Fashion industry insists on dressing women as objects

March 02, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

Here we are, just a few days into March, and already an odd collision has occurred: Women's History Month and Women's Fashion Month have crashed headlong into each other.

Or to put it another way: Betty Friedan has been -- you should excuse the expression -- broadsided by Lolita.

Here's the deal: In addition to being Women's History Month, March is the time of year when the fashion industry trots out its vision of what the well-dressed woman can look forward to TC wearing.

Suffice it to say that Humbert Humbert would go gaga over this year's look.

On the other hand, females past the age of 10 may not be so enthusiastic -- unless, of course, they are Lolita wannabes -- about the arrival of the most regressive fashion season in recent memory.

Let's see. First, there's the Baby-Doll Look.

This look consists of dressing live, grown-up women in clothes featuring ruffles, little white anklets and patent Mary Janes.

When the New York Times Magazine featured the look -- under the headline "Living Dolls" -- the clothes were modeled by adult women made up to look like porcelain dolls, their arms and legs positioned as though they were inanimate toys.

The pictures in the layout, as some letter-writers to the Times pointed out, came close to pornography.

For those not drawn to the Baby-Doll Look, there is another fashion option: the Baby (no doll) Look.

It showed up earlier this week on the Milan fashion runways when a thumb-sucking model -- none other than Carla Bruni, who once almost lured The Donald away from The Marla -- was pushed past the fashion crowd in a perambulator.

Central to the Baby Look are white christening dresses and anything resembling layette fashion.

We've come a long way. Haven't we, baby?

But let's say the Baby Look is a tad too young for you. That you want to go beyond the infant look into a more mature style. For you there's the Schoolgirl Look.

Short skirts in Crayola colors, knee-high socks, lace-up shoes, cropped sweaters: These are what the well-dressed adult schoolgirl will wear this fall.

And last but not least we have the apron dress, a costume redolent with the symbolism of housewifely duties. However, we are not talking here of Julia Child in a butcher's apron -- we are talking Lolita in a bare-shouldered wrap dress cut tightly across the bosom.

To recap: Baby-Doll, Baby, Schoolgirl, apron dress; these are the looks currently in vogue.

Which means: The fashion industry is giving women the choice of dressing as sex object, dressing as an infant, dressing as a toy or dressing as a sex object in the kitchen.

It's deja vu all over again.

I suppose there's more than a little irony that these new fashions are appearing just as we enter the month set aside to acknowledge the valuable contributions made by women throughout history.

Of course, you could say women's history is intimately linked with the history of women's fashion.

Women, throughout much of history, have existed largely inside what has been called the "male gaze."

Which is to say: Women have been defined by the way men have seen them. As sex object. As Madonna. As sister. As mother. As wife. As whore. As chattel.

And the history of fashion reveals clearly the role it played in defining a woman's proper place in the male gaze.

Sometimes the styles have required a woman to submit to a form of torture. Foot-binding. Lip and nose piercing. Vise-like corsets. Stiletto-heeled shoes.

In some cultures, women must live behind veils. In others, women are concubines, dressed seductively to please their master.

The occasional woman who dared to define herself outside of the male gaze, like George Sand, was considered -- and to some extent, still would be -- eccentric and odd.

But I really was convinced, until these recent reports, that we were moving in the right direction: away from this destructive objectification of women through fashion.

It's an insult not only to women today but to those courageous women who went before us: the unknown women who lived and worked and helped shape our society.

Objects? No.

Women of great character? Yes.

Pioneers, mothers, artists, nurses, soldiers, inventors, scientists; they are the women I celebrate this month.

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