Nishana Sukul, PhD student at Edinburgh College of Art, reconsiders the work of the photographer Cindy Sherman.
A believer in using the mass media to critique gender representations (as seen in her treatment of femininity portrayals in film in the Untitled Film Stills series), Cindy Sherman’s advertorial fashion photography can be seen as another example of her chameleonic and her postmodern fluidity of identity. She redefines dress in relation to the gendered body or should we reverse this idea, how the body is viewed as a figure representing the dress. The fashion industry can serve as useful backdrop for a discussion of gender representation, given that it is here that gender norms are created and circulated commercially.
Her fashion photographs can be instead seen as ‘anti-fashion’ statements by deconstructing conventionally ‘sales worthy’ images of femininity and replacing it with disjointed, uncanny and increasingly abject images. Predominately using herself as the model in these shoots, she is the deviant mannequin, refusing to conform to the prescribed norms. Despite never actually considering her work to be feminist or political statements, she has admitted to it being drawn from her observations ‘as a woman in this culture’. Sherman exploits the concept of the model constituting the ‘technical body of western consumer culture’ by subverting the characteristics of femininity which the fashion industry and modelling came to represent. Such characteristics include the importance of aesthetics and appearance; fetishisation of the body; youth equating feminine beauty; and the manipulation and moulding of the body. Her subversion of these characteristics can illustrate how she considers society’s struggle to acquire the ‘desires’ promised by the advertiser and instead results in awkward, ill-fitting versions of themselves.
Sherman’s earliest series of fashion photography serves to illustrate her subversive take. Presented in Interview magazine in 1983 as a commission from Dianne Benson to advertise new arrivals at her store, Sherman places a new spin on the merchandising of Comme des Garcons, Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier designs. The photographs represent awkward and unconventional models, uncomfortable either in the clothes, the cameras lens, or both. These disjointed and graceless images act as Sherman’s social commentary to reflect how society struggle to adhere and satisfy to the desired norm promoted by fashion advertising, a means of confirming their identity through a norm that is imposed upon them, never one that is one’s own. In feminist theory, Sherman’s 1983 series had preceded Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’, a theses exploring gender as a cultural construct. Nonetheless, despite her claims of not having a feminist agenda, these early fashion photographs are a forum focused largely on subverting the visual recognition mechanisms that the industry has used to categorise femininity in fashion. This not only serves as a postmodern outlook, but also acts to defeat a male constructed view of femininity engineered by the fashion industry at the time. Reception of this series of fashion photographs was positive from the industry, with Dianne publishing a selection for the brand’s campaign and it also leading to interest from French designer Dorothee Bis who viewed the adverts as ‘happy, goofy, funny’ pictures. Such an opinion of the series is highly contestable however, as the uncanny and deviant supersedes any light-humour, and even any elements of comedy are cast with a shadow of the tragic.
Untitled #120 (Los Angeles, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Figure 1) seeps inelegance with the model ungracefully squatting, the crotch opening of her body suit exposed. Her plastered finger can be suggestive of the social injury and scars on women inflicted by their failures in conforming to the desired norms, maybe touching upon issues such eating disorders, born out of negative self-image. She is also androgynous looking, maybe a comment on how attempts to reach the ideal can only result in failure, the asexuality of this image suggestive of the resulting void? The asexuality also counteracts with the notion of fashion photography being built on sexual stereotyping and sexist imagery. Furthermore, the androgyny is at odds with the male gaze, undermining the notion that women’s dress is solely about sexual allure. Typical of Sherman’s style, the photo captures her mid-narrative, perhaps in this case mid conversation. The ‘Untitled’ nature of her work furthers this, allowing the viewer to construct their own narrative of the photograph’s subject. This can be viewed to give a natural feel to the model’s behaviour, thereby overcoming the contrived quality of the ‘posed’ modelling in fashion photography. Yet the conflict of the awkwardness of her dress and demeanour undermines any sense of ease. Moreover a sense of the uncanny is furthered by the slightly deranged glaze in Sherman’s eyes, her white garments even being resonant of the uniform of the mentally institutionalized, thus being a poster girl for asylum chic. The madness in her eyes furthers the subversion of the male gaze in the internalization of the ‘penislike eye’; rather than an accepting and passive recipient of being looked at. The model is reacts with instability. This can be a visual representation of fashion media devised images of desired femininity only falsely fulfilling the female consumer; they are deluded into thinking that have attained the perfection promised by