Fashion, Fantasy, and Melancholia

Fashion, Fantasy, and Melancholia


Examining the Image of the Fashion Model

Photograph through a bookstore window showing a shelf display of fashion magazines in two rows
Photograph by Caroline Reagan (2019)

The traditional reading of the fashion image is that its fundamental motive is to capitalize on the glamorous. The image depicts the ideal woman wearing the ideal outfit in the ideal setting. What is ‘ideal’ is fueled by a fusion of seemingly arbitrary evaluations (‘pink is the new black) and psychological wants (popularity, beauty, wealth). The efficacy of the glamorization hinges upon the viewer’s willingness to identify the image as aspirational—which they do, by virtue of the image’s positioning within culturally authoritative magazines.

This interpretation is not wrong per se—fashion is closely interlinked with glamour and aspiration and is contingent upon both the diktats of ‘tastemakers’ and the psychological desire for its existence—but it is simplistic and outdated. Rebecca Arnold describes fashion photographs as the “simulacra of the body, of beauty and even of death, removing the traces of mortality, aging and decay, to become sites of conflict and ambiguity, rather than of resolution.”1 These pictures play out ever-shifting desires and anxieties concerning gender and sex that would otherwise be difficult to explore. The very glamorization of the fashion image enables its producers to consider and redefine what is and isn’t glamorous. Under the auspices of glamour, elements that threaten youth and beauty are often conflated with youth and beauty, as in the dangerous, sickly aesthetic commonly known as ‘heroin chic.’ Certainly, the glorification of dangerous behaviors is problematic, but then again, fashion shouldn’t be upheld as a moral authority. Rather, fashion responds to and aestheticizes that which is already burgeoning underneath the fabric of society.

Beginning in the 1960s, the fashion magazine responded and adjusted to new modalities of femininity. A newfound encouragement of self-reflexivity in the reader emerged in regard to her position “as object of her own creativity and control, as instrument of her own social power, and at the same time, as target of men’s violence and oppression in a society where gender is still a very lopsided power structure.”2 Empowerment was branded, sending perplexingly conflicting messages—a trend that has been integral to fashion marketing ever since. Self-reflexivity, in conjunction with a new blatantly sexy look and the voice of social movements, catalyzed a desire for identity amongst readers.3 These elements progressed throughout the following decades, adjusting to each time period’s particular interpretation of their intersection. In the 1990s, an aesthetic of death and danger penetrated mainstream fashion imagery in response to postmodern malaise 4. Instead of offering an escape from disillusionment, these images made the undesirable—addiction, illness, violence, etc.—desirable. But despite shifts in aesthetic preferences, the end-game of fashion imagery remains the same: to sell clothing by producing desire. However, the means (producing desire) is not limited to this one end (selling clothing). The image also produces a desire to transcend reality through identification with the image’s subject: “we can intoxicate ourselves on images, identify ourselves oneirically with the model.”5

The mode by which the viewer of fashion imagery identifies with the model has catalyzed a plethora of speculation from fashion theorists, not only Barthes. This is perhaps due to the uniquely high degree of reverence and disdain bestowed in equal measure upon the model. For she emblematizes the “unreal dislocation” of identification and serves as a “channel for both desires for and disgust with the female body.”6 Through the reality-distorting lens of the camera, she embodies and romanticizes the turmoil of femininity. This paper theorizes how the fashion model mediates between the image and the viewer’s conception of self and body by reflecting on the associations among femininity, fantasy, and melancholia, such as they coalesce in the image of the fashion model.

