Andrej Pejic in Elle: fashion's love affair with a boy who looks like a girl

Does the success of a man as a womenswear model mean that the fashion industry is finally embracing difference?

Could it be that the fashion industry is becoming more diverse? Last week saw androgynous womenswear model Andrej Pejic grace the cover of a mainstream fashion magazine for the first time.

Pejic, according to the Serbian edition of Elle, is the ‘boy who shook the fashion world’ – a young man who, when dressed head to toe in John Paul Gaultier and strutting down a catwalk, or posing poutily from the glossy pages of a magazine, happens to look like an extraordinarily pretty girl. Indeed, Pejic embodies all the qualities model scouts look for – litheness, height, and something unique and extraordinary. In this case, it's long blonde hair, cut-glass cheekbones and come-to-bed eyes.

Yet Pejic is also clearly a man. No attempts are made to conceal his wide jaw and his Adam’s apple as he poses in women’s clothing, tiptoeing along the gender binary and flirting with either side. In an industry as homogenised as fashion, he has been seen as a breath of fresh air.

But others have questioned whether his success represents the scourge of female body fascism brought to its logical conclusion. Has fashion’s seeming rejection of female tits and arse meant that the only body now able to fit into the sample sizes isn’t a woman’s at all, but that of a (much less inconveniently lumpy) man? The problem with this line of argument, however, is that the correlation of mounds of doughy flesh with femininity is problematic, as we all know. Not all women have ‘curves’, after all.

Meanwhile, there are those who have argued that fashion’s preoccupation with the ‘un-feminine’ body shape is down to its being dominated by gay men who apparently want all women to look like little boys, a theory that has more than a whiff of homophobia about it and fatally ignores the huge participation of women within the industry. The message that we’re hearing is that the fashion industry says women’s bodies are always supposed to look like something else, perhaps anything else, other than ‘naturally female’. It’s a tempting conclusion - but the problems with its logic are glaringly inherent.

Andrej Pejic models bridalwear for John Paul Gaultier. Photo: Getty

When you stand next to a fashion model for the first time, especially a ‘high fashion’ model, you become suddenly aware that you are in the presence of a very different kind of human being. More often than not, she’ll tower above you, Amazonian in stature, like an Alice with pocketfuls of empty ‘eat me’ wrappers. When you look closer, you’ll see that her skinny legs and arms are, rather than the result of months of starvation, usually part and parcel of her very specific body type: a body type that which is both unusually slim and statuesque, with hips and tits kept to a minimum. That’s not to say that some models don’t underfeed themselves, or that their working conditions aren’t often appalling or rife with pressure to do so (as we’ve stated in previous columns, the fashion industry has a lot to answer for) but merely that the ‘fash pack’ favours one particular body type, and one which is by its very nature uncommon amongst the general population.

It’s when there is great pressure exerted on that general population to believe a catwalk body is achievable that we start to see problems, and it’s only when you’re actually in the presence of that model (something most people don’t experience, ever) that you realise how utterly preposterous and definitely unachievable that body type is. And it is fashion’s worship of that one genre of figure that results in the skewed standardisation that damages so many young women. Never in history has so much been demanded of so many through the photography of so few.

Of course, the fashion industry will sometimes pay lip service to acceptable difference. Pejic is different in as much he is of the opposite sex than you’d expect, but he still ticks the same aesthetic boxes as any female fashion model. Occasionally, Vogue will put a black model on the cover, and that copy will (apparently) sell badly, and then they’ll stop for another year or so. Last week saw Italian Vogue put an Asian model on its cover for the first time, Chinese model Fei Fei Sun. She looks startlingly chic, and crucially, has not been made to look more Caucasian, a charge often levied at fashion magazines when they use non-white models or celebrities. 

Sometimes, fashion will even embrace fat, as stylist Katie Grand did for Beth Ditto’s naked LOVE cover of 2009. Certainly we’re seeing different kinds of body, sometimes, on very special occasions. The week before last saw make-up brand MAC use a female bodybuilder to advertise their product, in a campaign entitled ‘strength’. As a brand, MAC has always been ahead of the curve, having given RuPaul a modelling contract, making him the first drag queen supermodel as far back as 1995.

Before his spectacular fall from grace, John Galliano’s habit of shocking the fashion world was already well established. His S/S 2005 couture show featured an array of so-called ‘freaks’ instead of standard-issue models – dwarves, child twins, fat women, old men, and a variety of others who are so often invisible in the world a la mode. The New York Times reported that some were shocked at the show’s ‘gross humanity’, while others laughed throughout - now, pop stars such as Lady GaGa make freakishness a selling point. Could it be that the rest of the fashion industry is finally catching up?

Well, yes and no. The success of models such as Charlotte Free, with her pink locks and her feminism and her hairy armpits, gives us hope. Meanwhile, last week’s ‘Body Issue’ of Grazia, in which size 8 model Daisy Lowe is breathlessly held up as courageous and atypical due to her breasts, demonstrate that there is still a long way to go.

Fashion will always have a place for the freaks, the misfits and the outcasts, and it will continue to fetishise them in a not altogether respectful or flattering way, along with perpetuating the unusual female body type which still dominates fashion imagery and which we continue to perceive as normal and attainable.

Charlotte Free by Terry Richardson.

So long as fashion continues to do this, it may just about convince some of us of its inclusivity. But in reality, inclusivity means more than the occasional (and often snide) nod towards difference, and it’s hard to be optimistic.

In the audience at these catwalk shows and fashion exhibits sit rows and rows of diverse women, the norms who conform neither to one vision nor the other, and they rarely see their reality mirrored back at them. That reality exists only in the swimming pool changing room, or at the gym, or in the nation’s bathrooms – the only places where bodies that are uncompromisingly flesh which sags and wobbles lurk – here be monsters!

Elsewhere, these bodies are all too often airbrushed out. Fashion may occasionally be a freakshow, but according to them, the most monstrous thing of all is run-of-the-mill, non-aspirational, un-Photoshopped humanity. It just doesn’t sell clothes.

Andrej Pejic on the catwalk. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.