Thursday, 13 December 2018

fashion and #metoo: what fashion means for survivors of sexual assault

Lady Gaga at Elle's Women in Hollywood Awards via Hollywood Reporter

Trigger Warning: sexual assault mention, eating disorder mention, self-harm mention

Our lives are punctuated with clothing encased in memory. Clothes evoke nostalgia, a feeling, a longing. From our childhood fashion obsessions and cringe-worthy faux pas to the jumpers left behind by ex-boyfriends and the statement items that endure through the years. The contents of our wardrobes, past and present, represent something about ourselves and how we wish to be perceived by the world. Fashion, though its personal associations remain, has also become part of a larger movement. It no longer simply about individuals, but stretches beyond this into public conversations about important issues. At this year’s Golden Globes, black was reimagined not as a colour of mourning, but as a colour of solidarity. Attendees eschewed attention grabbing colours and wore black to support the Time’s Up movement, which aims to end sexual harassment in Hollywood and society overall. 

Historically, clothing has had an uncomfortable relationship with harassment. I was twelve-years-old the first time a man shouted at me from his van. I was walking back from a guitar lesson and I cried when I got home because I thought I had done something wrong. Were the jeggings I was wearing too tight? Should I have dressed in baggier clothes? What did I do to provoke it? In October, a House of Commons report declared that street harassment is ‘routine and relentless’ for women and girls. The news came just days after it was revealed that one in three girls is sexually harassed in public whilst wearing school uniform. Pornography is more at fault than fashion for the sexualisation of school uniforms, but that does not let fashion off the hook for the mass fetishization of teenage girls.

Fashion glorifies youth to a paedophilic extent, glamorising the bodies of pubescent girls. High fashion models traditionally have narrow hips and flat chests. Most start out in their teens before their bodies have fully developed. Though perceived as a female industry, the majority of fashion’s CEOs, shareholders and business leaders are still men. It is easy to see why this is an issue when fashion still represents only one type of woman; pretty, white, and sometimes frighteningly thin. In the Spring 2019 shows older models and larger body types were still vastly underrepresented. Models are presented to us like products with the message that young, slim, pretty women are worth our attention, whilst others are to be discarded and silenced.

Lady Gaga addressed the issue of media objectification in her inspiring speech on sexual assault and mental health at Elle’s Women in Hollywood event in October. “We are not just objects to entertain the world,” she said, “We are not simply images to bring smiles or grimaces to people’s faces. We are not members of a giant beauty pageant, meant to be pit against one another for the pleasures of the public.” This rings true for models in the fashion industry as much as it does for women in Hollywood. Female objectification in fashion and media dehumanises girls and women and this contributes to the mentality that means men think it is okay to harass schoolgirls in public. Gaga’s message was that we should pay attention to what women have to say, not just what they wear, but she also articulated the significance of fashion for survivors of sexual assault. “In this suit, I felt the truth of who I am well up in my gut,” she said. The suit in question, a grey oversized Marc Jacobs piece, reduced Gaga to tears. Our emotional response to clothes can be incredibly powerful. For Gaga this suit represented reclaiming her body in the wake of trauma. In an industry where ‘Who Wore it Better’ lists reduce women to objects, making a sartorial decision to carve her own space was a bold one.

Gaga is no stranger to carving out a unique space in the fashion world. In the late noughties, her outrageous outfits filled newspaper columns, becoming as famous, if not more famous, than her music. Whether she’s wearing a wild Philip Treacy hat or Alexander McQueen armadillo shoes, Gaga knows how to serve a look. She reached peak headline bait at the 2010 VMAs when she wore her infamous meat dress. One interpretation of the dress, designed by Franc Fernandez, is that it was a feminist statement about how women should not be treated like pieces of meat. As she said herself at the awards, “If we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones. I am not a piece of meat.” It seems as though Gaga’s relationship with fashion has shifted as she has opened up about her assault. Her outfits have become less attention-grabbing, even though the emotional meaning she ascribes to clothes has not waned. Now, she uses fashion as a means through which to talk about her pain. Unfortunately, Gaga was proved right about the media valuing a woman’s appearance more than her words when her Marc Jacobs suit made more headlines than her speech. Although it revealed a meaningful link between fashion and words, her outfit should not have become secondary to what she was saying. Sexual assault and mental health are urgent global issues which must be addressed. Gaga used clothing to lead onto this topic, yet whenever she mentioned fashion, the audience laughed. Despite the gravity of her message, fashion, a traditionally feminine interest, is still deemed laughable and frivolous. At no point does the discussion of her outfit trivialise the message of her speech. It only proves the vitality of clothing as part of recovery. We all have to get dressed every day. Why not make sure we wear what makes us feel most authentically ourselves?

