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Is it for Him or Her? : A Graphic Designer s look into Gender Role Ambiguity in Fashion Advertisement

By Rian McCormack

"Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Bachelor of Fine Art in Graphic Design Program at the Art Institute of Seattle"

March 4th, 2008

Faculty (Tony Dattilo)



First off I need to thank my family for supporting me and putting up with me during this process. I need to thank Tony for pushing me to this point. I would also like to thank Melanie and Sigrid for helping to develop my opinions about graphic design and my love for it.


Table of Contents

Introduction History of Fashion Advertisements/Publications · · · · · A look at 19th to early 20th century fashion advertisement Dandyism Evolution of fashion advertisement Barthes Fashion System 1970 s-1980 s

Undressing the Ad s · · · · · Modern women in fashion advertisements Laura Muluey Adding masculine qualities The role of men in Fashion Advertisements The use of very stereotypical gay/feminine looking men in fashion advertisements Resolution Conclusion Work Cited Bibliography Image Sources


Fashion has its aura, lifestyle, longed-for place, fulfillment of fantasy pursued, and we do pursue it, season after season, year after year, this beautiful, ephemeral thing, at once gaining and easily lost. Why do we do it? (I) This quote comes from Mike Toth, a graphic designer that specializes in branding fashion companies. The quote illustrates what the core of this thesis will demonstrate human desire in advertisement. This paper is an opportunity to

explore different aspects of graphic design and the advertisement world, with a specific focus on fashion. The research for this paper seemed to point to a consistent dilemma within fashion marketing. Today the advertisements that come from some of the biggest names in fashion like Dolce and Gabbana, Prada, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Christian Dior are blurring the lines between our gender and gender roles or are using very stereotypical imagery of sexuality in an attempt to open up a social dialog. Fashion advertisements have a tendency to use imagery that is of a very strong, sexually provocative, androgynous, or homoerotic nature. The reason for this investigation into the fashion world is that the level of ambiguity of gender roles in fashion advertisements, whether it is directed towards men or women, can leave the audience lost in the interpretation, hence breaking the communication between the client and consumer. Advertisements directed towards women that use androgynous-looking imagery, and vice versa with men, could limit who is going to the register. Before delving too deeply into this thesis, there are some issues at play that need to be defined to help clarify some terminology. For example, gender, which is our relationship with culture and society in terms of being female or male; associated with this


trait is gender identity, which is our experience with regard to one s individuality as male or female. More relevant to this paper is gender role, which can be described as the behavior characteristics that are stereotypically male or female. Finally there is gender preference, which is based on attraction. This paper will cover the history of fashion and its intersection with graphic design, starting with the fashion house explosion in Paris and England during the early nineteenth century. It will focus on the print advertisements of some big names in fashion starting in the late 1970 s and early 1980 s and it will help to clarify this issue with gender role ambiguity that is displayed in fashion advertisements. Before the time of Dior and Chanel and the Industrial Revolution, fashion was seen as a way of visually representing what class one came from, what sex one might be, and the social hierarchy of one s respective culture. All of these visual representations of clothing still hold true and hold higher importance then they did in the early nineteenth century. During the late 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, the fashion industry had marked its place in the global market with the introduction of Chanel and Christian Dior, and the introduction of ready-to-wear clothing. Fashion magazines and other women s publications were coming to the surface, like Vogue and Marie Claire, which helped to launch the fashion industry to the level it is today. The advertisements and other visual representations of fashion at this point were not yet classified as the image-markers of today. According to Diane Crane author of Fashion and its Social Agendas, "in the nineteenth century, the primary focus of designers and


