Is it possible to represent the female body without degrading women or reducing them to the site of sexual desire? Is it possible for them to be portrayed as independent beings that own their sexuality and femininity, expressing it with their own terms and conditions, rather than as a spectacle for men? With that fashion campaign, Hollywood movie or video clip, can women control how their bodies are viewed? Or are they signing their own contract with the devil?
The influential British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey would suggest it is incredibly difficult to do so. Her theory of the male gaze posits that women are viewed through the eyes of heterosexual men and, as such, are represented as passive objects of male desire. What's more, audiences, no matter their own gender or sexuality, are forced into seeing women through that same straight male point of view.
As we know–and the women amongst us will agree–for years, women artists and designers have been trying to turn the tables on how men portray them, whether Frida Kahlo, Kiki Smith, The Guerrilla Girls or Mary Quant to name just a few. Being concerned with the exterior, fashion plays a large role in how women are viewed. Historically, women's fashion has been analysed and critiqued for its impractical nature, with theorists and historians drawing links between silhouette and ease of wear, and the limited social roles for women over time.
Much has been made of the corset as organ-crushing feminine form enhancer, and the connotations that has on expectations of women. Even while the garment is no longer de rigeur, modern male designers have been critiqued for perpetuating potentially harmful fantasies through womenswear: Tom Ford's overtly sexual collections and advertisements for Gucci provoked critique for obscenity. Certainly there has been considerable unease about sexual self-expression when getting dressed as a woman. It has been hard to determine where the line is between empowering oneself sexually and participating in one's own objectification. It seems this cannot be prescribed, and a woman must draw that line for herself.
We cannot but wonder, how women view themselves nowadays. Iris Luz, a journalist and presenter focused on interpersonal relationships and technology, defines 'female gaze' as a perspective, which can shed light on aspects of being female which no other person really could, admitting in the same breath a constant moral conflict with the term 'female gaze', nothing that it, like many other activist terms, has become a buzzword, even though its intended meaning and the thinking behind it aren’t themselves to blame for being misconstrued.
As Alexander Fury wrote for the Independent in 2015, 'maybe it's the experience of actually wearing the clothes – and indeed of living a life around them – but when women design clothes for women, the results tend to be different from when men do the job.' What, then, might a female gaze consist of, or look like? Wanting to cut through the misconceptions around what a female gaze is, one must look at how female designers view women, and how can they tap into unexplored or taboo parts of the female experience to flesh out female representation through clothes.
One designer whose work is doing that is Dimitra Petsa, a creative who aims to give women back their sexuality in heightened form. Transitioning from a BA in Performance Art onto the MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins, Petsa is setting new rules by breaking open old patriarchic norms, and trying to express female sexuality by exploring hers. The Greek designer’s performative collections, Wetness and The Water Broke, explore the deep female relationship with water, nudity and intimacy that has woven throughout culture for centuries.
Petsa is interested in female archetypes, especially in the Madonna-whore complex as identified by Sigmund Freud, which describes the inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship. 'Simultaneously you're the virgin, the whore, the mother, the child, the daughter. It's very interesting how women have to perform all these roles, some at the same time even,' she explains.
To those archetypes, she has focused on the concept of wetness, its meanings and its aesthetics. As she notes, 'human fluids are connected with female sexuality. Women have been sterilised in patriarchic societies: most men believe women are wet only during sex, but actually, the female experience is more fluid than that. The Water Broke is about ecstatic birth; women can actually experience pleasure, even orgasm during birth, but this is obviously not portrayed in Western media because society wants us to be afraid of what our bodies can do,' she states.
Petsa's clothing appears wet and fluid, broadcasting the feeling of a fluid dream manifested in fabric. Her colour palette is minimal, with whites and blues taking over her erotic, wet journey. From nineties-cut apparently pee-stained pants, to sheer underwear with the word 'wet' standing out, her creations praise intimacy and fluidity, without letting the wearer (or the performer as she prefers to say) actually get wet. Petsa's clothes have a sense of movement, and hug the female body without restricting it.
The designer describes the way women treat their body fluids as the way society treats the ocean. ‘We pollute our bodies with chemicals to stop sweating and push ourselves not to cry in public. We are hurting the same way we pollute the oceans,’ she states. By being wet in public through Petsa’s collection, those who wear it are declaring that they accept their bodily fluids – period blood, sweat, breast milk. It feels like they are declaring war on a society that prefers its women sanitised. People might find the idea of a woman owning or accepting the existence of her bodily fluids to be taboo: this taboo nature, designed without popular approval in mind, gives Petsa's version of sexuality its rebellious power.
For Petsa, women designing for women in a sexually liberated way is something that’s missing in the fashion industry. 'If you have a conceptual fashion brand, it means that the body is covered, whereas in a more ‘fun’ brand, you're allowed to show more skin. I always found this very weird and has something to do with how patriarchic society sees women. I am very interested in new designers showing what nakedness means in a woman's identity, because sometimes I'm a bit disappointed by how men design for women,' she confesses.
Her popular wet dress takes up to two weeks to be made (out of a material used for dancers), and feels like a wet dream - pun intended. 'I want women to feel empowered, sexy and erotic. My work is more like a masturbatory gaze, than a female gaze. It's all about self-love and self-exploration. I don't feel like I want to push my own agenda onto other women, but rather start a conversation.' In this way, the designer is allowing the wearer to define the borders of their own sexuality, rather than dictating (in a patriarchal vein) how a woman must be.
Taking the above into consideration, another question arises: if a man designed pieces like Petsa's, would the feedback differ? Iris Luz believes that 'no man could come up with [Petsa's concepts], just because the garments deal with such a wide range of emotions and facets concerning the gross, yet beautiful aspects of womanhood. If, for some reason, a man were to do it, I reckon it would fall into the public opinion category of [American cartoonist] Robert Crumb, and sordidness, because people still can't fathom that these aspects of womanhood can be considered sexy, outside of the bedroom.'
'Paradoxically, women can indulge much more in developing their identity and sexuality via fashion more than men. It's been a very accepting and liberating industry for women and their sexualities. Past oppressive undercurrents, like the idea of dressing to please a man, have been turned on their heads. Whilst sexual signalling is still existent [in society] in a very primitive form, the perpetual layering of different societal paradigms with our evolution as individuals has made it so fashion is very accepting and encouraging of female sexuality, to the point where it's somewhat innocuous - until designers like Petsa bring their own lived experience to it. It is time to make bodily fluids, and the parts of being a woman which many find gross or shocking, beautiful,' she adds.
This new wave of sexiness, that embraces the female body and its fluids, turns nakedness into a form of clothing and reclaims the visceral aspects of womanhood to create a fuller, more rounded representation of women. Dimitra Petsa's work, in many ways, feels like a liberating religion, a female cult club where all women can finally feel themselves with their own terms and conditions. They can wet their pants in public, they can cry their eyeballs out, they can masturbate with the lights on, and breastfeed in the middle of a crowded park. The woman Petsa fantasises about and praises is not some alienated creature: she can have your face or mine or hers. She is your mother, your friend, your neighbour, your daughter. This may start in clothing, but goes far beyond it; her work signals a rebirth for the contemporary woman, and just the start of a far-reaching conversation.