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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.