purveyors of fashion was on the clothing it s self rather than the use of clothing to evoke distinctive images." (II) The magazines were putting out detailed drawings and illustrations to showcase the clothing. Something that was integrated then, and is now missing, is typography. Fashion advertisements and most advertisements from this era integrated type within the ad itself. Having that visual representation of fashion in magazines helped move the industry because more people were able to copy and mimic the styles themselves, often at a much lower price. Working-class women that associate themselves with the upper class, such as actresses and artists, were helping to bring middle class fashion to a wider audience. At about the same time that the Industrial Revolution was taking shape around the world, there was something happening to the way in which men connected clothing with attitude. Middle-class men at this time were taking a much more active role in the way they dressed. This movement was taking place in France and in England where men were dressing and acting more stereotypically queer which brought to light this idea of being dandy or Dandyism. According to, there are specific categories to the ways of being dandy such as physical distinction, elegance, independence, wit, a skeptical, world-weary, sophisticated, bored or blasé demeanor, and a self-mocking and ultimately endearing egotism to name a few. (III) The dandy came about to help middle-class men blend in with men of much higher social class than themselves. They were the "metro-sexuals" of their time. For dandy men, it was not


uncommon to be photographed together. To be homosexual or "dandy" during this time period was less oppressive because the more affluent you were the less people questioned your behavior. It was the "elephant in the room" that no one would speak about. According to Gender-bending has been associated with dandyism since Theophile Gautier published "Mlle. Maupin" in 1834. And just as dandyism and aestheticism became intertwined in the 19th century, so has dandyism in the 21st become associated with gender, identity politics and queer theory. In the world of contemporary academia, dandyism has almost become synonymous with genderchallenging sexuality. (IV) The concept of being dandy and men acting in a stereotypically homosexual manner is something that encouraged the ambiguous nature of modern fashion advertisements. The depiction of clothing in magazines at the beginning of the 20th century was still about showcasing the clothing for advertisers, from the cut of the skirt down to the details in the patterns. According to Diane Crane, Fashion photographs were taken in identifiable settings, such as city streets or beaches. Unclothed legs, thighs or breasts were rare. There were no close-ups. Models rarely assumed demeaning or childlike poses. The camera was placed at eye level... This was a milieu viewed almost entirely from the feminine perspective. No men appeared in the fashion photographs. Women were almost invariably photographed singly. (V) This view of women that Crane speaks of came from the dichotomy that women were facing during WWI and WWII. The rise of sexual freedoms during the late 1950s and 60s, which came about due to a stronger feminism view in the world and the hippie movement, all helped to make changes occur in the imagery and advertisement directed toward women and men. At this point, most of the major


houses were starting to branch out their business with perfume and jewelry lines. Some were also starting to license their names to manufacturers and distributors to grow their businesses. Towards the end of the 1950s there were some noticeable changes in the way female models in Vogue and other publications were being shot. According to Diane Crane, "more models were photographed looking directly at the camera, an indication of inferior status." (VI) Women at this point were still supposed to look inferior to men. Men still were not photographed as often as women. There was a shift occurring in the way people were interpreting fashion and advertisements. More and more people were embracing youth and street culture and taking on this style of dress. The fashion industry was producing lines that reflected the masses interests in street culture. Towards the middle to late 1960s, advertisers and magazines were capitalizing on youth culture with the use of popular musicians and trendsetters. As noted before, fashion was starting to take on new shapes; the advertisement and fashion industries were formulating their positions on how to market to the world. Many philosophers, critics, and semioticians were taking notice of these specific changes and starting to write about the fashion industry s effect on mainstream culture at this time. One of these philosophers and critics was Roland Barthes. In 1967, Barthes wrote a book entitled The Fashion System, which theorized the semiotics of the fashion photo and its applications. According to Paul Jobling s study of Barthes book, Barthes broke down the methodology and ideology of fashion photography to the point that he discovered


a specific code or, in his terms, a matrix to the setup of the photos. Barthes broke the matrix into three categories: object, variant, and support. The object and the support were material things in the ad or editorial spread. The variant was a nonmaterial entity in the photo. Barthes described the variant as the "point of the matrix from which signification emerges." (VI) Barthes work was essentially the starting point from which people questioned and evaluated the social impact of the fashion industry. His study of French fashion photography in the 1960s has lead to feature studies of fashion such as Diane Crane s Fashion and Its Social Agendas, all of Paul Jobling s work including Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980 (Dress, Body, Culture). and influenced the way modern fashion photography is shot. The 1970s and 80s ushered in different looks for fashion and advertisement. Designers like Vivienne Westwood, Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, and Ralph Lauren, who had been working for other big names, were getting a chance to showcase their points of view. These very influential people started to break the stereotypical look of fashion in the public eye. Most advertisement up to this point was directed to a very specific target market; with the rise in youth culture, street culture and more men becoming interested in fashion, advertisers needed to change how they marketed to a wider audience. The teen, "twenty some things" and even the gay markets were something new for advertisers to strive for. By the middle of the 1970s, advertisers were taking notice of the potential of the homosexual and straight male markets. The late 1970s and early


