Fashion Faux-pas: Penises on the Catwalk

I feel like I should preface this piece with a statement that won’t come as a shock to anyone who knows me: I know nothing about fashion. Everything I know about the industry, I learned through binge-watching America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. I am not an authority on fashion. I am, however, or at least I think to think I am, somewhat of an authority on feminism and issues regarding sexism. And by authority I mean sometimes people read what I write on the internet.

Recently, designer Rick Owens – fashion’s ‘King of kink’ – shocked the audience at his AW15 show in Paris by having his male models flash their penises on the runway. The members of the front row weren’t quite sure how to react, whispering and giggling like a crowd of excited schoolchildren whose teacher just used the word ‘sex’.

In a world where breasts are bared freely in photoshoots and fashion shows, it might come as a surprise that the fashion world has been flustered by this shocking move. Surely the same industry that utilises female sexuality on a day-to-day basis can cope with a few swinging phalluses on the runway? Apparently not. And the reason why is sexism.

Now let’s be clear – I don’t mean it’s sexist to be critical of men exposing their genitals on the runway   when we don’t bat an eyelid at a woman’s breast. The outrage stems from a society that is happy for women to be sexualised, but that likes its men to remain complex.

Fashion’s primary goal – no matter what aspiring fashionistas might tell you on Tumblr – is to sell things. It makes sense, therefore, to do what every other industry does in order to sell things: sexualise women. You see it in advertising all the time – women running around in ball gowns and sighing lustfully in perfume ads; women tossing their hair sensually in shampoo ads; topless women on Page 3 of The Sun (although, to be fair to The Sun, their racism is just as much of a selling point as their naked women).

It’s not just advertising that uses this technique. Hollywood has been doing it for years. Films – particularly films about young white men in their mid-twenties – regularly feature topless, or even fully naked, women. Cinema-goers think nothing of being given a side order of boob with their popcorn and coke. We appear to have become desensitised to the female body, because we’re used to every industry shoving it in our faces in an attempt to sell us something.

Men, on the other hand, are allowed to be more complex. The Sun scrapped their ‘Page 7 fella’ back in 1995 after just 7 years, because they realised that we don’t like men to be objectified the same way as we do women; and whilst naked women might be par for the course on the silver screen, naked men feature much less frequently. Even the Fifty Shades of Grey film is supposedly refraining from portraying full frontal male nudity. It seems that we don’t like seeing penises on catwalks because, despite all our talk of alpha males and male sexuality, we don’t consider men to be sexual beings first and foremost.

I’m sure Owens didn’t think about any of these points when designing his show. I’m sure he thought he was just being dramatic, forcing people to reconsider their perceptions of art or something. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the very shock value that Owens was trying to achieve was made possible by our male dominated society.