be out front, rather than a slave to taste, or notions of taste. Don’t work harder, think smarter the Women’s magazines told me, and I took it to heart. Thank god women’s magazines are almost dead. They’ve been no help at all.
Sever all conceptual connection between money and style. Your power as a consumer is real, and must be exercised with due diligence at all times. Don’t waste your money on fashion. You can’t buy cool, some people permit themselves to be cool. And there in lies the secret of the whole racket. Don’t wear identifiable brands, unless they’re paying you to do so. Frugal is the new black. If you’ve been priced out of op shops, head to school fetes and garage sales. Better still, pick up the clothes people drop in the street, the ones laying crumpled in the gutter, and give them a new home on your body. Wear all clothes out, and then cut them up for rags. Always wear trainers, especially at night, give up high heels for your own safety. A woman never knows when she may need to leg it, assailants don’t expect you to run, but sometimes, run we must.
Being counter intuitive works in fashion choices. Try too hard for casual affairs, and don’t try at all for formal. So for a picnic in the park, wear sequins and a full-length taffeta skirt, but for formal, wear jeans, a t-shirt and a party pony. Send mixed messages through what you are wearing and how you look, to see who’s paying attention.
Youth is a wonderful fashion accessory and is best worn on top. Or underneath, youth can work well down there too. For instance the current trend of wearing jeans right down, flashing your tradies cleavage to the world, that’s an excellent youthful trend. Youth should be dangerous, but having said that, when someone descends, as if it were overnight, into middle age, then that’s very dangerous too. Conservatism is the most dangerous fashion of all, and it’s has been running down the catwalk for way too long.
You can outsource the whole style thing out to someone else, whom you’re probably banging. I think here of how well Serge Gainsborough did out of having his ‘look’ undated by young Jane Birkin. And she did well out of being consistently photographed hanging off Serge, so that was a symbiotic thumbs up all round. Musicians are susceptible to fashion because it can influence how we hear their music.
Having a talented photographer round to capture all your ‘looks’ can help in going down in fashion history. I’m thinking here of Patti Smith. Patti did well out of those happy snaps Robert Mapplethorpe shot off of her. Horses, Horses. The ones where she’s dressed like Kevin Bacon from Footloose. But then Patti got old and started reminiscing too hard in her book Just Kids, giving away way too much info about how hard she’d thought about being cool. Which isn’t cool. It was cooler when it was just a man’s shirt borrowed from the floor after a heady night of love. Looks are too self conscious. The idea that something has just been thrown together is the best look. We don’t want to know how hard it’s been to look that good. We’re more drawn to the idea of ease, some people finding it so easy to look that good.
Clothes, make-up, jewellery and hair can change the way we think about ourselves, and what others think about us too. The most difficult person to convince you’re looking good is yourself, especially if you’ve been being an arsehole lately, doing something you ought not to have been doing. Breaking rules is great if the rules are stupid, but breaking good laws, laws that protect the common good (haha) can bring on a whole lot of torment. And that shows on your face. Take Bernie Madoff, the famous fraudster. You don’t pull off the largest financial fraud in US history without looking good! What he wore was so important, you see, because people needed to believe in his performance of selling them the returns that were too good to be true. So Bernie couldn’t be too blingy, because that’s just crass and cheap and try hard. All his friends at the Country Clubs that he was schmoozing, then signing up to his Ponzi scheme, well they all wear uniforms. Essentially, strict uniforms are conformed to by rich men and women the western world over. It’s so they can all identify each other more quickly. Time is money people! So Bernie used well-educated people’s recognition of how money looks, against them. That’s an old racquet, but illustrates perfectly the power of clothes. Ralph Lauren is the fashion designer of choice for the moneyed set, which is hilarious, and demonstrates how little the poor chaps know, because Ralph Lauren is a fraud too. He’s no Fashion Designer, at best, he’s a stylist, he’s the world’s most successful Fashion Stylist.
Not all uniforms function as efficiently as the rich persons uniform. I’m thinking here of the insufficiency of the Winter Jackets Hugo Boss dressed the Nazi boys in before they got sent off to the Russian front. If that uniform hadn’t have failed so spectacularly in the harsh conditions of winter in Russia, then the outcome of World War 2 could have been much different.
Is there any industry that has been more corrupted by extreme Capitalism than fashion? There probably is, but a quick mental audit is better than Sudoku for mental alertness, and I reckon the rag trade has got to be right up there. Along with Energy politics. Sweatshops are real, many major, exclusive, well-respected, quality labels sub-contract out to them, and the conditions for workers are shocking. Sweat shops in far away locales, working to produce clothes so people can look good, that’s some messed up shit right there. You can put this out of your mind if you choose, but generally, if you are buying something new, very cheaply, then chances are someone has been insufficiently renumerated along the way. Occasionally a tragedy like the factory building collapse in Bangladesh will put worker conditions and pay into the media spotlight, only to disappear again into the murky world of big business.
Last week, the National Gallery of Victoria launched 200 Years of Australian Fashion. The exhibition is marketed as the first comprehensive survey show held of Australian Fashion in an Australian museum. According to the promotional material for the exhibition: ‘A highlight is a newly commissioned work by Dion Lee that will signpost the future of Australian fashion and demonstrate the designer’s forward-thinking approach and innovative design practice. Standing at over four metres tall and covered in Swarovski crystals, this never-before-seen work showcases Dion Lee’s conceptual eye and experimentation with design.
