Femmes Fatales

April 08, 1995|By GLENN McNATT

This week was fall fashion week in New York. In one of those odd asymmetries that make no sense to people like me, the designers show off in spring what they hope women will be buying in stores next winter.

Sun fashion editor Vida Roberts reported that ''along with the fuss about frocks was buzz about Michael Gross' new book, 'Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women.' ''

Ms. Roberts noted that Mr. Gross, a senior writer for Esquire magazine, has ''tapped his insider resources to expose the stink of drugs, sex and exploitation that clings to the modeling business like stale perfume.''

It's easy to believe Mr. Gross is on to something judging from this year's clothes. Designers have all but abandoned the ''innocent waif'' look of a few seasons back for a style that seems calculated to make even the loveliest young woman appear more or less like a tart.

I don't know who actually wears these clothes besides the models who strut and swagger down runways in New York, Paris and Milan.

On the few occasions I have had opportunity to observe the social elite at close hand I have never seen anything to suggest its women would appear publicly in fuchsia hot pants, black leather tank top and thigh-high, stiletto-heel boots.

I'm not saying such women don't exist among the upper classes, only that they must be off to the margins.

I imagine, for example, a prosperous man who already possesses an elegant wife and a beautiful mistress. If such a man happened to meet a woman dressed in the outfit described above he might indeed be attracted, though mostly for the diversion offered by the prospect of tawdry thrills in a cheap motel.

Yet some writers -- not Ms. Roberts -- have persuaded themselves that this sluttish creature is a reprise of the grand Hollywood divas of the 1940s. They have dubbed her ''The Bitch,'' a curious combination of wealthy adventuress, screen idol and streetwalker rolled into one.

''On movie screens, at the mall and, most spectacularly, on the catwalk, the bitch is back, her sulky glamour fueling designers' most lurid cinematic fantasies,'' gushed Elle magazine's spring fashion review. ''Her contours encased in a form-fitting suit, her lips slicked like vinyl, her hair pulled back into a glossy switch, she is both a caricature of predatory sexuality and an unabashed paean to feminine power.''

This, apparently, is the fashion industry's version of feminism for the 1990s: woman's power as beautiful object and sexual plaything.

Fashion has long had this dark side, in which the implicit price for elegant luxury and ease was always a demand for sexual submission.

But the current ''bitch'' look is fascinating for what it reveals about how the fashion industry refracts issues of gender and power through the distorting lens of the media in order to commercially exploit society's sexual tensions.

For example, several years ago the country was transfixed by a string of highly publicized cases involving day-care workers accused of sexually molesting children.

Not long afterward, designers came up with the ''innocent waif'' look, whose frilly, shirtwaist dresses and flat shoes slyly equated the sexuality of preadolescent girls with that of adult women.

Similarly, recent years have seen a growing acknowledgment of spousal abuse. Many writers have commented on the fact that battered women develop defense mechanisms that cause them to blame themselves rather than their tormentors for the abuse they suffer.

Some women will remain with an abusive partner for years, despite the beatings. Others leave one partner for another who repeats the identical pattern of abuse.

When an abused woman's self-esteem is so shattered she sees herself as little more than an object, others are apt to treat her that way. Battered women, for example, are far more likely than others to wind up as prostitutes, strippers and other species of hookers.

The ''bitch look'' successfully recycles these pitiable figures into marketable commodities. Swaddled in cashmere, gold leather, sequins and pearls, skittering across the catwalks in wasp-waisted corsets, skin-tight skirts, pencil pants and wildcat prints, ''the bitch'' reflects our secret obsession with the trappings of sexual domination and submission.

The fashion industry's standard disclaimer is that its business is ''fantasy,'' not social commentary. But the story ''the bitch'' tells is one of gender and class exploitation, sexual abuse and a terrifying psychological emptiness. What is disturbing is that it seems to sell so well.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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