Thanksgiving Maskers

It’s officially August, which means my fellow fashion fanatics are squirming with excitement. Not because fall is around the corner (bomber jackets, booties and leather – oh my!), and not because summer essentials will be on sale soon. We’re all waiting for this year’s September issue of Vogue to hit shelves next week. In case you live under an outdated, style-less rock, the September issue is Vogue’s largest, most anticipated, most time-consuming and most important issue of the year. The cover is always graced by a fashionable celebrity, and it keeps getting bigger (and selling more) every year. Considering how many pages of fashion magazines are advertisements (this year’s September issue of Vogue will have 665 ad pages, which doesn’t even match their record of 727 ad pages in 2007), it’s clear that these advertisements play a pivotal role in fashion magazines and brand representation.

In the mid-15th century, the invention of the printing press allowed for easier distribution of information. Beginning in the late 1500s in Europe, artists drew fashion plates showing detailed depictions of dresses and styles with thorough descriptions. At this time, fashion was a luxury that only concerned the most affluent families. Fashion plates were a way for aristocratic trendsetters to show off their intricate gowns and style, helping society to determine what was ‘legitimate’ attire for the upper-class. Royalty also greatly influenced fashion and style, and their portraits served the same fashion purposes as fashion plates. In 1672, Mercure galant began publication. This gazette discussed gossip, art, theater, music and style, featuring articles and engravings, and was the first ever fashion magazine. However, Mercure galant began publishing fashion news infrequently, as style and trend changes were slow. Although there were no fashion advertisements in Mercure galant, fashion plates and features served as a personal style proclamation and representation. As printing presses improved over the next centuries, publications became more widespread. By the mid-1800s, fashion drawings were a regular feature of the premiere women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. Before the turn of the century, magazines had begun to use more and more photographic material.

As the 20th century began, photographs became extensively used in magazines, and soon enough advertisements began popping up in them as well (see some early examples here and here). Fashion advertisements needed to be different and had to stand out in order to catch the readers’ eyes while representing the brand/product’s ideals effectively. For example, this Revlon advertisement from the 1950s targets their lipstick toward women aiming to look sophisticated and elegant, while this Revlon advertisement is hoping to attract a more youthful crowd. Sometimes, fashion adverting is focused on the new collections and the statements they make, such as this 1970s Dior campaign and this Chanel ad. As the 1980s wore on, advertising and fashion seemed to already be in everyone’s faces, so to stand out many fashion campaigns chose to surprise and shock. The main subjects that fashion advertisers used to shock was sex and violence – sometimes both. This Thierry Mugler ad sparked controversy for its sexuality, as did this Calvin Klein ad (featuring a very young Mark Wahlberg and an even younger Kate Moss) and this Versace ad. [For other examples of sexually shocking 1990s fashion ads, click here and here.]

As the latest century began, sexual advertising didn’t stop. In fact, advertisements like this Gucci spot, this Armani ad, and this Tom Ford ad. Fashion houses have been criticized for endorsing violence in their advertisements, particularly sexual violence. This 2007 Dolce & Gabbana advertisement has been dubbed “Fantasy Rape” (and is strikingly similar to this Calvin Klein ad from 3 years later). Not only do these advertisements raise an ethical question regarding the fashion houses, but one can’t help but also wonder how the brands were hoping to be represented, why, and if that was a large consideration in these campaigns.

Taking out an advertisement in a fashion magazine guarantees that it will be seen by millions, but will burn out your credit card (see Vogue’s price list), so it’s no wonder so much care is put into them. Many fall 2013 advertisements are getting recognized for finally diversifying their models. The fashion world has been often criticized for being discriminatory in many ways, particularly racially (exemplified in this Prada ad and this DSquared ad). However, many brands are portraying a racially diverse image this season, such as this Prada campaign, this Tom Ford campaign and this Roberto Cavalli campaign. However, when I see images like those featured in the new DSquared campaign (here and here), and this season’s campaign from Chanel, I wonder if fashion houses are truly diversifying, or just marketing race. DSquared’s campaigns are not actually racially diverse at all. Of course this is no fluke, and begs the question: why did they specifically select a group of racially similar models? Is there an unknown intent behind this campaign, or has race become a quirky accessory in fashion advertising? As for the Chanel campaign, it’s no secret that Chanel’s runway shows have been east-Asian inspired for seasons now, so it may seem appropriate to have a campaign featuring only east-Asian models with their eyes accentuated.

Are some fashion houses changing and growing while others are stuck in old-fashion racist separation? Are the Chanel and DSquared campaigns inclusive or offensive? If I’m white, am I exempt from having fall’s greatest accessory? Should we demand real diversity, or should designers and brands be free to select who they wish to represent them? Does it even matter?


This piece was written by Rebecca MacDonald, Fashion Columnist at Rhetoric Magazine. Come back for more every Thursday!