Gimme More: Fashion Photography and The Bigger Picture

by Roberta McGrath .

Fashion reminds us that looking is always a fantasy about the body, and that it is the differences, as much as the similarities, between our own body and the bodies of others that fascinates.

One of the great pleasures of fashion is that it is a thoroughly impure, contaminated zone. We don't look at fashion shots to see a purity of depiction; rather, fashion photography is one of the last bastions of a certain political incorrectness in representation arguing that what we definitely don't need is a censoring of images, but instead more, more, more, pictures. Fashion, like money, flows; images flood onto the market in an endless stream just as bodies tumble down the catwalk re-cast as strange, wonderfully impossible, hybrid beings. In fashion, image and body merge, if not seamlessly, then inseparably into one to the extent that we talk effortlessly of getting a new look, or of changing our image.

Fashion is both flawed and fantastic. It bestows agency, power and pleasure on its viewing subjects through the possibility of transformation. To look at a fashion photograph is to enter another world; it is to be reminded of the sheer pleasure in performance and in flaunting our sexuality. Asceticism is not part of the fashion vocabulary; excess in every direction is. And if nothing else, fashion clamours being, aliveness, with all its problems as well pleasures. In this sense it represents a microcosm of late capitalism. Fashion is the razor-sharp, cut-throat end of what are everyday transactions in the contemporary West, and it is precisely this which makes the fashion world both an object of ridicule and also a place of resistance.

Beating the theorists at their own game, fashion quite literally goes with the flow in order to reverse it. A perpetual thorn in the side of various well-intentioned, but seriously misguided groups from health and education to feminism and the family values posse, the industry has resisted outside pressure to replace negative images with more positive ones. Instead it has argued that if there are already too many images of women, of whatever kind, what we need is not less but more, thereby subverting the dreary call to arms in an attempt to police representation. Fashion has quite simply ignored the demand for more realistic images of women (whatever that is) and instead offers a more imaginative, and radical, approach which sees images not simply as constraining, narrow definitions of who we already are, but also a site of possible change, for who we might become; a place where identities are not only made, but continually re-fashioned layer upon layer. And if larger, disabled and older women have begun to appear on the catwalk and in fashion shoots, which they have, then this has been on the industry's own terms.

What's more, women like to look. We are neither subjects who simply partake in the power of (male) gazing, nor (female) objects only to be looked at, victims, who, therefore, like children or animals, need protecting. Fashion reminds us that looking is always a fantasy about the body, and that it is the differences, as much as the similarities, between our own body and the bodies of others that fascinates. Far from being alienating, fashion pictures remind us of that we live in the realm of the senses; bodies are made to be experienced, not only looked at, but listened to, touched, smelled, tasted.

All looking is sexual. Thus to isolate a particular group of images as sexual and usually with this comes the charge that such images (most usually fashion or pornography) constitute an offensive, or at least an oppressive definition of femininity, tells us more about a need, often shared by Left and Right alike, to wish away unconscious fantasies, pleasures and desires which, like it or not, necessarily plays a large part in our everyday life. Conflicting representations, not a purity of depiction is what we need. Gimme more.

 Durham-Peters, J. Exile, 'Nomadism and Diaspora: the States of Mobility on the Western Canon' in Naficy, H. Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media and the Politics of Space, Routledge, 1999.
Kolbowski, S. 'Playing With Dolls' in Squiers, C. (ed), The Critical Image, Bay Press 1990.