In January, at Rick Owens’ Paris fashion week show, penises swung gently down the runway. The designer – who has a made a career out of creating highly expensive leather jackets – sent out several models minus underwear in tunics featuring peepholes, cut to reveal their genitals.
There is nothing like the mention of genitalia in a headline to draw a reader in. No words other than maybe an f- bomb will pique curiosity as much. Penises, in particular, however, are not often blatantly dangled before the public eye compared to the endless preoccupation over women’s body parts, how they work and why they won’t work when they are misunderstood, in particular. Now place penis in the same sentence as “fashion world” and no one can resist sparing the ten minutes to read on.
Rick Owens’ motives are questioned and critiqued in this article: Is this penis-peephole style production a publicity stunt or truly thought provoking work? Unquestionably, I am ignorant, but in the fashion world that I am hard pressed to believe values intellectual or activist stances in clothing styles over promoting profit-making, I lean toward the former, not the latter.
Owens, for one, claims his motivations were pure: “I was just questioning why we keep penises concealed and why exactly it’s bad to show them,” he tells me. “The social rule to keep the penis hidden just gives it a power I’m not sure it merits. But isn’t it great when something is sacred and profane at the same time?”
The bigger question: Why do Puritannical attitudes toward nudity still exist in this country? And does over exposure to penises and vaginas desensitize viewers to the intimacy associated with those parts or is that a line just to keep the pornography biz going strong–you know, forbidden fruit and all? The author characterizes “male full frontals” as “the last taboo in an otherwise hyper-sexualised society” with “power to shock and even anger.” Why the anger and whose? Not surprisingly, men’s anger about having to look at other men’s penises or have their own penises looked, that’s whose and why.
McLellan, who also shot the naked story for Fantastic Man, which featured men aged between 22 and 52, and was accompanied by an essay on the ageing process of the male body, said the shoot was about creating characters who were appealing but “not necessarily in a fanciable way”. Jop van Bennekom, co-founder, creative director and editor of Fantastic Man, says that as well as showing diversity, the shoot offered “an unbiased look at the male body without it being sexualised”.
Irony: the fashion world with its built in bias toward women cares about the exploitation of men. I guess this is why I am cynical. The industry’s product is the ubiquitous imagery of women whether exploitive or celebratory and it literally makes money off the backs of often undernourished or photoshopped female bodies. So now designers and photographers are trying to step up on behalf of men and their sexualized bodies while perpetuating practices that reinforce sexually discriminatory practice.
Top female models are often inured to nudity. “If you ask a female model to take her clothes off, you don’t really have to get permission from the agent,” says McLellan. “But if you ask a guy to take his clothes off it suddenly becomes a big deal.” Andrew Garratt, a model booker at Select Model Management, confirms that male nudity is always discussed before a shoot, and no naked shots of the model would be supplied to the photographer in advance. Many male models, he says, have turned down very successful international photographers because they didn’t want to get naked.
In so far as peep holes bring the discussion of objectified bodies into light, any body’s body, I am all for them. Exposing the industry practices, its perpetuation of gender and body myths and the concomitant consequences of stereotyping is enough justification for the collateral cynicism and backfire of turning men’s attitudes toward their own anatomy into gold–clearly commercial objectification.
The penis shouts: Look at me and look at yourself feeling uncomfortable or amused! Shocking an audience to buy product is nothing new, after all. It’s just more entertaining when the often ironic, illogical yet complex human conditioning and responses are exposed in doing so.
As men’s fashion continues to break out from the shadows of women’s, there is increasing scope for stylists and photographers to push the idea of what masculinity means. Could we see more objectification, too, bringing menswear closer to the women’s fashion industry?
I hope so.