A couple of weeks ago, I was at a local hair salon getting my yearly haircut. Being an awkward, antisocial kind of person, when the choice between reading trashy women’s magazines or uncomfortably making small-talk with my stylist arose, I automatically went for the magazines. But while flipping through the glossy pages of Vogue, I spotted something that really perturbed me – and I’m not talking about the fact that Vogue, and most other fashion magazines like it, are actually just 200 pages of stapled-together advertisements pretending to be informative journals. I’m talking about the fact that fashion magazines, adverts, billboards, and editorials are all full of one repetitive image: the decimation of women’s bodies. Whether it is violence in general, rape-like situations, eerily decapitated body limbs, or, most prevalently, the portrayal of a woman as a corpse, fashion photography has become another medium that seeks to oppress women, through the idea that violence against women is more than acceptable; it is a fashion statement.
This is not a new concept in the world of fashion. As early as the 1970’s, photographer Guy Bourdin was using the concept of dead women to sell shoes for Charles Jourdan. Photographs displaying women’s dismembered and lifeless legs featured prominently in this campaign, whether they were dressed in brightly-coloured tights and tied to a railway track, or abandoned on a beach with a woman, presumably calling for help, in a phone booth in the background. Other photographs by Bourdin for Jourdan include a chalk outline of a woman on the sidewalk with blood stains and one lonely shoe accompanying it, and a naked, glossy-eyed woman photographed from the waist up on a plastic studio set. And yet Guy Bourdin is hailed by many as “one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century” [Manolo Blahnik], and is praised for his deathly aesthetic and “sexual, voyeuristic mentality” [Glen Luchford]. However, tales from the sets of his photoshoots, as well as his personal life, suggest that his work was far more sinister than just an aesthetic or mentality. He “hung women from the ceiling, handcuffed them, bandaged them, made them cry, forced them to walk across a plank suspended above rats to get to the bathroom” [Gaby Wood, Death Becomes Her, The Observer April 2013]. Three of his lovers died in mysterious circumstances, and one attempted suicide in order to escape from his apartment where he was said to trap the women he was seeing, allowing them no form of outside communication.
Guy Bourdin is often compared to his colleague and contemporary Helmut Newton, another popular fashion photographer who was equally as sadistic and violent in his imagery. In 1997 Helmut Newton was shooting Redwall handbag advertisements featuring women wrapped in plastic, their faces covered, being shot at with a gun, and including the keyword ‘violence’ alongside his name in an internet search reveals various images with morbid overtones including one photograph that depicts a nude woman with a gun in her mouth, and another portraying a, predictably, naked woman lying dead on the sidewalk. These two photographers are famous and well-known names in the world of fashion photography, and are cited as inspiration for modern fashion editorials. They are names that trickle easily from the lips of photography tutors, are photographers who are routinely written about in essays and dissertations across the world. They have had retrospective exhibitions, films, and books written about them. Newton even has a gallery named after him in Berlin. But why? Why is death, violence, and sexual dominance celebrated in the world of fashion? Why is something that is primarily aimed at women so derogatory towards their target audience? And what influence does this have on the millions of people consuming this material every single day?
The world’s first fashion photographer was Edward Steichen. His photographs, all taken in black and white, feature only women, in elegant poses that show off the aesthetic of the garment being worn. Despite being a war photographer both before and after his commercial work, his fashion photography never included any images of violence or death. Following Steichen came George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst, both of whom developed on Steichen’s work to create fashion photography that conveyed a particular mood through location and the addition of extra models. Hoyningen-Huene in particular liked to portray romantic scenes and situations. But, again, no violence. Compare these photographers, then, to modern-day contemporary fashion photographers. It is difficult, nowadays, to look through any kind of magazine and not find at least one image that depicts a woman who is unconscious, being violently or sexually abused, or sexually objectified. Most recently, Marc Jacobs released an editorial that featured pop star Miley Cyrus sat on a beach surrounded by female corpses. Even in the image that is a close-up of her face, there is still an unconscious woman laying in the background. The images were controversial, and sparked a lot of conversation, but they are hardly an outlier in the statistics. And, now that the initial buzz and shock has died down, the controversy surrounding these images has dissipated too.
