Writing on Culture
Writing on Film
Writing on Travel
The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s [Page 4]
Several theoretical constructs from the past century are useful in helping to recognize and give meaning to the language and influence of fashion photography within a social framework. The gaze, and as its related social constructs, the homospectatorial position and the construction of femininity as represented through photographic images; members of the Frankfurt School insights on commodification and mass reproduction of images; semiotics and elements of postmodernism are all relevant in examining fashion photography’s greater influence on and purpose in the social and academic schema. Addressing these intellectual positions are scholars ranging from post-structuralist, semiotician Barthes to postmodern theorist Baudrillard and feminist Fuss to linguist Foucault. The viability of fashion, with the form of fashion photography in particular, is best revealed and understood within the framework of cultural studies.
One of the most instrumental conceptions in understanding the role and reflection of fashion photography in and on society is that of the gaze. With her insight on transitional difference in styles of photography in Vogue from the 1950s to the 1970s, Crane introduces this concept in relation to the camera’s point of view. In spite of the differences between each period, the structure and direction of the gaze remained the same, reinforcing traditional roles and expectations as denoted by sex.
The gaze has long been a subject in and of cultural discourse, especially in art. The act of gazing, the relation between object and spectator within the context of an image is, ultimately involuntary and inevitable. One party is presented, while the other observes. The spectator is able to derive his or her own meanings from what is being displayed, while the observed party remains passive and vulnerable.
The medium of fashion photography is one area where the gaze is paramount in considering the construction, contextualization and presentation of subjects in photographs. Images of bodies, regardless of gender, assume a male spectator and thus, cater to the male gaze; the history of this practice is deeply embedded, even in contemporary photography. Even in fashion photography, where the viewer is often presumably female and advertisers are targeting that demographic, the images’ construction still forces the female spectator to assume a male mindset of spectating when viewing such work. John Berger, in his seminal text exploring the interactivity of images and language, Ways of Seeing, explains this construction.
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…Women look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between man and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (46, 47)
The women in fashion photographs as well as the viewers of these images, engage in the same process. Photographs of this homoeroticized nature are participating in the creation of what theorist Diana Fuss calls the ‘homospectatorial position’ (Finkelstein 21). The position assumed under this terminology is constructed by the typical features of fashion photography that caters to women and relates to “the spectatorial relation established between the female image and the female viewer.” Opposing the “embedded misogyny” theory, Fuss argues “that contemporary fashion photography tacitly produces a particular gaze or way of seeing which, although it regulates homosexual desire, also gives it opportunities for expression” (Ibid.). In fashion advertising, women are forced to look at other women being presented in an often highly eroticized manner. In order to sell the clothes most effectively, the garments and the wearers of those garments must appear attractive to the observing consumer. In short, the woman must be attracted to what she sees, even if it is in conflict with her true sexual desire or preference.
These theories are more progressive and seemingly redemptive in validating the form as they add a new kind of dimensionality to it and are thus, not so widely subscribed to. The viewpoint that fashion photographs regulate and stimulate some kind of female sensual desire is countered by Bruzzi and Gibson’s assertion that, “the fashionable image is not created for sexual titillation” (3). Instead of mere erotic attraction to and interaction with the work, “[Such viewing] is seen as part of a complex process involving self-expression, same-sex rituals and the non-erotic, non-judgmental pleasures of dressing up and looking at the different dress codes of others” (Ibid.). Bruzzi and Gibson’s position works in the one sense that regardless of what gender women are attracted to, women commonly dress more for other women than they do for men. The uncomfortable visual exchange between object and subject possesses elements of a distanced yet seductive nature.
This purely non-sexual yet fetishizing and coveting of women of the aesthetic modes of other women argument seems difficult to substantiate, as emphasis is increasingly placed on the body, emphasis equal to or even greater than the garments resting on it. Indeed, in the beginnings of serious and focused fashion photography in the 1930s, the clothes were the paramount concentration. The body was de-emphasized. The pictured models did not assert any kind of independence; the clothes that covered them subsumed their bodies. Their corporeal nature was rendered abstract or denied outright (Radner 133). Emphasis on the garment over the body continued until the early 1950s. As the importance of the display of the model increased, shifts in presentation became more apparent. From the late 50s on, the body became the focus and existed in state of constant display.