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Fashion's Gender Outlaws
Isabel Slone: "If fashion is about individual identity, then where is the variation?"

Transsexual model Lea T.

Last weekend at the Toronto Pride Parade, a scarlet-clad transwoman sashayed down Yonge street, carrying a sign that loudly proclaimed: “We need more transgender models on the runway!” I screamed as loud as I could in support of that sign (and so many of the other things about Pride), because it’s true.

On average, every model we see trying to sell us something is an ethereal white cisgender woman who weighs less than 115 lbs. Occasionally, there will be a black girl, but no guarantee. This is the standard of beauty our society has come to adopt and whoever hires those models polices that standard by allowing only a few token ‘others’ to play the game. If fashion is about individual identity, then where is the variation?

The Pride placard could not have been timelier, as it coincides with the announcement of new American Apparel ads featuring Isis King, a former contestant on America’s Next Top Model who also happens to be trans. She’s a beautiful woman with killer cheekbones and a fantastic model, who is able to pull off American Apparel’s hallmark high-waisted disco pants and teeny shorts. In the ads, Isis is shown wearing the classic “Legalize Gay” slogan tee as well as a newer one that reads “Gay O.K.” According to the company, fifteen percent of proceeds from these t-shirt sales will be donated to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

American Apparel has a long history of skeevy attitudes towards women (especially plus-size women-— anyone remember the debacle that was their “Next Big Thing” contest?), but it’s great to see the company demonstrate some commitment to political issues. Using a trans woman of colour to advertise their product signifies a small victory for both visibility of trans people outside the queer community and expanding conceptions of beauty.

Advertising is aspirational. Ads are purpose-designed to make us envious of their content, promising that if we buy their product we can be as happy or look as good as the model in the ad. To place trans people in advertising allows them to be role models and positions them as people we want to emulate. Despite American Apparel’s history of semi-pornographic and exploitive ads, the company is helping to normalize non-binary gender identities by widely presenting images of trans people in major publications as an advertising tool.

It truly seems as though gender outlaws are having a genuine ‘moment’ in the fashion world. Transsexual Brazilian model Lea T. modeled in the Givenchy Fall/Winter 2010 campaign, wearing black pants and a feathered shirt. Later in the year, she was photographed naked (NSFW) for Vogue Paris, looking statuesque in her pre-operative state. The Vogue Paris pictures may be ‘progressive’ and ‘risque’ but they still reduce Lea to the inhabitant of a mismatched body. The simple Givenchy ad was much more of a radical representation of trans people because it presented Lea as she is: a working model and not a hyperfeminized woman impersonator, only capable wearing Cinderella ball gowns or posing naked to appease the male gaze.

Andrej Pejic may not be trans, but he is an example of another model that has found success by subverting gender norms. Pejic has a rounded, feminine face with an aquiline nose and cascading blonde hair. He has based his entire modeling career on his subversive ability to ‘pass’ as a woman. While Pejic is famously mute about his sexuality, it appears he has a fluid approach to gender identity: “I don’t really have that sort of strong gender identity–I identify as what I am.” However, Andrej Pejic is such a classic Western beauty that designers can use him to model their wares and feel progressive without having to actually challenge the aesthetic norm.

Andrej Pejic

That sign was right: we do need more transgender models on the runway. No matter how much money is at the disposal of the fashion industry, I was only able pick out three well-known models that aren’t cisgender females.

Fashion can be a progressive industry (think about how easily we accepted something like…fur vests into our hearts), but it remains stalwart in its devotion to exclusive ideals of beauty. Fashion magazines remain dependent on their advertisers, so let us target the advertisers on their outdated attitudes on identity and appearance. We need to redefine beauty so that it includes wide range of bodies, skin colours, sexualities-— or perhaps we should smash the concept of beauty altogether, so we can build our own inclusive definition from scratch.

Still, inspiring change can happen in the places you least expect it. This June, students at Trenton High School in Trenton, ON named a transgender student as their prom queen. Connor’s story about attending the Prom as a transwoman and feeling accepted for who she is was downright tearjerker– not to mention she looked exactly like Divine in her leopard print gown.

Maybe when all this news isn’t really ‘news’ anymore, we’ll finally be on the right track.


Isabel Slone is a Toronto-based fashion blogger and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @isabelslone.

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