Considering the size of the audience that fashion photography reaches, this kind of imagery should be alarming. It isn’t just magazine editorials that these images are used for – they are blown-up for billboards that stretch along the sides of roads and in the centre of cities; they are used for posters in store windows; and many of the photographs used are simply stills taken from video shoots, which are then used for internet or television advertisements. Fashion imagery influences everything, with TV shows taking inspiration from latest trends for their characters, and music videos using high-fashion aesthetics to create cool, current looks for the artists. They reach everybody, from tiny toddlers walking down the street with their parents, to old-age pensioners looking through the insert that came with their Sunday newspaper. They reach adolescent teenage boys, and middle-aged men. And with that reach they spread one simple message: violence, death, rape, abuse are acceptable. In a way, fashion photography is worse than porn – at least on a superficial level. With porn, most people watching it can accept that it is an unreal situation and not accurate to real-life scenarios. With fashion, so many people aspire to be clones of the models and images depicted that the reality and the fiction merge into one. If violence and abuse is what is trendy, then what hope for the development of women’s rights do we have?
The most recent issue of Vogue Italia is based on taking a stand against violence against women. The editor, Franca Sozzani, has stated that “this is really a horror show, what we are looking at and what we see every day in every newspaper around the world is how fragile the woman still is today, and how she can be attacked, can be abused, can be killed” [The Independent]. Yet the photos she is using for the main editorial, entitled “Horror Story” feature women either running from men with weapons, or, as the popular promo image depicts, laying dead on the floor with blood dribbling from their heads whilst a man sits in the background, weapon in hand. These images are no different from the ones used across the field on a daily basis, and there is nothing about them that suggests a pro-women, anti-abuse message. I wonder if she understands the irony in creating a single issue of her magazine that is focussing on women’s rights, when the rest of the year she, and other fashion editors around the globe, are happy to use images that demean and degrade women. One issue is not going to make a difference, particularly when the images being used seem to glorify the message rather than defend against it. What good is one more aesthetically-pleasing editorial about abuse, in a world where this is the norm?
This isn’t the first time that Vogue have used violence against women to sell an issue, either. In 2010, they released an issue where the cover photograph featured Stephanie Seymour being choked by model Marlon Teixeira. The cover instantly sparked a controversy, and a letter to the company from Sanctuary for Families, Safe Horizon, Equality Now, and the New York chapter of NOW asked for the issue to be pulled from newsstands, writing; “while this cover was perhaps intended to shock and thrill potential readers, the truly shocking fact is that it glorifies violence against women as an act of love” and asking that Conde Nast pledge not to use similar imagery in future issues of Vogue. The cover was photographed by Terry Richardson, a known pervert and potential rapist who has worked for, and still photographs for, some of the biggest brands in the industry. Despite the many public accounts from models who have worked for Richardson, he is a hugely respected and powerful name in the photographic industry. And that is another part of the problem.
In an industry where the main audience is women, the majority percentage of people making the decisions, designing the editorials, and taking the photographs, are male. Whilst I myself was studying photography, I was told that the chances of me being successful in fashion were slim and that I would most likely end up in the styling or designing side of the industry. A female guest lecturer who came to visit our class told us that most women opt out of being photographers because “there is too much heavy lifting involved”. And, true to form, once we graduated from university it was mainly the male students who went on to work for big names and companies, whilst the women worked on blogs, attempted to start up their photography businesses, or, as predicted by my tutors, worked on the styling, designing, and admin side of photography. And yet we wonder why so many of the editorials we see in everyday magazines are full of misogynistic messages?
It is time for change. Not only is modern-day fashion glamorising abuse and death, it is still, despite years of criticism, almost entirely immovable in its stance regarding the size, colour, and age of most models used. Fashion is, and always has been, a pawn in the overruling influence of the patriarchy. It dictates what we should look like, and now it degrades and belittles the very safety and existence of women. It is an industry that is aimed at women, yet does not allow women to be involved in the very organisation and creation of it. But what can we do to change it? With such a huge audience and influence, there are far more women out there that would jump to the defence of fashion magazines rather than tackle the problem.
Thanks for reading. Here are a few bonus photographs of violence in the fashion photography of Dolce & Gabana, for your viewing displeasure: