Femininity and Fashion

Sofia Coppola often creates images which are ultra-feminine

Sofia Coppola often creates images which are ultra-feminine

This may seem like an obvious statement but it’s one I must ensure my readers are always aware: sex, gender, sexuality and fashion do not link. As explored in my post entitled “Fashion and Gender” I gave a brief history on how gender blurring is evident within men and women’s fashions in the earliest of civilisations: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries being the epitome of gender blurring within fashion. Both men and women’s clothing were highly elaborate. Wigs, make-up, jewels and rich textures were adorned by both sexes and were thought to be beautiful and fashionable regardless of the sex or gender who wore them. In modern society this has definitely changed.

Despite the ever growing unisex fashions and gender blurring styles for both sexes becoming increasingly mainstream; fashion is still deemed feminine. So whilst we are all aware that sex, gender, sexuality and fashion do not readily reflect one another fashion is still often linked to homosexuality, effeminacy and femininity. As we look back through history it seems fashion has always had a strong link to femininity which may explain modern society’s pre-conceptions of fashion being a girly thing, and if men happen to trespass they are instantly effeminate, “in touch with their feminine side” or even more stereotypically gay. I will now explore fashions connection to femininity in a range of different contexts to help work out why fashion is still seen as feminine or gay.

Women have long been associated with the making of clothes and women’s prowess with textiles was one means to enhance their reputation as ladies and suitable wives at a time when they had little economic independence from men. The manufacture of garments was for centuries in the delicate hands of women. In the seventeenth century, the century where both men and women dressed in elaborate bright clothing, high heels and wigs, needlework was thought to be ‘feminine’ work, unfit for men to do. Despite fashions being strikingly similar for both sexes, making clothes was a purely female pursuit. It was even thought to be morally good for women, thought to promote discipline and devotion as Jones (1996) points out.

Whilst stitching and sewing being viewed as morally good for women does seem quite objectifying and pathetic to women, women themselves did gain a sense of empowerment through making garments. Many women enjoyed feeling they had a sense of control over fashion as marchandes de modes in the ancient regime of pre-Revolutionary Paris. For example, dress maker Rose Bertin, who was the brainchild behind the extravagant garments worn by the excessive Marie Antoinette, gained much power and influence over her famous client and “provoked considerable censure”. Bertin was blamed for the this extravangance, accused of provoking, tempting and exploiting Marie Antoinette’s love of finery. According to Jones, shop girls or grisettes also gained control over fashion similarly to marachandes de modes. Shop girls often sold directly to aristocratic ladies and through jealousy of the women’s fortunes would “make their rivals ‘pay dearly’ for their pretty clothes” (1996:44).

Alongside women being associated with the making of clothes, there has existed also a metaphorical association. According to Jones, “women had for centuries been associated with inconstancy and change” (1996:35), characteristics which could also describe fashion. Fashion is forever changing and it’s considered a feminine attribute to be fickle and intuitive, thus in this sense fashion reflects the female psychology. Fashions change to suit the ever-changing mind set of the female it could be argued, thus reinforcing fashion as a feminine and girly.

As discussed previously since the Victorian era, female fashion has changed repeatedly whilst menswear has stayed relatively still. This could reflect the common pre-conception that men are logical, stern and lead. Men are the decision makers and once their mind is set, it’s set. Thus, it could be argued that men’s fashions haven’t changed nearly as much as females simply because it’s not in a man’s nature to do so. The three piece suit and simple clothing worked, why need for change? Of course as society’s views on gender and beauty are fast evolving menswear today is becoming more and more feminine, but overall, changes in men’s fashion have always lagged behind in comparison to womens.

