ex sells. It obviously does – when I swipe through my “explore page” on Instagram, the bloggers with thousands of likes are very often sexualising themselves – bikinis, boobs out, sexy look. This is not limited to Instagram – the big fashion brands have been capitalising on sexualising women for decades.
I have always loved fashion – as a teenager I wanted to know all about my favourite designers, I spent hours in museums about fashion history, read countless books and even wrote a paper about the relation between politics and fashion. Fashion very often reflects what is going on in our society. Think about when Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt to push boundaries and fight for women’s rights or when the corset vanished from women’s wardrobes. But I never saw myself in the mass market fashion adverts of today: I never wanted to look like women in the adverts, it was just to extreme.
As I mentioned in my post about why branding is important for your business, the story of a brand is key. And the big players have successfully used storytelling. Dior’s most recent campaign aims to embrace the feminist movement of the late 1960s. I personally am really glad to see a woman as the creative head of the house of Dior. And I like the juxtaposition of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s ideas for modern women in a house as traditional as Dior – remember he re-introduced the wasp-silhouette in the 1950s. However, I am not sure if the execution and overall message really reached the fashion world and the general customer:
Dior aims at a strong image of women – combining a lot of heavy boots with the outfits. This was the first problem I had with the collection – just because I am a strong woman who knows what I want, do I need to dress like a soldier? My second point of criticism is a sweater saying “C’est Non, Non, Non et Non!” – The message was perfect timing for the #metoo movement. No, means no. However, that very same sweater had a hoody which not only covered the model’s hair but reminded me of the hijab. If I saw a woman wearing that sweater, I would interpret it that my “no” is not enough: Women need to cover up to avoid being sexualized and, as consequence, maybe harassed or even raped.
This sweater symbolizes the extreme views in the fashion industry. In addition to the sexist perspective, I recently noticed another movement: so-called “modest fashion” items are displayed in the shop windows. It has been celebrated as a new choice: the “choice” of being modest. And while most of the big brands have jumped on this modest fashion train, they keep using their traditional strategies at the same time. Because, we want the choice, right?
Modest fashion is most often associated with Muslim consumers. With a spend accounting for over USD 44 billion according to British Vogue, this previously underserved group has become an attractive target market. We have all seen big fashion houses include items like the hijab in their collection. Not only high-end brands but also companies like Mango with kaftans and tunics and Nike with high-performance hijabs try to capture a slice of the lucrative modest fashion cake. The story – officially – is always the same: every woman should have a choice. Whether she wants to dress sexy or modest, all these brands will serve her.
But do they really give us a choice? I feel they have been serving two extremes: I can either dress myself like a s*** (sorry for that exrpession) or I can opt for modest fashion and cover up. It obvious that the modest fashion market is too attractive to ignore: the real drivers of the revenues of fashion brands are consumers from Asia and Middle Eastern countries. Is it really about empowering women by covering women up AFTER the very same companies and their – mostly male – designers have been sexualising us for decades?
“Modesty is not just for Muslim women. That’s the biggest misconception in the industry. A lot of you are dressed modestly today, probably because it’s cold outside, but that goes to show that it’s a global thing. Women should have choice.”, said model Alima Aden in an interview. Well, yes, the advantage for the fashion brands is that this trend may target women who want to dress fashionably but adequate for their careers at a daily basis at the same time. And I agree, fashion should be inclusive. But really?! Comparing dressing “modestly” because it is cold outside to covering up for cultural reasons? A bit far fetched in my opinion… I think it is a very different statement to wear a knitted hat or a hijab.
I also struggle with the word “modest” itself, as I see a derogatory meaning. Even though we are sold the myth of having the choice to be strong women, we are expected to be modest at the same time. Women can “wear stuff that’s fun and don’t have to worry about being a sex object for a man”, said Batsheva Hay, a modest modest fashion designer in an interview with Vogue. I want to live in a world, where I can wear what I want because women and men are truly equal; where I do not have to worry about being sexualised when I like to show off my long legs; a world where men have a mindset of equality and where a short skirt is not an invitation for harassment or rape. This is the true problem, not the items women wear.
I am well aware that this postcard is probably one of the most polarising ones that I have ever written. I want to emphasise that I have zero – absolutely zero – religious, racist or populist motivation here. I was raised in Austria – even in 2018, a quite conservative catholic environment – and officially left church years ago. My partner has Muslim and Hindu heritage but both of us do not consider ourselves religious. And those of you who know me in person or have been reading my articles for a while are well aware of my political views. So, please, let’s leave all the religious/populist/racists arguments out of this…
I would also like to stress that I respect the choice of every single woman what she wants to wear – boobs out or covered up completely. I actually really do not care as long as she herself feels comfortable, provided it really is HER OWN choice – no matter if this choice is based on fashion trends, culture, religion, professional or other reasons. But what I do care about is the media and fashion conglomerates capitalising on contradictory brand stories and fuelling sexist conceptions. “No” does means “no”! Whatever we wear.
I would like to end this postcard by closing the circle back to the 1960s: Did these women take off their bras and cut off their skirts to look at our generation who either covers up or oversexualizses ourselves? I do not think so. They fought for our freedom. The freedom to dress along the spectrum because WE want it – not because society, men, the fashion industry, our family or anybody else makes us wear what they want us to. They fought against oversexualising women but at the same time they also stood for strong women who do not give a damn about being modest. Women are as bold, hard working and fierce as men, no need to be modest at all!