What is the Tom Ford-led backlash against 'sexy' fashion telling us about womanhood in 2019?
Just a little fashion nerdery
To dress sexy or not is fashion’s biggest conundrum of late; this writer wonders, though, why we women should have to choose at all.
“Now is not a moment to be sexual. You actually can’t be sexual at the moment.” That wasn’t yet another male public figure bemoaning the vanished power to relentlessly hit on (translation: harass) women or give them an unsolicited squeeze without repercussions; it was designer Tom Ford speaking to The Guardian about his subdued but critically well-received FW19 runway showing last week.
Rest assured that hell hasn’t frozen over, though Ford is indeed the same man whose spring/summer 2003 campaign for Gucci featured the headless bottom half of a woman having the brand’s logo shaved into her pubic hair by a male counterpart. What’s noteworthy about Ford’s change of tune — which he’s entitled to, of course, because everybody grows and evolves — is that fall/winter 2019’s collection was foremost presented as a reaction against the “negative climate of the times in which we are living”. Viewed through that lens, his catwalk became the site of a search for solace; but something is troubling about the state of the world when feminine sensuality gets cast in a negative light.
Ford is far from the lone culprit in this. Thanks to renewed debate about women’s mobility, representation, institutionalised bias and rampant sexual harassment, conversations about the ‘look’ of female sexuality and/or empowerment have taken an interesting turn. In 2017, modest fashion — i.e. non-revealing clothing — popped up as a secular trend in publications including The New York Times, Forbes and Elle shortly after the inaugural edition of London Modest (although we would prefer to call it 'Muslimah' instead of 'modest') Fashion Week.
London Modest Fashion Week also coincided with the dawn of the United States’ Trump era, which led many writers to link fashion’s tilt towards covered-up clothes with the election of a known pervert as the American president; in many of these trend reports, Trump’s pantsuit-loving opponent Hillary Clinton even surfaced as an icon of modest dress and symbol of progressive feminine power. But the swinging pendulum between body-displaying and body-concealing silhouettes — which has, frankly, swung since whenever mankind first decided to cover its myriad dangly bits, *giggle* — raises the thorny question of why women’s bodies should bear the responsibility, for ostensibly the billionth time, of male abuses.
None of this would be an issue if sexiness wasn’t frequently sold to us as an either/or choice. Cultural theorists dubbed this the Madonna-whore complex; just as women were asked to take sides between Jackie Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s, Instagram memes now ask us to declare for either Kim Kardashian or Ruth Bader-Ginsburg (weird comparison, I know. Blame the Internet). The truth is that women — all three-odd billion of us — are a diverse bunch, and can in fact be different things at different times. The problem lies with patriarchal culture expecting us, impossibly, to either be one thing forever or everything at once.
In her eternally relevant 2006 essay What’s Wrong with Cinderella?, writer Peggy Orenstein distils the complexity of modern womanhood into a single, striking image: a little girl in a princess outfit, waving a magic wand. Until recent decades, the wand was not a feature of most princess costumes, as princesses were seldom the agents of change in their own stories. The wand’s contemporary presence in make-believe princess garb, Orenstein speculates, is symptomatic of the increasingly fraught demands of femininity. We learn from a young age to be gentle and kind, but assertive when need be (although never too much so). We're asked to seek but not be defined by romance, but God forbid we opt out completely. Tasked with embodying so many apparent contradictions, it’s no wonder that many little girls feel they need supernatural powers to navigate childhood.
A different breed of seemingly contradictory demands should be familiar to anyone who’s read generic fashion copy: this writer would wager that almost all of us have swallowed some ill-conceived jargon along the lines of 'feminine yet masculine' or 'strong yet sexy', which places random qualities in states of opposition without really needing to. All of it, ultimately, places pressure on women to strike some imagined perfect balance and cling on for dear life; in reality, however, our feelings and behaviours are constantly shifting.
Enough. Our bodies are not malleable canvases for cultural anxieties, and while Ford probably didn’t intend his words to be taken as a mandate, we should all be far more mindful about throwing out broad, simplistic 'shoulds' and 'shouldn’ts' concerning the female experience in 2019. To speak plainly, “Can't we just live already?!”.