Friday, July 14, 2017

The Problem with American Vogue's August Cover

The fashion industry has a natural affinity with buzzwords. In the past few years, perhaps since 2013, fashion designers and editors alike have explored, loosely or explicitly, the notion of “gender fluidity”. Not a collection passes by during fashion week without a reference to ever-changing gender codes. Designers oftentimes express themselves in a poetic manner—see J.W. Anderson’s seminal Fall 2013 show, the oeuvre of Rick Owens, newcomer Charles Jeffrey—while others swathe their press releases in obfuscating subtext pertaining to the subject. 

American Vogue, possibly the most prestigious yet problematic institution, published their August 2017 issue yesterday afternoon. The Inez van Lamsweerde and Vindooh Matadin-lensed cover sees the ardent romance of model Gigi Hadid and her musician boyfriend, ex-boyband member Zayn Malik dressed in Gucci. The cover simply states the couple “Shop Each Other’s Closets” but the social media coverage takes things one step forward: “Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik Are Part of a New Generation Embracing Gender Fluidity.” The Vogue Runway Twitter veered into embarrassing territory with their headline: “Fashion is in the midst of a genderquake,”, a truly awful portmanteau. 
The accompanying article doesn’t delight, unless you revel in three neophytes (Hadid’s youngest sibling, Anwar, appears in the editorial) attempting to have an intelligent discussion about gender. On dressing, Hadid says, “it’s not about gender. It’s about, like, shapes. And what feels good on you that day. And anyway, it’s fun to experiment.” Malik is quick to mention how he borrows clothes from his girlfriend on a regular basis. Borrowing from your partner’s wardrobe, opposite gender or not, does not mean one is gender fluid. Gender fluidity, or genderqueer, is defined as a “category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.” What is at play here is androgyny, the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. It is common for couples to exchange clothing items, it isn’t a recent phenomenon. 

The styling in the editorial, by fashion editor Tonne Goodman, is about flaunting “the season’s best gender bending looks.” The usual suspects feature: Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Prada, Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton. It should be noted that the clothes are exclusively menswear or womenswear, and with one or two exceptions are worn by the prescribed gender, rather than genderless. Labels such as Telfar, Vaquera, Eckhaus Latta, Y/Project, Vetements, whose output reflects unisex dressing were left out in favour of advertisers. Understandably, advertisers will expect bang for their buck but to authentically address the topic it would be fair to include the work of designers who gender fluidity, unisex clothing is a way of life rather than a trendy soundbite.
There are redemptive parts of the article where author Maya Singer investigates gender fluidity as a fashion concept and those challenging traditional notions of masculinity. She looks to the work of J.W. Anderson, Grace Wales Bonner, Alessandro Michele. Secondly, she looks at pop cultural examples of androgynes or those identifying or portraying themselves as gender fluid. She interviews Tyler Ford, an agender poet, about his relationship with gender binary and his transgender identity. However, it all segues back to the cover stars. 

It is not the first time American Vogue find themselves embroiled in scandal. They came under fire when model Karlie Kloss appeared as a geisha in a ‘Japanese-inspired’ editorial in the March issue. It was accused of culturally appropriating and being racist. In the same issue they were slammed for photoshopping plus-size model Ashley Graham’s curvaceous figure—a repeat offence, might I add. It is apparent that Vogue are pursuing their purpose—albeit tardily—but their lucidity and delivery are beyond substandard and wildly jejune. The interest in certain topics—whether it be spotlighting the fact that not all models conform to the industry standards, exploring indigenous cultures or relevant cultural subjects such as gender, sexuality, race—is a mere guise, the same one used by the aforementioned fashion designers. It isn’t about pushing the dialogue forward, it’s about chugging along with the zeitgeist and latching onto whatever it takes to remain relevant. (That issue isn’t exclusive to American Vogue: it’s an industry-wide pandemic.)

It is incontrovertibly wrong to photograph a cover which highlights a heteronormative relationship and simply attach an unrelated, but undoubtedly important, tagline to it. If American Vogue truly wanted to express their alacrity to support this movement—especially during the month when Pride festivals are taking place globally—they could’ve enlisted model and transgender rights activist Hari Nef, model Jayden Smith, actress Amandla Stenberg to front the August issue. Not only would you have extolled cover subjects who photograph a dream, you would have those moderately educated on gender theory engaging in thoughtful conversations about it. 
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