Fashion’s desirable ambiguity.

The paradigm is changing.

This morning I came across an article at the Huffington Post which linked to a Vogue Italia article on rising fashion model Valentijn De Hingh. Certainly fitting the image of today’s supermodel, upon first glance, there’s not much that’s overly remarkable about her, outside of the fact that she has a striking image, and as such, it’s a no-brainer that she’s a model. However, to know Valentijn is to know that she was a he.

The subject of a nine-year documentary on transgendered children, which aired on Dutch television in 2007, Valentijn subsequently received a sex change and moved onto a career as a model, scoring spots on the runways of Maison Martin Margiela and Comme des Garcons (which, incidentally is French for “just like boys”.

Lea T

Stefano Moro for the New York Times

Valentijn is certainly not alone on the runway. With a slightly higher profile, transgender model Lea T has been garnering notices and working with some of the best known fashion houses such as Givenchy. Given the way in which fashion literally sets trends by being shocking, knowing that transgendered models are not only working, but working for established names isn’t all that shocking.

Add to the mix the phenomenon that is Andrej Pejic, a male model whose gender bending style has had him model a variety of looks for an even wider variety of houses.

Kate Moss

Kate Moss

When you think about it, it’s clearly not a big deal that this is happening, and to be honest, it really isn’t. But what it does do in my mind as a photographer, is bring into question the idea and concept of the model. Now you have models who are generally all-purpose, be it runway or print. The classic image of models had drifted to one where the thinner you were, the more work you would get. Kate Moss made her career off of having the body of a 12 year-old boy, so why would it be a surprise that eventually you would have a male model ape the look of a waifish female model who is aping a young boy.

It makes no sense, because it makes perfect sense.

At PopLife, we have always celebrated the image of the curvy female model, but there have been instances where thinner models simply made more sense to shoot. The image carries it’s own connotation, and while I personally don’t shoot male models, it’s not an issue of discrimination as it is personal preference. Fashion, however, can always be far more accommodating, as it should be.

Fashion, if it isn’t anything else, is a constant work-in-progress. It moves, it evolves and it transforms. Having transgendered, or gender-bending models seems like a natural progression, and an accepted one at that. Certainly none of the names I mentioned came first in this way; for that, you’d have to look at April Ashley, one of the first transgendered models who gained a good amount of success, which included gracing the pages of Vogue UK. But what makes this all a curiosity is what fashion makes of the model, or more importantly, the emphasis of what is more important, the model or the design.

Andrej Pejic

Andrej Pejic

Certainly the reason you have runway shows is so that new designs from houses are shown off. Technically who is wearing the design shouldn’t matter. By their very definition, a model is pretty much a fancy clothes hanger. Whose to say that in a few years, instead of transgendered models, or androgynous boys, there won’t just be androids? Because it’s pretty easy to see things go that way, which in turn could quite possibly mean the death of the supermodel, both male and female.

Yes, fashion is indeed an evolution. Wait long enough, and it may evolve right past you.

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One response

  1. A. Bruce McDonald

    I think most people would agree that there has been a long history of media and fashion industry objectification and distortion of the female body. This long lived mortification of the female body, and social construction of the “ideal” feminine form is nothing more than the corporate “body-project”.

    The primary objective of the body-project is to make enormous sums of money for a small minority of stake-holders. This is the nature of our socio-economic and political system. The impact on girls and women has been nothing less than an emotional and physical slaughterhouse. As transsexual females experience themselves as girls and women long before any hormonal or surgical intervention can occur, they too are subject to the same indoctrination, body-image control and longing to reflect this fabricated feminine ideal. Just as this can become a dangerous obsession for natal females, so to can it ravage trans women.

    The story is one of manipulated distortion for profit, and long embedded belief systems regarding gender, and gender differences—as well as the more interesting fact of gender similarities that is generally ignored. Sex and gender are not the neat binary system ingrained into most peoples’ minds. There is a continuous spectrum that challenges fundamental assumptions about who we are as people, as sexual beings, and as “men” or “women”.

    Perhaps there is an underlying current of artistic energy that is being played out in this fashion ambiguity. Indeed, ambiguity is far closer to the reality than the well-differentiated schema. As such, its movement into the mainstream of media has an important role to play with respect to cultural evolution. A healthy, free society requires acceptance of difference—especially when many of those differences have been self-imposed, or forced into the collective consciousness. I welcome the emergence of VISIBLE trans women and other trans individuals into mainstream fashion. Let’s now work to accept a more realistic image of beauty and the feminine body—something as readily embodied in those born female bodied, and those who had to suffer through the emotional and physical trauma of “becoming” female bodied.

    As a last word I think it is very unfair, cruel, and misguided to refer to Valentijn De Hingh as a “he”, or suggesting that the “Comme des Garcons” job questions HER status as a young woman. She is woman—period. Have you actually viewed the documentary you mentioned? She actually mentions it in her recent Vogue Italy video clip. Like almost all trans persons she knew her true gender from the earliest stages of her life. She was fortunate enough to have lived in the Netherlands, and had parents who shared her struggle to be her true female self. Nonetheless, her life has been no picnic as she has had to cope with the stigma that I believe you are perpetuating here. How many kids have to suffer this only to be marginalized for being true to themselves? How many invisible adults suffer still because they grew up before any level of social acceptance existed? How many have died—by murder and suicide? How many more have to die?

    Please try to learn about this brave girl–now woman, and others like her, especially those who do not have the same options she was fortunate to have. I wish her only the greatest success and happiness. If only we could get her to stop glamorizing smoking!

    July 4, 2011 at 7:10 pm

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