Recently, we saw a reprise of one of the most contentious feminist debates of the last few decades: what is objectification and what is empowerment?
The fast-fashion giant Boohoo faced its freshest controversy as the Advertising Standards Authority banned it from using “sexually suggestive” images of a model. The advert in question showed a model wearing an oversized t-shirt and thong style underwear, in one picture she was on her knees with her bum facing into the camera. Twitter was outraged with many people making the point that underwear and bikini modelling pictures are always “sexually suggestive”. Except, it was the t-shirt for sale not the thong.
Three days later the Albanian designer, and last year’s LVMH winner, Nensi Dojaka presented her designs at a London Fashion Week show. Dojaka’s ‘barely-there’ dresses have enjoyed a slew of celebrity endorsement in recent years with Bella Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Dua Lipa and Zendaya all proving to be fans. Her latest collection has stayed true to her signature aesthetic of sheer layered fabrics, clingy mesh, exposed seams and tiny dresses held together with clever draping and string. On the hanger these clothes look like confusing strips of fabric cutting but on the body they sit perfectly and everything looks deliberate, creating a sense of soft femininity. An incredible feat of design with asymmetry and notes of surrealism. Dojaka’s designs are everything Boohoo’s are not: fresh, daring and subversive.
If we’re comparing the surface area of exposed skin, Dojaka’s designs should be much more controversial than Boohoo’s pictures. So why is one considered fashion and the other called out as inappropriate?
It could be argued that Dojaka’s designs are really just art, an argument made about lots of high-end fashion. Though is it really art when dozens of celebrities have worn these designs to parties and events in the last few months? Yes it may be art but it is also clothing, those dresses were intended to be worn out and about.
The real problem with the Boohoo advert was the slight pornographic quality to the model’s pose. The small orange thong that falls between the models’ butt cheeks is what immediately meets the eye, not the t-shirt. I could swear I’ve seen worse elsewhere but I do believe that the specific pose was unnecessary.
On whether her designs sexualise women, Dojaka told The Business of Fashion, “I would hate to describe it as sexualised… It’s about using the sexiness almost like a power play; it’s more about women taking control of the gaze. The clothes are sexy but they’re for the women, about the women”. Dojaka, although well intended, has actually landed herself in the middle of an old as time feminist debate about objectification vs empowerment. She also hasn’t said anything we haven’t heard already.
The male gaze, a term used to refer to a sexualised way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women, is not new. When Dojaka says that the clothes are sexy but they’re “for the women”, I can’t fully agree with her. Yes, the clothes are sexy and I don’t doubt that many women find her designs empowering to wear, but they aren’t just for the women. They are also, whether intended to be or not, for the male photographers who are much quicker to snap Bella Hadid in one of Dojaka’s sheer dresses than in a balaclava and puffer coat. These are the pictures that will get clicks and sales.
When Dojaka says, “it’s about using the sexiness almost like a power play”, I imagine she means inverting the male gaze in such a way as to make it empowering. One of her customers, Emily Ratajowski, astutely wrote in her recently published book: “… the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place. Those men were the ones in control, not the women the world fawned over”. I think this is very accurate. Just how much power do those women have? Besides, the women wearing Nensi Dojaka clothes are wealthy and skinny in a world that attaches values to both.
The women shopping at Boohoo won’t necessarily be as wealthy or as skinny as the women shopping at Nensi Dojaka. How much power do they have? It is for this reason that I think it was right that Boohoo were held accountable over their modelling pictures. The Boohoo Group exploits their, mostly female, workers by denying them a proper living wage. The Boohoo model in the picture wasn’t posing provocatively as an act of self-empowerment, she was just doing her day job. I don’t believe for one minute that empowering women is on Boohoo’s agenda.
On the other hand, Nensi Dojaka is a small-scale, independent designer whose success is entirely of her own creation. Though probably not size inclusive enough, she has produced innovative designs that women genuinely want to wear. Maybe the women who wear her dresses are not as empowered as they think they are; maybe this is a patronising suggestion. I don’t know.
However, multi million pound corporations like Boohoo should do better. Just 2 out of 10 members of their board are women and their mean hourly pay for women is 6.9% lower than men, according to Gov.uk. I think the crux of this is who it is that’s granting women their empowerment.
The Boohoo Group will never really empower women because they don’t want to empower women. They want profit. If they really cared about women they’d pay their workers a living wage. When empowerment of women is deployed and retracted on a volatile and self-interested basis, it has no value whatsoever. So yes, that Boohoo advert was a completely unnecessary and inappropriate way of modelling a t-shirt.
Image credit: JPPhotoMiami