Fashion

07.02.14

Cara Delevingne, Ireland Baldwin, and How Sexually Uninhibited Models Are Bucking the Male Gaze

Cara Delevingne and Karlie Kloss have matching tattoos and kiss on the mouth. In a fashion industry geared toward turning straight men on, these models are bucking the male gaze.

One of the strangest paradoxes of the fashion industry is how, even though the majority of the customers are female, somehow the marketing seems largely geared toward the eyeballs and interests of straight men. Indeed, it’s often uncomfortably so, with images that shoot well past merely being sexually interesting for straight men and well into the realm of reducing women to objects whose sexuality seems to exist for no other purpose but for male consumption. The industry seems to assume that female audiences see themselves not really as consumers, per se, but as products for male consumption and to see the fashion industry as merely as form of assistance in making themselves the most marketable products for men to consume as possible.

But, increasingly, it’s becoming evident that women actually want something else from fashion. Women don’t see themselves as products to be sold and don’t like marketing that assumes that’s what they get out of fashion. On the contrary, female consumers are increasingly interested in fashion that frames female sexuality not as merely a toy for men to play with, but as something that belongs to women themselves, to be used primarily for female pleasure. You know, the way men view their own sexuality.

To this end, you’re beginning to see more fashion models who are open about having sex lives constructed around their own needs and desires. In some cases, they’re even going so far as to suggest that they can have sexual relationships with other women, all without it being some performance for men. Sure, you still have models like Miranda Kerr presenting bisexuality as a tantalizing possibility about themselves while reaffirming to male audiences that they are really only interested in men, which is erotic without threatening the idea that model’s sexuality is an item for men to own.  But some models are embracing a queer approach to sexuality that suggests, gasp, that being with a woman can be an end in and of itself and not just a performance for a man.

Cara Delevingne and Karlie Kloss, two leading models of the moment, have a very public friendship that defies the expectation that fashion models prioritize their relationships with men over women. The women’s relationship, in fact, defies efforts to put it into a simple box. They have matching tattoos and have been spotted kissing on the mouth, but they aren’t playing it up for the cameras and don’t seems particularly interested in if it’s turning men on or not. In a sense, the ambiguous nature of their relationship—is it sexual or not?—stands in contrast with the long-standing assumption that female models are there for male consumption. These women have their private life and you are not invited to even know, exactly, what it is. It belongs only to them.

The model Ireland Baldwin is less ambiguous but even more defiant when it comes to her relationship with the rapper Angel Haze. The two are dating and love posting pictures of themselves canoodling and kissing, and when much of the media insisted on calling them “friends,” Haze spoke out. “An interracial gay couple, I mean that’s just weird for America right now. We f**k and friends don’t f**k. I have never f**ked one of my friends,” she said, holding back not one whit.

While fashion has never shied away from images of women sexually interacting with each other, it was always in service of exciting men and not assumed to be something women want for themselves. But for these women, it’s the opposite: The relationship is clearly marked as one they’re conducting on their own terms, for themselves, with no male input necessary. It’s appealing to a new kind of female consumer of fashion, one who sees fashion not as a skill to master to attract men, but a fun thing to do for yourself, regardless of male opinion.

Not that you have to be in a same-sex relationship, of course, to see self-presentation more about your own desires and sexuality than as a way to appeal to men. These two examples simply stick out because the lack of any male involvement makes it hard to deny that the shift is away from what men want to see in woman and toward what women want to see in themselves. But there is plenty of other evidence that female consumers are slowly pulling the fashion industry away from the assumption that it’s about forming women to fit male desires and toward a new view, where women are using fashion for fun and self-expression for themselves.

The Internet has had a huge impact, with the upswing in fashion and makeup blogs that aggressively push the idea that fashion should be about women expressing themselves instead of trying to market yourself as a sex object for men. There’s a reason that one of the most popular fashion blogs online is called Man Repeller, based on the blogger Leandra Medine’s belief that you should wear what you like even if it’s not something that is geared toward maximizing your sex appeal.

It’s an attitude you also see with Tavi Gevinson, the wunderkind fashion blogger whose online teen magazine, Rookie, espouses a boldly feminist fashion philosophy about having fun with clothes and experimenting without worrying over if you’re maximizing your sex appeal in male eyes.

It’s a bold new world where even Gisele is willing to cut off her famous luscious locks of hair and sport a shocking new buzz cut for Balenciaga's new campaign. It’s a look that’s much less about being the prettiest girl that all the boys want and instead looking fierce and even kind of scary, an inspiration to women who want to feel powerful.

No wonder, then, that the two figures, Terry Richardson and Dov Charney, who most represent a fashion industry geared toward shaping women’s looks primarily, if not solely, for male consumption are suddenly finding themselves being subject to widespread social condemnation and, in Charney’s case, losing jobs. Women are increasingly sick of being told our style should depend on what men—especially of the creepy pervert sort—want to see. We want more from fashion, images of women having fun, being creative, having something in our lives beyond just looking good for the male gaze.

None of this should be read as anti-male or man-hating, jokes about man-repelling aside. It’s just about recentering fashion for women, so that what women want for themselves is the main focus, instead of the traditional concerns about what men want women to look like. It’s about pleasing yourself first and foremost, and, if men like it, fine, but if they don’t, well, it’s not about them, is it?