1980s marked the era of selling sex. More men were seen in photographs and advertisements for the fashion industry. Advertisers were using specific hidden signals in their ads, which were directed at the gay market but unrecognizable to the straight market. The level of print advertisements in magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair had doubled. According to Diane Crane, "the visual impression of the magazines were conveyed more by the advertisements than the by editorial content."(VIII) Calvin Klein was one of the first fashion designers to use highly sexual undertones in his advertisements. His 1980 ad campaign for his jean line solidified his very controversial image. According to Lisa Marsh s biography on Klein, he had hired photographer Richard Avedon and copywriter Doon Arbus to create the ad campaign that featured the 15-year-old Brooke Shields. The two created a series of commercials that were centered on the jeans. The most famous ad from the series was of Shields saying, "Do you know what comes between me and my Calvin s? Nothing."(IX) Feminists and activists were in an uproar. They complained that the ads glorified sex and conveyed messages about homosexuality. This commercial spot was also translated to a print campaign that featured Shields wearing her Calvins (Figure 1).

Figure 1.


The advertisements that Klein produces today are just as controversial and edgy as they were in the early 1980s. By the beginning of the 1990s, attitudes about fashion were changing yet again. According to Diane Crane: Women in fashion layouts and clothing advertisements were frequently presented as sexually provocative, androgynous, or homoerotic... Exhibiting the latest trends in appropriate clothing for women of means ceased to be the primary goal, instead fashion photography offered a kind of entertainment analogous to other forms of media culture, as a Hollywood films and music videos. (X) This form that fashion advertisement was taking would be a trend that extends to the present day. Designers like Donna Karan, Dolce and Gabbana, and Dior will be the primary focus of the following section of this paper. The analysis of their print campaigns from the last five years will help in understanding why gender role ambiguity can break the communication between the client-consumer relationships. In 1973, a woman by the name of Laura Mulvey wrote an essay entitled "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". The primary focus of the essay was a psychoanalytic look into the way people interpreted film from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Her very controversial essay brought a very interesting theory to the forefront of semiotics of mass media. Her idea was that our views and roles in the media are very imbalanced, with men projecting an active feeling and women projecting a passive one. (XI) She talked about something called the Male Gaze. This is the concept that when men see an image of a woman it produces feelings of pleasure and objectification; however, when a woman sees another woman it can produce two different reactions. According to Mulvey s theory, viewing an


image of another woman can lead women to feel envy or lust. Mulvey s theory about the Male Gaze enforces that notion women have to change their mind set to interpret an image of another women by subconsciously thinking like a man. Her essay was about people viewing film; however, her theories can shed some light onto the way men and especially women mentally process images in the media-driven world that we live in. Some of the stereotypical roles women or fashion models are displaying can be very masculine or dominating roles. Two ad campaigns from resent years that represent a woman s roles as something that should be more masculine or domineering are Donna Karan s fall/winter 2006 campaign and Dolce and Gabanna s fall/winter 2007 campaign. Both campaigns either put women in very aggressive looking poses or they are pictured wearing suits and overly made up to look like a man. Donna Karan s campaign reflects imagery that is slightly less aggressive and dominating in appearance (Figure 2), but a similar looking ad

Figure 2.

from Chanel s 1997 campaign, was used in a survey during the writing process of Diane Crane s book. The findings were: An advertisement for Chanel, it showed a women wearing black jeans and an unbuttoned suit jacket over a very pale, bare, flat torso. The face was


heavily made up, particularly around the eyes, which were obscured by a shadow. The overall impression that participants received from the photography was one of gender ambiguity. Most participants were puzzled by it, critical of it, and to some extent disturbed by it. (XII) Dolce and Gabbana are known for being very provocative on the catwalk, in their print advertisement and, until very recently, their commercial spots. Their fall/winter 2007 ad campaign showcased women in drag or in very demure looking clothing (Figure 3). This campaign projected two very different roles for women, one that is domineering and another that was the submissive.

