The Glass Runway

stokes_image1by Allyson Stokes

Fashion design is an occupation where women far outnumber men, yet there is a widespread perception that gay men are the most successful. Scholars, journalists, and industry insiders have all commented on how gay men (e.g. Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs) are “media darlings,” win more awards, and have more prestigious jobs. Why is this the case?

On the one hand, gay men’s successes in fashion design are cause for celebration. LGBTQ people have historically faced discrimination and disadvantages in the broader labor market, but fashion is one of a few creative fields considered more or less “gay friendly,” and it employs large numbers of gay men. However, recent research finds that even “gay friendly” workplaces can reproduce old stereotypes and inequalities between gay and straight, men and women. And since fashion design is numerically dominated by women, the success of men designers is suggestive of gender inequality.

In my research I gathered data on prestigious fashion design awards and design canons. I found that men, in particular gay men, received far more awards than women and were more likely to appear in canonical lists of elite fashion designers. Next, I conducted a qualitative content analysis of: (1) Vogue’s online Voguepedia, an influential design canon that profiles elite designers; and (2) articles about fashion designers in fashion media, including newspaper style sections, industry websites, and blogs.

I found that there were sharp differences between the representation of men and women in fashion design, and that the value of designers and their designs were constructed using discourses of art and culture that rely on gender essentialism. These discourses construct a masculinized image of the “ideal” designer.

Accounts in Voguepedia and broader fashion media construct a definition of what a fashion designer should be. Specifically, the “ideal designer” (1) has autonomy from economic pressures and retains authorship and control over the design process; (2) has an artistic orientation toward design and “works of art” that display creative genius; (3) is committed to cultural production above outside responsibilities, including immersion in fashion and culture scenes; and (4) produces designs that are authentic representations of individual creativity. Importantly, men were far more often described in these ways.

Women were more often represented as subordinate to economic interests and preferences of consumers whom they serve, oriented toward practical rather than artistic design, and as being torn between fashion and family commitments. Women’s designs were also more often portrayed as authentic representations of their womanhood rather than their individual creativity, with a “woman’s perspective” described in ways that essentialize gender difference and homogenize women.

I explain these inequalities by developing the notion of a glass runway, a concept building on Christine Williams’ work on the glass escalator. But where the glass escalator focuses on economic advantages of men who do “women’s work,” the glass runway focuses on the symbolic mechanisms that shape inequality at work. There are no objective measures of value in culture and there is little consensus about how to measure the worth or contributions of individual cultural producers. Instead, forms of culture such as film, music, and fashion are attributed value through social processes. Tastemakers, such as media and industry organizations, play an especially important role in these processes, choosing which people and products to feature and how they will be represented. Under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, people tend to fall back in convention and stereotypes. The ambiguity and uncertainty involved in valorizing art and culture enables gender stereotypes to seep into discourses used in evaluating cultural producers and their products. As a result, men cultural producers are pushed forward and outward, into the spotlight, as though walking a glass runway.

Fashion design is a particularly useful case for developing an understanding of how gender intersects with other inequalities to shape cultural value. In fashion design, we see gender and sexuality intersect to create a double edge of valorization and blame for gay men designers. They benefit from the masculine image of the ideal cultural producer, but their success is limited to fashion as a space that exists within a broader context of heteronormativity and hegemonic masculinity. I found that they remain vulnerable, for example, to homophobic discrimination from the outside.

It is likely that race and ethnicity matter a great deal as well, both in fashion, and in other fields. Even a cursory look at the lists of award recipients and Voguepedia profiles shows a lack of racial diversity among elite designers, and a particular absence of consecration for black designers. In addition, because evaluations in the media focus on fashion design as an individual process of creativity, the contributions of garment workers who make many designers’ visions into reality is obscured. It is not coincidental that most garment workers are racial and ethnic minorities in North America and Europe, or workers in overseas factories in countries such as China and Bangladesh, who often labor under poor conditions.

Given the great deal of gender inequality found in other cultural occupations and industries, as well as a consistent emphasis on values of autonomy and authorship, art, commitment, and authenticity, the glass runway concept may be useful for understanding other culture industries (e.g. film, cuisine, music) and similar contexts where reputations are crucial to success (e.g. academia, politics).

Allyson Stokes is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her article, “The Glass Runway: How Gender and Sexuality Shape the Spotlight in Fashion Design,” is published in the April 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

Cross-posted at the Gender & Society blog.


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