the advertiser. The photographic overexposure creates a washed out effect to the image, a haziness which can symbolise the vagueness as a result of pluralism in the postmodern identity. It is this concept of pluralism that Sherman wishes to remind us of in her work, the pluralism of femininity, it being a fragmentised idea which does not have a ‘grand narrative’ as its definition. In the context of high-fashion ads, we could argue that conformity to a prescribed look of femininity is the grand narrative. Hence should this pluralism not be respected, it can result in a dysfunction of identities as suggested by the general air of the uncanny of Untitled #120, a far cry from the desires created by the adverts to convert the buyer into a more perfect version of themselves. The haze and pallid quality of the image, coupled with the model’s white leotard and turban attire, is resonant of Deborah Turbeville’s Bath House series for Vogue in 1975 (New York, Staley-Wise Gallery, Figure 2). Despite the models of Turbeville being described as ambivalent, their faces conveying ‘dejection and boredom’ even as to ‘convey the pose in its failure’, they are clearly more elegant than Sherman’s mannequin of Untitled #120. Unlike the athletic and gazelle like graceful images of femininity that we see in Turbeville’s photograph, Sherman portrays herself in a boorish stance. The soft focus furthers the bluntness of her features in contrast to the chiselled creatures of Turbeville. In excerpts from Sherman’s notebooks accompanying the series, she states how she wishes to ‘attack’ the clothes of these high-end designers through using ugly people to model fashionable designs, even suggestive of ‘ugly girls playing dress-up with Mom’s clothing’ This greatly contrasts Turbeville’s models whose supple physiques create beauty in the clothes, turning simple clean lines of design into sought after objects of desire, an image is that of a perfect fit. Sherman’s is by contrast incongruent and even disturbing, serving to undermine the desirability of fashion advertorial to highlight their contrived nature.
The sense of awkwardness is continued in Untitled #122 (Los Angeles, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Figure 3), where donned in an oversized blond wig, she models an ill-fitting Jean-Paul Gaultier suit. Staring downwards, she avoids the camera’s lens and flash, perhaps suggestive of how she wishes to escape the overwhelming glare of the fashion industry and its stereotypes. Her faceless body adds to this, reflecting how adhering to a prescribed look robs us of individual identity. Such a covering of her eyes can be seen as her portraying herself as blind; put in the context of the male gaze, how women are blind and thus powerless in creating their own femininity, but are instead have patriarchal ideals imposed upon them by the fashion industry. The pose is cumbersome and strained, furthered by the tension created by her clenched fists. The dark colour of the suit contributes to the air of heaviness, a vast contrast from the lithe models usually seen in fashion photography. The iconography of the suit can be relevant here to; it being a symbol of the corporate world, hence the overbearing power of fashion advertising in creating desires in women. The ill-fitting appearance of the garment further underlines how such desires are difficult to achieve in reality. In essence, the rigidity and tension conveyed here summates Sherman’s ‘love-hate’ relationship with fashion, resulting in the consumer being ‘a prisoner of that structure’. The undercurrents of constraint and entrapment of the image can allude to Foucault’s metaphor of the Panopticon. Foucault used the Panopticon structure as a metaphor for the carceral nature of modern society, with its bodies and behaviour being ‘normalized’ through the discipline of the ‘mindful body’, rather than that of the ‘fleshy body’. Discipline of the ‘mindful body’ can however be pleasurable, thus the influence of fashion may be contextualized into this. Phallic allusions can also be drawn from Sherman’s stiff upright pose, its verticality serving as a phallic signifier. This offers parallels to Surrealist photography, with the aid of the blonde wig suggesting similarities in form to Man Ray’s Woman With Long Hair (New York, Man Ray Trust, Figure 4). Untitled #122 is the Surrealist’s photo in reverse, a poorer, less sophisticated version of it albeit. However it can be argued that akin to the Surrealists, Sherman has formulated her own ‘informe’; an informe to defamiliarise the image of woman propagated by the fashion industry. Whilst Man Ray uses an oblique camera angle to defamiliarise the body, thus addressing photographic technique and the form of the image, Sherman instead alters the subject matter itself, in this case the model in the fashion ad, to deform the norms of femininity advocated by the industry. The unkempt blond wig worn by Sherman not only debases the haute couture design she wears, but also adds to the artifice of the image, the contrived nature of fashion photography being a theme that she highlights throughout the series. Furthermore the conflict of gender signifiers through the feminine wig and masculine suit combination can imply references to Rivere’s theory of womanliness as a masquerade. Her theory states that women working in masculine roles or those with ‘masculine ambition’ had to hide behind a ‘mask’ of femininity ‘both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the repercussions expected if she was found to possess it’.
Article by Nishana Sukul.