Transgender representation in fashion – Part 2

By Siân Hunter

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as reality television star and former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, poses in an exclusive photograph made by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair magazine

Caitlyn Jenner by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair magazine and released by Vanity Fair on June 1, 2015. 

In part 1 of this blog I explored the theory behind the ways we represent gender, using Judith Butler’s ideas of performativity. I will now apply this to representations of transgender individuals in fashion media.

Returning to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, for her media debut as Caitlyn, her chosen look is incredibly feminine. After identifying as a gender that she felt unable to share for so long, it is understandable that when she finally presents this identity to the public it should strictly conform to its norms. As Butler writes, ‘Identifying with a gender under contemporary regimes of power involves identifying with a set of norms that are and are not realizable, and whose power and status precede the identifications by which they are insistently approximated.’ (Butler, 1993: p126).
Fashion as a mirror and a medium
As gender is becoming an increasingly popular topic of discussion, and there are debates surrounding the inclusions of more than two genders, it logically follows that fashion brands and press seek to be a part of this cultural conversation.

It is important to note that the transgender individuals currently represented in fashion all have a certain status. Caitlyn Jenner is an Olympic gold medal-winning athlete who has already ‘earned’ her place in the public eye, and Laverne Cox is an influential actor. Along with Andreja Pejic, all are conventionally attractive women who could easily ‘pass’ as female. Representations of transgender individuals are increasing, but only a certain category of transgender beauty is allowed to be seen.

& other stories

Advertising campaign from & Other Stories {source}

The rules for high street fashion are a little different to those luxury design houses that reserve substantial budget for spectacular runway shows and advertising campaigns. High street brands must appeal to a broader demographic and designs must be accessible. This makes & Other Stories’ use of an entirely transgender creative team for their The Gaze & Other Stories collection (see Appendix 6) an exceptional step forward for transgender representation in fashion. Not only is this a high street brand that sells at a much more affordable price point, but also the campaign was shot, styled, and modelled by transgender men and women.

It is important that the creation of these images is directed by transgender individuals. As Goldsworthy writes, ‘Fashion photography has always and almost exclusively been about and directed at women, but the images have almost always been created and controlled by men, and as such are inevitably suspect from a feminist perspective’ (Goldsworthy, 1988: p110). Only transgender individuals can truly know how they would want to be represented, so this campaign allows us some insight into how gender is envisioned by those who do not wish to be confined by norms.

The future of fashion and gender
As Butler suggests, ‘if sex does not limit gender, then perhaps there are genders, ways of culturally interpreting the sexed body, that are in no way restricted by the apparent duality of sex’ (Butler, 1999: p143). However, it is impossible to create new gender identities by constantly reinforcing the idea of male and female. As Butler writes, ‘The citing of the dominant norm does not, in this instance, displace that norm; rather, it becomes the means by which that dominant norm is most painfully reiterated as the very desire and the performance of those it subjects.’ (Butler, 1993: p133).

Just as fashion has been instrumental in the establishment of gender norms, so will it also be key to this assertion of gender potential. Just as the repeated presentation of exaggerated femininity and masculinity has cemented gender norms, so can new gender identities become established through the use of models who blur gender boundaries, through clothing that subverts gender norms, and through the involvement of creatives who understand the tensions and ambivalences of contemporary society.

References:

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge

Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble. Tenth Anniversary Edition. London: Routledge

Goldsworthy, L. (1988) ‘Commercial images of fashion’ in Ash, J. & Wright, L (eds) Components of dress. London: Routledge, pp. 110-113

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