Before an analysis of this kind can commence, it is necessary to take note of the difference between the commercial and the editorial model. The former is conventionally attractive and perpetually smiling or smoldering, catering to a mass audience. Thus, she is assumed to be a safe bet for generating profit. Critical to her appeal is a degree of sexual ‘availability;’ she possesses a distinctly feminine body (slim and toned but with curves intact). The editorial model, in contrast, has an ‘edgy’ look that is riskier, aesthetically and commercially, and appeals to a more restricted field of production (high fashion consumers and producers), among whom she effectively serves as a “a wink and a nod to each other’s cultural competences to appreciate coded avant-garde beauty.”7 ‘Edgy’ or ‘avant-garde’ in this case denotes a physique so skinny and tall as to neutralize feminine bodily signifiers and facial features that are off-kilter, while still adhering to a specific norm of beauty (high and prominent cheekbones, narrow nose, big eyes). This variation of beauty suggests sexual unavailability, aligning with an Anglo upper-class sensibility.8 The fantasy that the commercial model cultivates is less nuanced; the allure of the conventionally beautiful and pleasant is intuitive. Meanwhile, by mass-market standards, the editorial model errs on the side of freakish. The fantasy ensconcing her is codified in a way that relies heavily upon melancholia—both in the model’s performance and in the viewer’s identification with it, as mediated by the image. This, of course, only accentuates her value to the high fashion set. Through the framing of the editorial model as somehow more exclusive and elite, an ideal projection board for psychic loss materializes. The stakes are higher when the sense of rarity, too, is higher.

The editorial model is the focus of this paper. In order to cast in sharper relief the fantasies that she evokes, it is critical to establish a working definition of fantasy. Superficially, it is conceived of as a wish-fulfillment—a conflation with Freud’s theory of dreams. However, unlike dreams, fantasies necessarily lack resolution. In fact, the satisfaction of the fantasy lies in the very impossibility of solution. As Elizabeth Cowie observes, fantasy is rather a “mise en scène” or an “arranging of, a setting out of, the desire for certain objects.”9 The setting out substitutes for the consummation and highlights that which is absent.10 Desire emerges as a result, “coming into existence in the representation of lack, in the production of a fantasy of its becoming present.”11 Therefore, desire is a byproduct of fantasy, which is why it lends itself so well to the process of commodification.

Fantasy is integral to the production and efficacy of the fashion images, taking various forms through models and producing various effects. One such effect is escapism; its potent visual effects carve out a space for “experimentation, for transgression and revolt.”12 By gazing at the fashion image, the viewer can surrender to imagination’s call to try on and discard facets of identity as she pleases. Its overt artificiality encourages consideration of the seemingly impossible—akin to an adult fairytale. The unspoken hope here, in this masque of identities, is that from the “assimilation of the ideals reflected in fashion photography and advertising” perfection will follow.13

Humankind’s tenacious quest for perfection is related to another integral facet of fantasy in fashion imagery: unattainability. Fashion photography, by its static nature, presents the ultimate extension of the mise en scène. The “completeness of outline,” resulting in “representational plentitude,” is perfected, but only because it is “frozen.”14 Thus, viewers glom onto a version of perfection, a wholeness formulated through an unreal medium. The model contributes to the aura of seduction—derived from “an intense narcissism, a paradigm of self-seduction,” which is primarily enacted through “the inscrutable glazed mask they present to the onlooker.”15 Her seductive properties arise from her unavailability and resulting inimitability. The perfection of the image has little to do with the actual model—only inasmuch as the model helps to facilitate the production of the unreal. The model herself cannot hope to achieve the comprehensive perfection of the self that she represents in a photograph. Yet, this doesn’t deter people from attempting to freeze themselves in dead impeccability.

A much-discussed byproduct of this quest for perfection is mass bodily dissatisfaction. Practically part and parcel of the feminine condition, it is deeply ingrained in women’s social relations and the language of women’s media. The modeling industry, a subsidiary of the fashion industry, is notoriously as fickle; faces and styles seen everywhere one season dissipate by the next. However, aside from minor alterations in proportion, thinness consistently remains the industry gold standard. That models have seemingly become thinner and thinner as the general populace becomes larger and larger is no coincidence. In accordance with the phantasmatic character of the image, the thin body of the model is accorded a “hyperreal” status—suitable for “the spectacle of fashionable dress,” while the “real body is rejected for its banality, its lumpen and inevitable decay.”16 This widely disseminated (and rather melodramatic) analysis is a misattribution. Models’ bodies are not, of course, hyperreal or unreal but simply unrepresentative. Furthermore, it defies logic to claim that the waifish fashion model is an antidote to decay. The waifish model’s youth is idealized, certainly, but, with her frail body and solemn expression, she doesn’t connote girlish health and energy either. Rather, it is the staging of the model within the image that renders her body unreal, and it is because it reads as unreal that viewers long for it. That the body of the model disavows the “maternal and sensual signifiers of the rounded female body”  further exemplifies the construction of the unreal (a dose of misogyny doesn’t hurt either).17

