Somewhere in L.A. American Apparel CEO, Dov Charney, tosses his head back. His neck is damp and sweaty.
Small hairs stick to his forehead. He fantasizes about sleeping with his employees. And he laughs. And laughs and laughs.
American Apparel is built on the appeal of the risque. Controversy. Every neon thong leotard and gold lame jumpsuit is meant to provoke. To offend "mainstream" sensibilities. To attract a consumer that desires to (in some tame way) walk on the wild side by proxy.
Charney is a disgusting little man and he loves it.
He wants it that way.
Keeping this important fact in mind, let's take a closer look at their new more sophisticated, expensive and classy "New Standard" style direction. To quote an email sent by AA management regarding grooming standards and reported by Gawker last week:
Please keep in mind that American Apparel is a retailer that celebrates natural beauty. We encourage employees to feel comfortable in their natural skin and natural state. This aesthetic is a part of the company image; as we do not photoshop our advertisements and our models appear in their natural state...Makeup is to be kept to a minimal...Eyebrows must not be overplucked..
At first glance, it is a seemingly refreshing code. Seemingly in support of the natural beauty of women. Seemingly a wonderful alternative to the glossy and overly airbrushed fashion ads we are accustomed to. Seemingly empowering. But do not be fooled. After all, this is Dov dubious-history-of-sexual- harassment-charges Charney we're talking about.
First, it must be mentioned that if this is in fact a move in support of the natural beauty of women, it is the "natural" white female that is celebrated. There is a glaring lack of diversity on the company's site and in ads. Sure, sure, there are a few sprinklings of brown about, but more often than not the representations are quite fair and with "that good hair." Many of the girls look multiracial and while I am fully in support of this (as a multiracial woman myself), there is a definite avoidance in AA ads of anything that can be solidly identified as plain ol' Black. The lighter the skin, the nicer the hair- the better. As an AA manager was told in regards to hiring at casting calls:
"none of the trashy kind that come in, we don't want that. we're not trying to sell our clothes to them. try to find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair, you know?"
If this doesn't already make you want to throw away your Fine Ribbed Jersey Tri-blend Interlock Nylon Scoop Neck Pencil dress, read on.
This new direction in reality has nothing to do with the power of a woman's natural beauty. Not even white women. It is simply a continuation of woman as 100% sexual object. Only now without makeup. And this is significant.
Fashion should embrace "bare faced" women. Not because they are any more powerful or liberated or attractive than a woman in makeup, but because they aren't any less so.
A woman in her so-called natural state is a beautiful thing, but through the hypersexual and exploitative gaze of AA, it becomes something else entirely. It is a clever way of emphasizing youth, vulnerability and a hint of unwilling exposure.
An American Apparel image of a barely legal woman without makeup, coquettishly offering up her ass, is not evidence that AA supports a woman's "natural" charms. Sure, the company "encourages their employees to feel comfortable in their natural skin and natural state" but the image they portray in fact has little to do with beauty, and everything to do power. It is the sexual appeal of a young and vulnerable woman disguised as a celebration of organic beauty.
The use of cosmetics, and the grooming of eyebrows are an indication of a certain maturity among American women. Perhaps it shouldn't be this way, but thirteen-year-old girls will still reach for the tweezers and lipstick in attempt to woo that stud of a 17-year- old boy and demonstrate their sophistication. We associate arched eyebrows and makeup with womanhood. These are also efforts a woman makes in order to look and feel more attractive and comfortable with her appearance. For many women, makeup is power. It is in a way a kind of armor, donned before interacting with others. Its use may be read as a signal that a woman is prepared to be seen. She is a participant in receiving the public gaze.
Consider an AA ad featuring a very young woman with her legs spread extra wide for the camera. Let's say she is wearing lipstick. In the context of this ad, this detail sends us a signal: She, in some tiny way, plays a role in her sexualization. Good or bad. Misguided or not, she gives some evidence of power. She has made a decision: to put on lipstick.
Consider the same sexually raw ad this time without the makeup. A small seemingly insignificant detail, but one that in the context of a highly sexual fashion spread (pun intended) speaks volumes. She has no defenses. Her armor has been removed (and in fact expressly forbidden). She is as young, bare, unexperienced, and malleable as legally possible. A naked and unaltered page in high waisted lace shorts. All the better for Dov Charney to get off on.
Kartina Richardson is a writer, filmmaker and playwright. She runs the sites thismoi.com and mirrorfilm.org where she explores race, gender, pop culture and her love of film.
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