By: Emily Yakashiro
I have a problem with fashion films. Here’s why.
Above: A screen shot from Little Women-here we see Susan Sarandon shortly after giving her progressive opinions I discuss below.
The other day I found myself watching the 1994 version of Little Women, based on Lousia May Alcott’s famous eponymous novel. Alcott herself was quite the activist, being and abolitionist, not to mention her proto-feminist leanings shine through in this particular novel. The movie itself is a regular star-studded event, starring Susan Sarandon (herself a very prominent activist), Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, and Christian Bale (who, incidentally, is Gloria Steinem’s stepson!).
Above: The character Mr. Brooks in Little Women thinking about Mrs. March’s feminist thoughts.
Watching the movie, I found myself particularly intrigued by a brief conversation Mrs. March (Susan Sarandon) has with John Brooks (Eric Stoltz) as they watch the March girls and Laurie play in the snow outside. Here it is:
Mr. Brooks: Your young ladies are unusually active, Mrs. March, if I may say so.
Mrs. March: You may indeed, Mr. Brooks. In my option young girls are no different from boys in their need for exertion. Feminine weakness and fainting spells are the direct result of confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework and restrictive corsets.
Now, of all things, this particular exchange reminded me of fashion films/movies. I’ve noticed that with many such movies, we see a lot of women lounging around indoors occupied with various activities. It seems rather rare to see the women featured being particularly active in any sense.
What little activity we do see (dancing, walking, running) seems to fall kind of into the manic pixie dream girl trope which we’ve discussed before. This may seem rather harsh, and of course there’s nothing especially wrong with young women spending time daydreaming and reading by enchanted landscapes, but I think the general atmosphere created undersells what young women are actually doing nowadays. Generally speaking, we’re not spending hours in dreamy contemplation while reading vintage books in silky underthings. We’re in school, working, running websites and blogs, taking our dogs out for walks, traveling, volunteering, attending family dinners, social events, activist gatherings, etc.
What really gets me is that the majority of said fashion films are indeed not only made for women’s fashions, but are made by popular female designers. I really don’t like the idea of critiquing the precious few female designers that exist, but I really wish we could see something other than women moving slowly around as if in a fanciful daze…
Incidentally, I’m not the only one seeing these patterns in fashion films, as we saw with the recent and highly amusing fashion film spoof starring Lizzy Caplan by Viva Vena. Other bloggers, like Christina of For Show (brought to my attention by Style is Style) have also remarked that though beautiful, these movies are kind of ridiculous at times.
Here are some other things I’ve noticed about indie fashion films:
1. They almost always exclusively star white women.
2. There’s a lot of cute dancing often cut with moments of intense or dreamy gazing or contemplation.
3. Vintage props everywhere.
4. Active movement takes the form of dancing, running through the woods, walking through the woods, or one of those activities in another setting.
5. Background music is usually peppy 50s/60s girl pop or slow melancholy jazz or instrumental music.
6. The women starring in the movies are often subject to random forces of nature that affect their movement in strange ways (albeit in slow, strange ways) via sudden gusts of wind, even anti-gravity, giving the overall impression that women have a lack of control over their environments.
7. If there is food present in the movie, it’s usually nice little pastries, cupcakes, or other nicely arranged delicacies.
Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a love of cupcakes and sailor shorts, but I’m getting pretty tired of these common fashion film tropes, because though I love vintage clothes and tea parties as much as the next gal, there is a lot more to me. Mind you, it’s not like I’m even represented in these films in the first place, and neither is my fellow fashion-obsessed friend Lydia, since neither of us are white (see #1).
In other words, there is harm done in perpetuating these tropes that we see in fashion films. I turn once again to Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency who reminds us in her video series Tropes vs. Women that,
A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to an audience. A trope becomes a cliche when it is overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.
-from Anita Sarkeesian’s series Tropes vs. Women
Now, I understand that representation in fashion films doesn’t seem as big of a deal as, say, being represented in government by people of my gender and races. However, I am heavily invested in the fashion world, and have been for years. I buy clothes from everywhere including fast fashion stores and independent Canadian designers, I consume tons of fashion magazines, have my own personal style blog, and I founded this very website in December. I really care about this industry, whether corporate or indie, and it’s important to me to see people with a similar identity as mine represented in something I value so much.
Bottom line? I love the beautiful clothes of talented designers like Vanessa Bruno and Samantha Pleet, but if I see one more video full of white women moving slowly through a cool old house or forest I might barf. And I’m not without ideas, or solutions to this problem- if you’re hoping to make a fashion film soon, let’s talk. Seriously. I’ve got some good ideas that involve zero moss-covered stumps and a soundtrack in mind that will have you ready to take down a whole zombie apocalypse-all while impeccably dressed, of course. So here’s hoping that we see more diversity in the fashion films to come.
A few indie fashion films to consider:
Betina Lou S/S 2012
The Loved One
Vanessa Bruno One and Two
Samantha Pleet One and Two