Fashions connection to femininity also has a mythical and religious ground. Tseelon (1997) examines how ancient myths about femininity have informed western attitudes towards women. In particular she examines the myths of Eve, Pandora, Lilith and the Virgin Mary. She suggests that between them, these archetypal figures inform western moral attitudes towards women and through these “she is portrayed as disguising behind false decoration, using her beauty and finery as a vehicle to dazzle men to their destruction” (1997:12). This attitude is evident in Judaeo Christian teachings that women have been associated with temptations of the flesh and decoration, one of the ways in which she is able to ensnare men. In Christian teachings also the female body is to be feared as it is the location of desires and “wicked” temptations which had to be disavowed for the sake of the soul. Woman, as a descendant of Eve, was perceived to be more susceptible to temptations of the flesh and could also use her body to tempt men from the path of God. This links with the story of the fall found in the book of Genesis.

Both the decorated female body and naked female body are problematic to Judaeo Christian morality. Nakedness became a shameful thing within Christianity ever since the Fall. The Fall is blamed on women, thus “the links between sin, the body, woman and clothes are easily forged” (1997:14). It’s not a surprise then that giving its associations to sexuality and sin; female clothing is the subject of heated debate. According to Tseelon, Christianity countered its fears about women by attempting to control her sexuality by covering her flesh, concealing her from lustful view. However, the female body cannot be stripped from all desires and sexuality through clothes. Clothes, “through their proximity to the body encode the game of modesty and sexual explicitness, denial and celebration of pleasure”.

This play of nakedness and dressed, public and private, is a common one in western culture. The fashion world has continually played with this conflict with the female body and further reinforces fashion as woman. The introduction of underwear as outerwear during the final decades of the twentieth century is a good example of the conflict between modesty and exhibitionist within female fashion. Underwear as outerwear became the site of empowerment for women, a chance to reclaim their sexuality and find pleasure in the potent appeal of erotic fashions, which had been for so long denied to them.

Marie_Antoinette in1767

Marie_Antoinette in1767

However, the fashionable styles for the “public” women of the stage and screen, body exposing costumes, shimmering fabrics and extravagant decoration and lingerie fashions worn in “everyday” life has been a staple of dress codes for centuries. The use of underwear as outerwear used to subvert distinctions between public and private was popularised as early as the eighteenth century, by Marie Antoinette, painted by Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun in 1783. This combination of dress and undress has persisted within fashion due to its mysteriousness and erotic intent. The ambiguity of underwear as outerwear, caught forever between dress and undress has a disturbing yet fascinating erotic effect, playing upon our fear of the uncertain. As Rebecca Arnold points out in the chapter entitled “Underwear and Outerwear” from “Fashion, Desire and Anxiety”: “We are unsure how to respond to the sight of women seemingly dressed to go out and yet clad only in transparent fabrics or items of lingerie.” (2001:67) Such styles are both empowering and objectifying, further reinforcing femininity as a sexed body and as mere parts.

"Gender Studies" by Bettina Rheims

“Gender Studies” by Bettina Rheims

This notion of naked and hidden, dress and undress may be why Bettina Rheims’ series entitled; “Gender Studies” is so intriguing. It reinforces that element of mystic and ambiguity through the use of transparent and fleshy fabrics draped across her subjects. Rheims’ cleverly reveals certain body parts whilst hiding others, forcing the viewer to question what is feminine and masculine within the image. This mysterious style also reflects the idea of a “third gender”; these are mystical creatures that move away from the gender binary preferring not to categorise themselves as neither male nor female. As human beings we are generally uncomfortable with ambiguity and Rheim’s images push us to accept and appreciate gender trouble. The images consist of transparent materials, dress and undress, hidden and revealed, a careful construction to reflect the fluidity and potential mysteriousness of sex and gender. These notions and styles could be interesting aesthetics to emulate within my own photography of my own trans and gender-bending subjects. It will enhance ambiguity, adding fuel to the gender confusion I want to achieve through my images. But what items specifically could I use: lingerie, translucent fabrics or underwear as outerwear? This brings me back to lingerie within mainstream fashion to use as reference when styling my images.

In 1950’s cinema, cinema continued to provide blueprints for the dubious conflict of lingerie with representations of female sexuality which would be continually reworked in subsequent decades. There’s proto-sex kitten played by Caroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956) in little lacy nighties, Liz Taylor clad in soft ivory-coloured, lace trimmed slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Their subverted nonchalance of their deliberate undress was instantly viewed as inflammatory; the League of Decency condemned Baby Doll on its release. This belief that women were to be sexually submissive and covered was also evident within 1950’s advertisements, which is probably why seeing women so “undressed” was so shocking.

