Power Execs and Saggy-Boobed Hippies: Portraits of Everyday Women

August 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

After several seasons of flying under the fashion radar, Donna Karan released an ad campaign for F/W 11 that has people talking. Fashionista exclaims that they “love the story in this campaign” while Made in Brazil toots that it’s “the best Donna Karan ad campaign in a very long time.” What’s ironic about this campaign’s widespread praise is its somewhat banal narrative and down-to-earth imagery. It’s not edgy and eye-catching like Versace’s F/W 11 campaign, which depicts Saskia de Brauw posing in a disco-meets-Seventh Seal landscape. Rather, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin shot Brazilian model Isabeli Fontana conducting a series of mundane activities: meeting with executives at the office, testifying in court, lounging in the back of a car, attending what could be a chichi charity event, and looking after her children. All the while she wears quietly elegant Donna Karan dresses and suits constructed from fur, wool, and silk in shades of creme and grey.

The power of this campaign lies in its ability to speak to the everyday woman. Seeing Fontana in familiar roles like business partner, date, and mother, leads viewers to easily identify with her and the American dream she embodies of having it all. Unlike fashion campaigns set in highly conceptual or digitized spaces that bear little resemblance to mainstream American life, Donna Karan’s ad campaign allows consumers to see themselves in the fictional, yet seemingly accessible space where the ad takes place.

Feminist artist Cindy Sherman has explored the idea of the everyday woman in her photography-based work since she debut her series “Untitled Film Stills” in the early 80s. From then on, she has utilized a modest set of costumes, wigs, and makeup to photograph herself as a range of satirical characters – an entertainment mogul’s wife, a desperate hitchhiker, a mousy librarian, a still corpse, a supine catalog model, a rustic cowgirl, a Renaissance courtesan. At first glance, Sherman’s characters seem like mere satires of familiar, American female figures. But closer inspection reveals their reflection of the hopelessness and longing that women can feel in our image-obsessed world today.

For a show at the Gagogian Gallery in 2000, Sherman assembled 12 photographs of herself as a washed-out biker chick, an aging Upper East Side lady-who-lunches, a jogger pruned from the sun, and a dreadlock-donning hippie with boobs sagging to her knees, amongst others. There is an blatant humor in these images, seen in the conspicuously artificial costuming, the awkward poses, and emphasis on sagging breasts. But the women also convey a sense of  sadness and longing in their empty smiles and dated sense of beauty. In a profile of Sherman for the New Yorker in 2000, Calvin Tomkins comments that Sherman’s figures “projected a kind of desperation that went beyond parody. They weren’t losers, exactly, but you couldn’t help but see how hard they worked to hang on to things- youth, glamour, hope. Although the women might appear shallow, with their silicon implants and gaudy makeup, their stories ran deep.”

We initially laugh at Sherman’s characters’ attempts to fulfill an aspirational beauty ideal, but we soon empathize with them as we become aware of their seemingly pathetic inability to achieve it. We feel their powerlessness.

V Magazine‘s current “Transformation Issue” features an interview with Sherman. The introduction reads:

“What Sherman captures with her physicality, costuming, and performance posing is a rendering of what it means to be a woman. And that means being everything a woman can be – with the constant fear of collapsing into nothing. Sherman’s work recalls Berlin’s song ‘Sex (I’m A…),’ in which singer Terri Nunn’s refrain is an increasingly frantic plea declaring her uberwomanhood: ‘I’m a slut, I’m a geisha, I’m your babe, I’m a dream divine.’ The list goes on.”

While the Donna Karan ads created an aspirational ideal of the everyday woman, Cindy Sherman’s work constructs an image of the everyday woman that’s impressionable, aesthetically insecure, and closer to the reality of how many women (and men) live. Sherman’s range of characters, at once sad, joyous, and mysterious, show a diversity of identity with which women, and more extensively all people, can express themselves. But her work also elucidates our vulnerability to hegemonic beauty ideals and our constant temptation to be people we are not or can ever become. In exposing the bizarreness of straying from one’s true self, Sherman teaches us to acknowledge our shared human experiences and at some point, to laugh at our own attempts to be what Donna Karan would say is just “everyday.”

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§ One Response to Power Execs and Saggy-Boobed Hippies: Portraits of Everyday Women

  • Cindy says:

    I don’t know if I agree with you–I think if we take both sets of photos as projections of how women feel rather than how they actually are, (powerful or powerless, aesthetically insecure/hopeless or beautiful/stylish), I don’t think one is more accurate than the other. To me, DK’s ads are speaking to the elegance I can sometimes feel in an everyday setting, more so than my aspirations of glamour. It’s like believing you’re the best dressed person in the room. Even if no one around you cares. And CS’s photographs speak to the insecurities that comes with sometimes feeling pigeonholed into a certain feminine archetype–that I’m a clown, a mockery of the person I think I’m projecting. Perhaps the latter may be more closer to reality than the former, but I think both can be more accurately seen as fantasies of identity.

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