Trauma and psychiatric disorders can change our relationship with fashion. Summers are no longer carefree days of t-shirts and sundresses, but of sweltering discomfort, because all that matters is hiding the scars on your arms and legs. What should be a joyful and creative exploration of the self through clothing becomes a minefield. Clothing sizes and their irregularity from store to store are triggering when you live with an eating disorder. Trying on clothes thus becomes a source of great anxiety. This is why Lady Gaga’s outfit is more than just a fashion statement. It is a beacon of hope. Being comfortable in yourself and your body is possible after surviving trauma. It might make you cry, but it can remind you who you are. Gaga reclaims baggy clothing; a style that is so often symbolic of insecurity and hiding your body. She reimagines it as a route to empowerment; a way to be listened to rather than merely looked at.

However, the fashion industry has not always been a welcoming environment for survivors of sexual assault. There have been accusations against many of the industry’s leading photographers, revealing how little protection there is for young models against influential and predatory men. Vogue suspended Bruce Weber and Mario Testino following several accusations against both, but fashion’s #MeToo journey is far from over. Fashion Kaiser Karl Lagerfeld revealed everything that is wrong with fashion’s attitude towards models when he said, “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent.” The fashion industry’s overwhelming gender imbalance in power means that men are leveraging their power to silence accusations. Models fear that they will lose jobs if they do not do as they are told; many of them too young to know what is and isn’t normal in the industry. British High Street giant Philip Green is the latest to face harassment claims. He reportedly paid a seven-figure sum to try and keep his name out of the press. For too long men like Green have been untouchable, but now we can hope that his time really is up.

Another reason why fashion is not a nurturing environment for assault survivors is its reverence of extreme thinness. The normalisation of low body weight in fashion validates disordered eating behaviours. Models were particularly thin at Hedi Slimane’s Celine debut. Phoebe Philo’s strong, independent CĂ©line woman was replaced by a series of emaciated party girls. That is not to say that strong, independent women cannot enjoy partying. Women are multifaceted and the fact that our dress can reflect that is what makes fashion so exciting. You can be a professional businesswoman one minute and a dancing queen the next. However, Hedi’s vision for Celine did not reflect this. It felt jarringly one dimensional. We want to see a future where fashion empowers and unites women.

Women’s suits are one trend that has done just that. This season, they have taken a rapid leap into the mainstream. No longer the reserve of conservative offices, the modern suit is definitely not about trying to fit into a man’s world. The 1980s power dressing movement, with shoulder pads galore, was partly about changing women’s bodies to make them appear bigger in stature in order not to seem physically smaller, thus weaker than men in business situations. Unlike the ‘80s, the 21st century suit moment is repositioning women on their own terms. A greater range of shapes, colours, fabrics, and fits mean that your suit can be as sumptuously feminine, wildly creative or fiercely androgynous as you would like. Today it is rare for a trend to come into fashion that is truly original, but women have more freedom than ever to dress how they choose. And there is a lot of choice. These choices inform the world of who we are. There is power in that, but it can also have darker consequences, especially for women.

Fashion does not exist in a vacuum. It is one of the quickest ways to make a snap judgement about someone. We form subconscious associations, but this can be problematic. In 2011, a Toronto police officer was recorded saying that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to avoid sexual assault. Rightful outrage ensued, and women wondered what “dressing like a slut” even means. Are children victims of abuse because they are “dressing like sluts”? What about teenage schoolgirls, two out of three of which have experienced street harassment whilst wearing school uniform? What about the one in six men that are sexually assaulted? Any link between clothing and sexual harassment is not only nonsensical but also dangerously sexist. From Toronto, SlutWalk was born. SlutWalk is an event in which thousands of women, and men, march to end rape culture. Many dress as if they were going on a night out, with the bravest even marching in lingerie. SlutWalk popularised slogans like “Little black dress does not mean yes” and “Whatever I wear, wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no.” The event has expanded and now takes place in cities across the world.


Fashion has always been a part of movements. Armies wear uniforms, cultures are differentiated by their dress and political parties have colours. Today we wear black in solidarity with Time’s Up like the Suffragettes wore white, purple and green a century before us. Women do continue to be judged for what they wear, but this can be just as liberating as it has historically been oppressive. When we acknowledge the power of fashion and harness it, we can spread an important message and change the world. So, in the words of Lady Gaga: Amen fashion.

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