The end of World War II saw the men coming back home and women being sent out of the factories back into the dreaded kitchen. Instead of fighting Germans they would now be fighting something much more irritating: germs. Women were now expected to fulfil their role of loyal doting housewife and mother, reflected and reinforced through advertising. During this period women were often portrayed as consumers, particularly in terms of assuming domestic family roles such as homemaker, cook, mother, cleaner and as finding satisfaction in shopping, as this had become their day-to-day reality.


1950’s Ad

As a result of these re-defined gender roles, 1950’s American advertisements exhibit rampant stereotyping and gender bias, the idea that a woman should live for her husband and family, which became a dominant and majorly influential image. These vivacious ads reveal a sexist, degrading and sometimes even violent attitude towards women. In the 1950’s, the “ideal” woman, was to be a housewife, who would please and attend to every need of her husband and children, whose whites would be whiter than white and kitchen equipped with all the latest gadgets, but what’s more to be perfectly made up and beautiful at all times.

Almost all 1950’s advertisements were vibrant and cheerful, depicting the housewife as beautiful, slender and pristine-even whilst cleaning the floor! The image of glamorous and happy housewife was immensely popular to both males and females and set an unrealistic and dangerous image of “ideal” femininity. The women are usually depicted wearing a full face of make-up, styled hair and figure hugging clothes whilst cleaning or using the latest gadgets. Females were portrayed as submissive, their bodies sexual. These elements of “traditional” or “ideal” femininity which still engulf visual media today (see previous posts here: ) I will explore when creating my own images. I want the individuals I capture and their genders to remain ambiguous but to still implement typical gender “norms” and the female style: submissive, gentle but sexual are ones many artists have encapsulated when portraying “ideal” femininity. Read more on 1950’s adverts here: 1950’s

Thirty years after the 1950’s Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana were to base their careers on the appeal of this style. “They consciously drew upon collective memories of Liz Taylor in the 1950’s and of Fellini’s voluptuous stars of the 1960’s to add layers and tongue in cheek, pastiched eroticism to their creations” (p.70). I too want to add a touch of feminine sexuality when photographing my subjects but in a subtle, way, further reinforcing this idea of femininity being linked to gentleness and submissiveness. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s Dolce & Gabbana produced dresses in Sicilian black, which accentuated the female form, with softly corseted décolletage and visible underwear detailing. This style of dress I photographed one of my gender bending males in as he adores little black dresses! Below is a behind the scene photo!

Transparent clothing within fashion also reinforces our fascination with dress and undress on the female body. The wearer reveals her body as an emblem of her femininity, making the onlooker believe they know more than they really do about her. An outfit from Prada’s second line, Miu Miu, of spring summer 1997, reflects this. Layers of transparent white cloth and yet reveal the body, hinting at innocence and artlessness on their childish vest and gym knickers shaping. The silhouette is blurred, her femininity made hazy. Rebecca Arnold in “Fashion, Anxiety and Desire” comments on this collection and its lucrative power, “the playful layered references in her dress is disingenuous nod at the desire for openness; however, we seem to know everything, yet nothing about her” (p.71) This style of clothing which is also evident in Bettina Rheims series, “Gender Studies” is one I want to emulate.

This research has influenced me to photograph my subjects in light, tight or even transparent clothing including white vest tops and boxers such as Miu Mui’s collection from 1997. I feel this styling will reinforce ambiguity and a perplexity between hidden and revealed. These individuals are mysterious beings that move away from any confines or restrictions set out by society, their gender identities are equally as defying and photographing them in revealing light textures whilst hiding any features that will reveal their true gender identity I feel will work really well. Good research!


Entwistle, J (2000) The Fashioned Body. USA Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Arnold, R (2001) Fashion, Desire and Anxiety. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd. (p.66-71)


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