This commission fails to register as a sculpture, nor as fashion. It’s a huge, clunky cone of a thing, that’s none the better for the extravagant materials, not even the thousands of Swarovski crystals can save it.
This exhibition is as much about what isn’t represented as what is. The work of Leigh Bowery, the local boy from Sunshine, who dropped out of the parochial constraint of a RMIT fashion design course, only to make it big on the streets of London, is not included in this survey of 200 Years of Australian Fashion. Leigh, the performance artist who dressed up outrageously and rode the bus, who created Taboo nightclub, a club people still talk about. The World is still coming to terms with Leigh’s contribution, such was its digression. He is the Australian Fashion Designer who has arguably had the strongest dialogue with the wider world, and the biggest impact on fashion on the world stage. Leigh Bowery’s work is not represented in this survey of 200 years of Australian Fashion.
The work of contemporary Aboriginal fashion designers is not included within this survey of 200 Years of Australian Fashion, a startling omission. To exclude any of the work of aboriginal designers, in a show that uses the word Australian within its title, is highly questionable. The implications of the exclusion of Aboriginal designers is that it morphs this show into a survey of what rich white Australians have been wearing since early settlement. And I’m not sure about the curatorial appropriateness of this, like in terms of this day and age, and reconciliation and decolonialization and how the state uses state money. The state in this instance being the National Gallery of Victoria.
The opportunity for Aboriginal designers to showcase their work to new audiences at the NGV has been lost. Aboriginal design is an area of rapid growth, and one being supported elsewhere, within the commercial sphere during high profile events like Melbourne Fashion Festival and the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir1G6pkhM4c Mirndiyan Gununa’s show at Cairns Indigenous Art Fair 4.13 mins
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7YbVZWOqPo Melaa Thaldin, independently produced fashion from the Mornington peninsula, showing at Melbourne Fashion Festival.
Here’s another viewpoint from Aboriginal feminist Celeste Liddle:
‘Sometimes within the Aboriginal community, we take on things the feminist movement has long disposed of such as beauty pageants for women, then we label them as empowering because they’re indigenous initiatives. The ability to criticise this from a feminist perspective becomes difficult because we’re criticising the efforts of a displaced peoples. Yet I cannot suddenly reconcile the idea that taking on oppressive practices that have been imposed upon white women for centuries becomes suddenly empowering when done in an Indigenous context. It doesn’t.’
Is fashion an ‘oppressive practice imposed on white women for centuries’. Yes, I think this describes fashion. Small consolation perhaps for Aboriginal designers building businesses but being omitted from 200 Years of Australian Fashion at the NGV?
Further writing by Celeste Liddle can be read on her incredible blog, Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist http://blackfeministranter.blogspot.com.au
Fletcher Jones, the fashion label that produced high quality, well made garments for all people, with the utopian vision of workers rights, all of whom were given shares in the company, is not included in this survey of 200 Years of Australian Fashion. Fletcher Jones is an inspirational but unusual precedent in the field of fashion in Australia. Fletcher Jones used industry and commerce to improve people’s lives, to invigorate the Regional Victorian town of Warrnambool. Fletcher Jones is an early example of contemporary social enterprise initiatives cropping up all over Australia, like Collingwood’s much loved Social Studio, whose sustainable and ethical fashion business offers professional development and opportunity for young members of the community who are most in need of a voice, mode of expression and agency. http://www.thesocialstudio.org
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1y219FclRY My arrival at Fletcher Jones in Warrnambool, this guy couldn’t believe his luck. 2.36 mins
SBS made an excellent documentary, Fabric of a Dream – The Fletcher Jones Story. He was: influenced by Japanese reformer Toyohiko Kagawa, one of the most remarkable social activists of his time. Jones established his clothing design, retail and manufacturing business with an emphasis on quality, service and innovation. But his primary concern was for people – both his customers and his workers – and they, in turn, were intensely loyal. This is a celebration of the man and his dream – of a model working environment based on values other than simple profit – set against the backdrop of 20th century history. The film is apart of the national Film and Sound Archive.
The tenuous relationship between fashion and feminism is unexplored in 200 Years of Australian Fashion. Fashion most definitely objectifies women, and this deserves deeper curatorial analysis. Last month, the NGV canned a highly anticipated exhibition, a comprehensive survey of Feminist art by Australian artists over the last 50 years, slated for later this year. If art galleries ’round the world played host to as many shows about feminism as they did about fashion, women might enjoy the lives men take for granted sometime sooner.
I question the fashionability of fashion, the institutional support fashion enjoys. I wish they’d bugger off back to the mall. Where they belong. Like Naomi Wolf, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that fashion is being shoved down our throats, having invaded museums the world over. As far as the rights of women go, Celia Winterfox writes: ‘real change can only happen when men accept that the burden of feminist education is on them, not on women.’ Because men are the beneficiaries of the structural oppression of women. There’s still a lot of work to do, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, or how you look while you’re doing it.
The clothes of the rich, and the big business surrounding it is, for me, the least interesting aspect of fashion. Some shit, like discrimination, you just can’t dress up.
5 March-31st July 2016
$15 Admission entry per Adult