Figure 3.

The Dolce and Gabbana ads create a weird battle between feminine and masculine qualities that make the lines between male and female gender roles hard to identify and to identify with. Today s fashion model is used as a sex symbol and, going back to Laura Mulvey theory of the Male Gaze and its association with media, it can be said that part of the reason advertisement in the fashion industry is so overtly sexual is due to advertisers playing up the idea that women need to recognize their desire to be more pleasurable to men. According to Malcolm Barnard, the author of Fashion as Communication: They enable women to imagine what they would look like, to men, in this situation or that outfit, without having to commit themselves in any way to


that situation or that outfit. It is tempting to see the function of these magazines as a sort of magic mirror in which a woman may see herself as she might appear at the yacht club, in the latest Volkswagen, wearing Versace or lounging around in Laetitia Allen. (XIII) Homosexual undertones are something that has become a trend in modern fashion advertisement (Figure 4). Dior s spring/summer 2003 ad campaign is a prime example of the use of women in very provocative and homoerotic situations. The ads exhibited two women all greased up and on the verge of

Figure 4

having sex. These images are beautiful and stunning, as artistic photography and a standard of the female form, but from a psychoanalytic standpoint these images could be perceived as nothing more than a male fantasy of taking two women to bed. Many advertisements that are directed to women are subjected to the Male Gaze and these ads are an excellent illustration of using female-driven advertisement to sell an image to men. Dandyism has relevance today; it is a very modern concept for wellgroomed and sophisticated men, as it was for the middle class men of Paris and England during the nineteenth century. Today, advertisers have to keep in mind that, when targeting the male population, they need to sell to the gay men of the world. Advertising to the male market is more difficult than marketing to women.


A majority of men are less likely to be concerned with dress and outward appearance, especially if there are any hints of homosexuality associated with the advertisements. Roles that men in fashion advertisements are to assume are those of playing the victim and being strong and in control at the same time. Some of the major names that have used homosexual or androgynous themes in their advertisements are Dior Homme and of course Dolce and Gabbana. Dior Homme s spring/summer campaign of 2004 portrayed a young male all alone on a white backdrop wearing black clothing. His hair was very long, falling over his face. He was extremely made up to the point that is skin had an incredibly soft and washed out appearance (Figure 5). His washed-out features and demure poses diminished his male persona, virtually removing his masculinity.

Figure 5.

Advertisers have been interjecting a stereotypical image of homosexuality to the public for many years. Dolce and Gabbana are two fashion designers that are no stranger to the concept of homosexuality, being that both of them are gay and were partners at one time. Their spring/summer 2006 ad campaign was on the threshold of being considered gay pornography. The images from the campaign were of a group of very beautiful men, almost "pretty" in appearance, and Dolce


and Gabbana themselves. It took place in a film studio where bales of hay were used as objects to be posed upon (Figure 6). Men were wearing nothing but underwear and some were barely clothed. Men in the ad were posed in overtly sexual positions and others were posed to look as though they were voyeurs of a sexual act.

Figure 6.

These campaigns are intended to be directed to a much wider audience than just the gay population; if so then why use imagery that is so homoerotic? In his 1997 article in the New Yorker entitled "Listening to Khakis", Malcolm Gladwell talked about advertisers use of homosexuality in luxury fashion advertisement: "They re trying to remold how people think about gender... But you can t be successful at advertising by trying to re-create the human condition. You can t alter men s minds, particularly on subjects like sexuality. It ll never happen." (XIV) The maledriven ads in fashion create a challenge for modern men. It is unclear whether or not the advertisers are trying to connect with the gay population or the straight. Men in fashion advertisements are just as much a reflection of things people desire to be as women are.


