I was on the subway, in high school, with my best friend. Above her was an ad for a for-profit college. “How bad do you want to be good,” it asked. I snickered. “How badly do you want to do well (Steve Jobs)/good (Gandhi)?” Who the hell wants to be good, anyway? I’m sure that Katherine Gibbs or whatever it was had soon tanked—on those very grounds, no less.
A few years ago, I was watching The L Word, that old bastion of realism and truth, and heard Max tell a story about crabs. Apparently, you put a whole bunch of male crabs in a barrel and they build a ladder to get themselves out, but the female crabs are the reason why everyone holds one another down. I don’t buy it, neither does Google, but I was reminded a bit of this when my favorite Tidbits sent me this Man Repeller piece on women in fashion. Why is fashion so male-dominated? Well, is fashion male-dominated? How are we defining male-dominated? Are we talking about the male-female ratio of designers, creative directors, stylists, assistants, models, editors, CEOs, the people who sweep up afterwards, WHO? Oh, we’re talking about designers. Good. Why does the Man Repeller writer zero in on designers?* Would you believe that a favorite professor has accused me of always answering questions with questions?
I find her line of reasoning problematic for a few reasons.
1. Head designers are just that. Heads. There are necks and loads of other moving parts that make a design house what it is, and while a creative director and/or head designer is a centrally important component he or she is most certainly not the only thing that is keeping the house running. Zeroing in on the head designer, an area where we happen to have a preponderance of males, reminds me of the art v. craft debates. Is being a designer the art where there happen to be a lot of males, or is designing an art because there are a lot of male designers? There are seamstresses and beadworkers and stylists and magazine editors who are wiling away at their crafts, never to ascend to the much-vaunted level of artist, of maleness.
2. There are several layers to look at here, and I think that LS scrapes the surface. Are female names being “discarded” during boardroom talks about who helms a label, or are men producing better work? If so, why? This, for me, is the central question. For years, I thought I was a literary misogynist because I didn’t like any of the work I was reading from female authors. The answer to my concerns was pretty simple. I was reading female-authored work that sucked. Plain and simple. I read better male work. Nowadays, it’s actually the reverse. We’ll talk about that another day, though. If the work is bad, why is it bad? By which rule is it being measured? Who sets the standards, and are there problems inherent in them? Let’s say it’s not about the work: Are men socialized to view ambition differently, and to assign themselves a different (say, more active) role within their self-constructed view of their careers, and thus navigate the workplace differently? Is that what this is? I read ski books all the time, and Ski Woman’s Way critiqued Skiing from the Head Down for dismissing as absurd the influence of your mother telling you that doing something was improper. Nice girls are not the ugly sort of ambitious. They are good friends, good daughters, good people, good girls. Good girls don’t ski hard. There are also probably a lot of other, useful-in-the-workplace things that they don’t do, either. It’s unbecoming, after all.
3. She’s looking at high-fashion, high-concept houses. I’m not saying that they are beyond the intellectual grasp of the everyday woman, but they certainly are beyond the means of your average person. Marissa Webb helms Banana Republic’s creative team, Jenna Lyons is at J. Crew, Lisa Axelson is at Ann Taylor. Zara was cofounded by a woman. Why focus on luxury? While they do, to a certain extent, set the tone, the Internet means that we’re moving beyond the age of Miranda Priestly’s cerulean speech.
Furthermore, the people who own the conglomerates that control luxury houses are frequently not self-made. Luxury is often the product of the snowball effect of antiquated European succession laws, (some of) which only recently shook off their gender bias. So, yes, males like Pinault and Arnault were able to head PPR (which I think is now called something else, isn’t it?) and LVMH, and now Delphine Arnault gets to benefit from selective placement the way that generations of men did before her. Let’s not even get into the influence of male perspective on the selection of which houses got bought and thus preserved, or which designers got hired. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just saying it is.
Here’s the thing: I love fashion. I’ve gotten the, “You?! love fah-shun?!” googly eyes before, and the answer is yes. I look forward to the shows every season, even the weird liminal resort and pre-fall ones, and follow fashion news with great attention. Naturally, I have strong opinions about this. When I think about the way that I break up every season, there are two camps: Shows where I think, “Damn, I want to sew those things,” and shows where I want to be that woman. The latter are usually Dries van Noten, Wes Gordon, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Ghesquiere when he was at Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs when he was at Louis Vuitton, and the less-celebrated Italian houses like Max Mara, Kiton, and Piazza Sempione. Also, Akris. Always Akris. I want to sew things from Lela Rose, Oscar de la Renta, Dior, Stella McCartney, Carolina Herrera, Céline, Chloé, Tibi, Milly, J. Crew, and the like. There are a lot more women on the latter list than on the former. I have no idea why that is.
Self-interrogation time. Is my aspiration to be the sort of woman presented in male-produced shows the product of my desire to reflect our culture’s phallogocentric (fancypants crit theory word drop for the privileging of the male perspective) view of women? Do I then “settle” for the feminine? Do you? I’m not sure. I need more time with it.
*The piece itself kind of hops about. Its URL shortens to female CEOs, it talks about designers, but the title umbrellas out to fashion generally. I’m not sure where the author stands, quite frankly.