Can Models Be Both Fashionable and Feminist?

Feminism and fashion have had a chequered history. But here at Talent Management, we don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, far from being anti-feminist, fashion and modeling can be decidingly empowering.

A Look Back

Back in the 1920s, women celebrated their newfound rights and freedoms, and threw out the constricting corsets endured by previous generations. During the Second World War, women took on men’s jobs, and in turn copied their uniforms of trousers and overalls. The 50s saw the emergence of the ‘perfect housewife’ and an overtly feminine look and in the 60’s women again celebrated newfound freedoms via fashion; this time with Twiggy-style miniskirts and short haircuts.

During the 1970s, the second wave of feminism caused many women to start questioning the relationship between feminism and fashion. Prominent writers of the time became disillusioned with the fashion industry, and the things that it represented. In particular, they suggested that women should dress for themselves, and not for men; and that an interest in beauty was ‘un-feminist’ as it meant women were conforming to misogynistic beauty ideals.

The look that went with the feminist ideology of the 1970s was relaxed, with long hair, comfortable clothes, and no makeup. Women were encouraged to ditch the razors and embrace a natural look. The natural look didn’t stay around for long however, with the 1980s bringing neon eyeshadow, shoulder pads, and OTT hairstyles. Since then, modern women have often struggled with their feminist ideology clashing with a love of fashion, and have wondered if buying into the industry is somehow diminishing the feminist cause.

And Today?

Models and celebrities are the women who are most often scrutinised when it comes to the fashion industry. They are the public faces of designer clothes and expensive beauty brands. The question has often been asked: can these women be feminists?

It is true that even in this day and age, the fashion industry and the women working within it can often behave in sexist ways. The look of models is used to perpetuate a fascination with unhealthy and often unrealistic body shapes and sizes. Models are routinely sent onto the catwalk as young as 16 (or even younger), holding up an ideal of unobtainable youth for most women. Some are treated as ‘coat-hangers’; their personalities erased. Photographers such as Terry Richardson have been accused of sexist behaviour on set, and some critics feel that by working with him, models are accepting and normalising his behaviour.

As for the models themselves, can they participate in the industry and still be a feminist? The answer is, of course, yes. Anyone can be a feminist provided that he or she believes in equality for men and women. Models are doing a job; and although their job is principally based upon their looks, it does not mean that they buy into the negative aspects of some elements of the industry.

In the same way, it is absolutely possible for a woman to enjoy makeup, but to be disappointed with the way in which some beauty companies represent women. Fashion and beauty can often be seen as frivolous interests and negative stereotypes assume that women with a passion for makeup and clothes are not intelligent. The same stereotypes are often applied to models; in particular female models.

The reality is that many models are highly educated, intelligent women; they have been offered work that allows them to make a decent living, to travel, and to meet interesting people. In general, modeling isn’t a lifelong career (although it can be for some). So many models use that “window of opportunity” we call youth to earn money before moving on to other careers. Yes, sometimes models’ work isn’t all that cerebral in fashion campaigns. But that doesn’t mean the models don’t have both beauty and brains and support progressive issues.

Personalities Matter

In fact, the rise of ‘it girl’ models shows that the industry is becoming more interested in the personalities of the girls who represent their brands. Cara Delevingne, Suki Waterhouse and Kendall Jenner are all models at the height of their careers, with brands such as Chanel and Burberry clamouring to hire them. Delevingne in particular is outspoken, funny, and quirky. She not only models, but sings and acts, and recently guest-edited a magazine. She is helping to change the sexist idea that female models are two-dimensional and unintelligent. She helped to lead the charge of women at a recent Chanel runway show, where models held up placards saying ‘Ladies First’ and ‘History is Her Story’.

The fashion and beauty world still has some way to go to improve the way in which it represents women. However, with this new breed of models at the helm, the question as to whether models can be feminists will soon – hopefully – become redundant.