Since the Industrial Revolution, the fashion industry and the graphic design world have been intersecting, from which trends are set and controversy is created. The ambiguous form that fashion advertisement has taken on creates ads that lack quality. In the book entitled Design Studies, graphic designers theorize about the impact the industry has on its audiences. One of the designers from the book is Jorge Frascara; he talks about whether graphic design is a fine art or a social science. When Frascara wrote about his discussion of visual style, he spoke about certain flaws designers can make when creating a specific visual style. Jorge developed a list of things that were flawed in design and here was one that is relevant to the fashion and advertisement intersection: "it omits the importance of ideas in the communication process, not distinguishing between visual creation and visual manipulation."(XV) Jorge also spoke about quality verses quantity in graphic design. This idea of quality verse quantity is something that fashion advertisements need to concern themselves with. If advertisers are putting out hundreds of different campaigns each year, how can you control the level of quality of the ads to your audience, especially in terms of gender roles? The reason gender roles get blurred is because advertisers push to sell sex and putting money their pockets versus taking the time to evaluate the effects of certain images on the general population. Most people need to have clear and straightforward marketing in order to bring them to purchase the product. The allowance for more time for market and target audience research would alleviate some of the confusion discussed in this paper. On example is this confusion in


the images that reinforce Mulvey s theory about the male gaze, models that looking androgynous, and playing with homosexuality in advertisements when it is directed to the wrong audience. At the intersection of fashion and graphic design controversy and cultural significance are produced; whichever discipline in the field of design one chooses, impact on the world is inherent. Graphic designers or fashion designers, we all are the tastemakers, the start of cultural inquiry and thought. It is our responsibility to control the representation of the society in an appropriate way.


Work Cited

I) Toth, Mike. Fashion Icon: The Power and Influence of Graphic Design. Gloucester, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2003. 10-11 II) Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 202 III) Mattis, Michael. "One of the Boys." archive-one of the boys. June 5, 2006. 11 Feb 2008 <>. IV) Cooley, Mason. "Anatomy of the Dandy." Anatomy of the Dandy. Date. 2007. 26 Feb 2008 <>. V) Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 210 VI) Jobling, Paul. Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980 (Dress, Body, Culture). Oxford, United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 1999. 69-80 VII) Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 210-211 VIII) Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 211 IX) Marsh, Lisa. The House Of Klein. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Son, Inc., 2003. 45-46


X) Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 211-212 XI) Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3(1975): 6-18. XII) Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 218-220 XIII) Barnard, Malcolm. Fashion as Communication. 2nd. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002. 123 XIV) Gladwell, Malcolm. "Listening to Khakis." New Yorker March 17 1997: 5457. XV) Bennett, Audrey. Design Studies (Theory and Research in Graphic Design). New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. 26-28



Barnard, Malcolm. Fashion as Communication. 2nd. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002. Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. 1. Los Angeles : University of California Press, 1990. Bennett, Audrey. Design Studies (Theory and Research in Graphic Design). New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Currid, Elizabeth. The Warhol Economy (How fashion, art & music drive New York City). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. Entwistle, Joanne. Body Dressing (Dress, Body, Culture). Oxford, United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 2001. Gladwell, Malcolm. "Listening to Khakis." New Yorker March 17 1997: 54-57. Harper, Laurel. Provocative Graphics. Gloucester, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2001. Jobling, Paul. Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980 (Dress, Body, Culture). Oxford, United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 1999. Marsh, Lisa. The House Of Klein. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Son, Inc., 2003.


Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3(1975): 618. Thompson, Nato. The Interventionists. North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA Publications, 2004. Toth, Mike. Fashion Icon: The Power and Influence of Graphic Design. Gloucester, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2003. Tribe, Mark. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema-Mark Tribe-Brown University Wiki. January 17, 2007. Brown University. 19 Feb 2008 < d+Narrative+Cinema>. West, Cornel. Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992. White, Nicola. The Fashion Business: Theory, Practice, Image (Dress, Body, Culture Series). Oxford, United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 2000.


Image Sources

Figure 1- Figure 2- fw2006_malgosia-bela_001.jpg Figure 3- Dior/Dior_Gisele-Rhea_002.jpg Figure 4- Gabbana/dolce-gabbana_fw2007_group_003.jpg Figure 5- Figure 6- Gabbana/dolce-gabbana_uomo_ss2006_004.jpg



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