When this picture of Louis Vuitton's most recent show cast was posted by LOVE, it was unexpectedly linked on Reddit. Predictably, the majority of the 1700+ comments left by Reddit's overwhelmingly male readership are rabid criticisms of the women's looks.
"There's a few lookers in there, but most of them look like aliens," wrote one of the nicer ones. There was a ready supply of coke jokes, cheeseburger jokes, coke-and-cheeseburger jokes. And then yet more cracks about heroin, meth, and sandwiches. This kind of commentary is hardly uncommon. Whenever a model is mentioned in the news, reams of commenters — presumably male — immediately appoint themselves to judge her "hotness." And they always find it lacking.
It's almost cute the way they seem to imagine their opinions matter.
So let them criticize. That's kind of the point. Modeling is just one of the many areas of the fashion industry that does not give much consideration to men and their alleged needs. It is not created or intended to serve men's tastes. Although the modeling industry obviously suffers from some significant blind spots — it is generally ageist, size-ist, and racist, for starters — with those handicaps acknowledged, I have always felt that fashion still represents a fairly extraordinary diversity of female beauty. What these men are remarking on — the wide-set eyes, the strong noses, the high foreheads — is merely fashion's long-established tendency to find and glorify the most unusual good looks, rather than the interchangeably pretty, thin-but-curvy, pneumatic appearances that are validated by beer ads and Maxim throughout the West. Models can't be merely pretty; pretty doesn't cut it. Fashion sends the message that it is better to look interesting. It's frankly true that many models are not necessarily "attractive," which is a passive word and a poor synonym for beautiful, anyway. "Attractiveness" as a concept practically contains the male gaze. In what other context than high fashion would a woman like Ranya Mordanova, with her milk-pale skin and black bowl cut, be recognized as beautiful? Maybe Mariacarla Boscono, who comes in for special criticism on Reddit for her wide-set brown eyes, isn't really "pretty" by the debased standards of that site and its users. But she is beautiful. And while she might not cut it in a Budweiser ad, I'm glad fashion values her striking appearance.
And a few things: one, these are reference photos taken from fittings for a runway show. They are casual snapshots, most likely taken with a point-and-shoot by someone whose full-time job is not photography. I'm saying this not because I think the women pictured here look "bad" — I'm saying this because anyone who would take these photos as a totally, 100% faithful representation of what these women "really" look like (i.e. "busted") is a fool who doesn't understand that all photography is a manipulation of reality. They are no more "real" than the candid, unretouched photographs of these same women that were taken by professionals with professional-grade equipment during the actual Louis Vuitton show or the retouched editorial photos that make it into fashion magazines. They are different. That's all.
Fashion is an industry dominated by women. The workforce is majority female. Fashion magazines and women's magazines are largely interchangeable as categories. We out-spend men on fashion and beauty products more than two-to-one. And while it's true that industries can become female-dominated in part because of discrimination and lack of alternative opportunities, and that female-dominated sectors tend to be more poorly paid than similar male-dominated professions, I happen to believe that part of the reason why fashion is of interest to so many women — and also, why we feel so betrayed when fashion disappoints us — is that women feel a sense of ownership of it. Fashion is ours. I don't mind at all that some men — maybe even many men — don't "get" what's impressive about an Avedon photograph of a skinny girl in a couture dress. I can say this: The opinions of a bunch of Reddit users will not enter into Marc Jacobs' and his casting director's consciousness when they set about assembling next season's runway cast. Men and their tastes dictate so much in this world, but this is one thing they don't get a say in.
Obviously, the male-friendly Marilyn Monroe beauty standard was unattainable for most women. The thinner, taller, and more eccentric beauty standard of contemporary high fashion is just as rigid and remote. But while most girls who like fashion will never have Karlie Kloss's build, some of them may have her quirky eyebrows, or her ears. Or they may have a cleft chin, like Angela Lindvall's. Or wide-set eyes, like Jourdan Dunn. Or freckles, like Caroline Trentini. Or short hair like Alek Wek's. Or Lara Stone's square jaw. All those features are things those Redditors are calling flaws — but I like that fashion calls them beautiful.
In a world where our appearance, and our performance of our gender, is policed in so many different ways, I'd argue that it's valuable that one of the main engines of women's representation at least has the inclination to recognize a wide array of beauty. Editorial photography tends to highlight models' particular physical idiosyncrasies, and the effect is generally one of celebration rather than censure. Fashion has proven its appetite for difference, for the proudly abnormal; it just needs to set its parameters a little bit wider, to find aesthetic interest in different body shapes and in different races and in women over the age of, say, 20. Anyone who's ever been made to feel like she looked "weird," though, may already identify with plenty of the imagery fashion generates. Seriously, these women look bloody fantastic. Because they are unusual, not in spite of it.
Vuitton Heads [LOVE Blog]
Those Aren't Mugshots. Just Louis Vuitton Models Without Makeup. [Reddit]