On the campaign trail: Why fashion ads represent women in the same old way

As the new season's high-fashion ads appear, Carrie Scott wonders how exactly is it that these stereotypical images of women entice women to spend so much money

If someone could please tell me what it is exactly about the “to-be-looked-at” female that sells high fashion, I'd be grateful. It's 2013. And I'm flipping through Vogue, and Vanity Fair, and Elle, browsing the campaign images for autumn/winter 2013 wondering how on earth the fashion industry continues to roll in its billions. How exactly is it that these stereotypical images of women entice women to spend so much money?

If we sample the autumn campaigns, shot mostly by your usual suspects of, yes, mostly white men – Hedi Slimane, Steven Meisel, Steven Klein – we find composition after composition enforcing and reinforcing the classically unavoidable voyeuristic male gaze onto female figures who are styled in traditional exhibitionist roles. We see female figures diverting their eyes and faces from the camera, so that they become the objects to be looked at versus being the subjects doing the looking, entirely aligned with the bags and the clothes being featured and sold in the campaigns. So then, maybe it's just that the to-be-looked at female is the perfect canvas on which to exhibit clothes. There certainly is an argument for that.

But why do we literally buy into it? And, if that's the point, which of this season's crop of fashion campaign will sell more clothes? Which image will seduce the majority into wanting to have a slice of the life captured in the composition? I know which works for me. Do you?

Carrie Scott is the founder of art advisory Carrie Scott & Partners, and the director of Nick Knight's Mayfair gallery space SHOWstudio Shop

Dior by Willy Vanderperre

The models in Willy Vanderperre's images for Raf Simons' revitalised Dior directly engage the gaze of the camera. So that's something – let's not forget, though, that this direct stare was first employed by Édouard Manet some 150 years ago in Olympia (1863). Then it was a challenge, an affront to the viewer. Today, in these images, as the models lean, recline, and lay in an effort to best highlight the House's triumphs, they have mouths slightly open and/or legs slightly parted: this is the subtle height of sexualisation used to sell. Which is appropriate. Sex, after all, is what Dior was always all about. The New Look, with its constricted waist, blossoming breasts and rounded, fecund hips, was a throwback to woman as wife, mother and decorative object after the warrior women of the Second World War. That felt new in 1947, but such a retrograde vision doesn't inject volumes of respect into the portrayal of woman today.

Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane

Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane photographed his own campaign. It's a route taken by Domenico Dolce of Dolce & Gabbana, and Karl Lagerfeld for both Chanel and Fendi – the latter was the first to do so, back in the mid-1980s. Why? Control. And that's what this image is all about. In Slimane's winter offering, we see the back of a woman poised at a monumentally large window. Her foot teeters on the ledge as she stares out into an abyss of sunlit water. The scene is clearly set to suggest that this young woman might step out, leaving the cold, sparse room behind her to jump into the beauty before her (and damn the consequences) but what then is Slimane saying about her clothes? While the composition clearly references Dalí's surrealist Woman at the Window (1926) – and we all know how Dalí felt about women – the scene is set so the clothes become the feature worth focusing on.

Balenciaga by Steven Klein

Notice something missing? Throughout the entire series of images he shot for the house of Balenciaga, photographer Steven Klein transforms women into mostly headless, always faceless sculptures on which to lay clothes, ideas and indeed fetishes. Alexander Wang's debut collection was inspired by marble, and Klein's females are equally chilly icons of desire. In one image – featuring what is sure to be this season's “It bag” – we are confronted with a woman seemingly bound to the furniture on which she is perched. Poised, unnaturally erect with her arms fixed behind her lap, the faceless figure, head not only entirely out of the shot but decapitated by the photograph's edge, presents “The Bag”. Taking on the shape of her hips, and in fact obscuring the parts of her that make her female, the composition seems to signify that the bag will bring her sex. We all know sex sells, but this seems extreme.

Prada by Steven Meisel

The models of Steven Meisel's Prada campaign are posed in a way that isn't as overtly sexual as, say, Steven Klein's headless torso (below). Given the house is run by Miuccia Prada, a woman in her sixties, one would hope to see fewer lips and legs akimbo. Thankfully, that is exactly what we get. Since Meisel is realising a female designers' vision of women, we have neither your typically young, nor characteristically sexy model poses. We are instead met with the likes of Christy Turlington, 44, sitting forward in her chair, legs tightly crossed. Rather than a passive recline while we take her in, her posture suggests this isn't a women willing to wait around while we do what we want with her. That said, the women in Meisel's campaign have some of the same problems as Vanderperre's vamps (right); they all have their lips parted, reinforcing the notion that they are passively waiting for something to fill their mouths. Given the clothes fit the mould of a 1950s housewife uniform, that somehow makes sense. They've got to be passive in some ways to fit the clothes.

Kenzo by Toilet Paper

The landscape isn't entirely bleak. Kenzo's campaign, created in collaboration with contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan's magazine Toilet Paper, is a step away from the typical imagery we're used to. Known mostly for his satirical sculptures – taxidermied horses hanging headless from walls, for instance – Cattelan has created a virtual lepidopterist canvas for Kenzo on which a man and woman are pinned. Surrounded by beetles and butterflies of varying size, and adorned in Kenzo's classically bold prints, the woman smiles from ear to ear. Her male counterpart, on the other hand, wears his astonishment across his face, as two beautifully manicured, giant hands adjust his outfit. The fantasy of the campaign, its bold colours and energetic joy stand in stark contrast to the seasons' offerings as a whole. So too, does the action of the composition. Whereas next season's women seem action-free, here we sense movement. And that feels better. I'd rather gaze on Cattelan's unfolding narrative than statuesque couture-clad cadavers.

Lanvin by Steven Meisel

Full of humour, the portrait Steven Meisel has composed for the house of Lanvin includes a woman wrapped in fur, clutching her mallard with the words “Love You” pinned to her chest. Lanvin product is integral to the shot – the model, Edie Campbell, is dripping in Lanvin – but the portrait doesn't make the clothes the subject. Nor does it make the woman the subject to be looked at. Note the turn of phrase: portrait. Our model is the subject in the grandest of Renaissance manners. Despite the jewels, the silks and indeed the furs, those portraits made their sitters the subject. It's much the same today. Meisel's portrait is commemorating her, and all of her most precious items – her eccentric dress, her pristine coiffure, her living feathered accessory. This is a celebration of a woman, not an objectification. Again, I am seduced by this narrative. I'd much rather fall into this woman's life, and be part of it, than any of the campaigns that freeze women in time, as objects, waiting for our gaze.

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