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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change