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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.