Fashion is notoriously irreverent. From murder to religion, there’s hardly any topic it shies from, producing controversial collections and questionable photoshoots season after season. However laudable this boldness might be, it can’t be denied that some of fashion’s favourite motifs would better be left in the past. Chief among them: fashion’s eerie obsession with dolls.
Why fashion creatives find dolls inspiring is easy to discern: the fashion industry is preoccupied with perfection, and dolls can be impeccably beautiful in a way real women can’t (just think of Barbie’s unachievable proportions). But presenting the fashion doll as the beauty standard for the contemporary woman smacks of chauvinism. In his essay on fashion, 19th-century sociologist Thorsten Veblen described women as “a decorative sex”, whose only function was to passively submit to the male gaze. John Galliano’s collection for Dior SS04 unpleasantly reminded us of Veblen’s rhetoric. Inspired by Victorian dolls, the collection included hyper-sexualised, lavish, impractically voluminous gowns, accessorised with risqué stockings and impossible pompadours.
Yet more disturbing was a 2015 editorial in Vogue Paris, which put models inside giant Barbie boxes filled with fashion paraphernalia. Not only did the models look uncannily, eerily doll-like, the boxes themselves resembled curio rooms — or, even more macabre, coffins. For Moschino SS17, Jeremy Scott decided to delve into the infamously chauvinist era of the 1950s for inspiration, transforming his models into retro-inspired paper-dolls. The hairstyles and flashes of flesh evoked the visual vocabulary of the pin-up, while the body-contours, printed onto the clothes, reminded us of fashion industry’s merciless beauty standards.
While impeccably beautiful, the doll is also comfortably passive – something that is, disconcertingly, demanded of models, too. In John Fairchild’s “Chic Savages”, WWD’s formidable editor mentions an anecdote about Balenciaga spending hours fitting a dress on his favourite model, who patiently remains silent and immobile. Fast forward to the 21st century, the attitude towards models hasn’t changed much. Remember last year’s scandal where 150 models were made to wait in a dark stairway for three hours while their model scouts were having lunch? Moreover, the amount of models sharing their stories of sexual harassment following the Weinstein allegations has been overwhelming. Across the fashion industry, treating models as disposable objects seems to be customary. Encouragingly, initiatives to protect models have recently sprung up too, such as Cameron Russel’s campaign on Instagram that helps raise awareness about the frequency of sexual abuse in the fashion industry. In New York, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic announced she would propose legal measures to protect models. These initiatives defy the decades-long tradition of seeing models as inert “fashion dolls”.
Doll-inspired collections and fashion editorials mirror this deep-rooted perception of models as dummies — voiceless and impassive objects, ready to yield to the wish of an artist (usually, a man). However, that is not to say that all collections and editorials featuring dolls should automatically be discarded as misogynist. At Viktor & Rolf’s couture show for Fall 2017, the Dutch designers sent models down the runway dressed as what they called “action dolls”. These mascots with giant woolen heads, “were to fight for the better world”, the designers explained. A laudable intention, but why was it that dolls were chosen to represent it and not models? Can’t real women fight for the better world, too?
Phoebe English’s SS18 collection showed a different take on the doll. Created in collaboration with puppet-maker Judith Hope, the show featured wooden puppets dressed in garments from the collection. The wooden doppelgängers placed next to the models did indeed look eerie, but, as the designer said, she wanted them to “seem alive” and the whole presentation to be “performative”. In doing so, English wanted to make the puppets look like people, not to make the people look like puppets. Remarkably, Judith Hope’s puppets are not pretty, either. They are fascinating, and a little uncanny, and awkward, but they are not conventional, pretty dolls.
Phoebe English’s presentation was theatrical, clever and deeply moving, demonstrating that fashion can be progressive, dramatic and female-friendly at the same time. But we ever want to move past rampant female objectification, the fashion industry needs to stop equating real women to fashion dolls. Setting the immaculate doll as the ideal beauty standard is a backward move for an industry that claims to be focused on the future.