Fantasy relies on a counteracting force to sustain itself, and this force is melancholia. When fantasy inevitably disappoints, melancholia follows and fuels the need for psychic retreat. In turn, melancholia generates a void to be filled through fantasy. As conceptualized by Freud in his seminal text “Mourning and Melancholia,” melancholia arises when an object-loss occurs and the libido regresses into the ego.18 Melancholia has become normalized in young women, and bodily dissatisfaction is merely one aspect of this all-encompassing phenomenon. Angela McRobbie explains that, in the postmodern era, “normative discontent has become a key mechanism for the production of sexual difference, [providing] a vocabulary for understanding the female bodily-ego as prone to anxiety, as lacking in certain respects.”19

Critiques of the fashion industry point fingers at its image system for cultivating gendered ennui. This narrowly scoped accusation fails to recognize the dialectic involved in the formulation of cultural norms; consumers and producers effectively collaborate in producing both goods and norms (i.e., supply and demand). Nevertheless, it is true that feminine melancholia is one of the favored themes in fashion imagery, lending it a dramatic form. As a genre, it employs visual conventions to depict an “undirected and impossible desire, which, exhausted, turns inwards, or against itself, in some kind of illegible rage.”20 This includes the aforementioned blank stare and ’emaciated’ body, but also the general sense of sullen lethargy in body language and the stylistic choices of the photographer. Take, for example, the now famous images from “Supermodels Enter Rehab,” published in the July 2007 issue of Vogue Italia. Shot by Steven Meisel, a lauded fashion icon, the pictures depict models with long, flailing limbs, vaguely disturbed expressions, and stringy hair. This is an extreme example—it is a rehab story after all—but that’s precisely the point. By 2007, the public was desensitized to fashion imagery of brutality. What was left to do but address the pervasive ‘normalized pathology’ of femininity overtly? Ironically, these images, notwithstanding the ‘rehab workers,’ are virtually indistinguishable to any thousands of images from the past few decades. Through the model, pathology is reaffirmed as tragically beautiful, while also being devoid of any cogent tragedy. With the incorporation of a rehab center in a Vogue Italia story, melancholia as representation folds in on itself, becoming hyper-reflexive.

What accounts for the feminine melancholia that has infiltrated the stream of fashion content? What are the fantasies enabling its existence? One explanation suggests a desire for physical pleasure that has been lost. The Freudian belief in the human being’s inherent bisexuality, contorted into heterosexuality through repressive social conventions, is assumed in this theory. The lost object is thus the lost object of same-sex desire, which must be abandoned and instead “incorporated onto the discrete bodies of the models who are in effect consumed by this prohibition.”21 The models become the deeply unconscious object of same-sex desire due to their positioning within an image, which encourages rapturous gazing not by the male but within an enclosed system of feminine codification. Diana Fuss, in her seminal article “Fashion and the Homospectatorial Look,” introduces vampirism as a new variety of homospectatorial looking particular to the fashion image. In the heterosexual matrix, the position of the viewer in relation to the model induces “separation and identification, both a having and a becoming—indeed, a having through a becoming.”22 The erotic gaze of the woman at the woman is not sanctioned in the heterosexual matrix. Thus, ‘vampirism’ describes the redirection of the desire to have into the identification with, and thus, the desire to become the model. This necessitates that the visual field permit, albeit covertly, the “articulation of lesbian desire within the identificatory move itself.”23 A peculiar relation between sexuality and fantasy materializes in which the viewer who wishes to become the image remains lodged in a state of anticipation of the proscribed homosexual act. This phenomenon, dubbed “forepleasure,” precludes the satisfaction of consummation and, accordingly, perpetuates melancholia.24

A second explanation accounts for a postmodern-specific melancholia, pertaining to the breakdown of traditional gender divisions. As women achieved material gains through and beyond the second-wave feminist movement, they lost the sense of order that had guided their conduct of gender. This precarity of gender roles has been redoubled by the “fracturing of moral certainty and the decline in faith in traditional institutions,” in addition to city-induced alienation and “pressurizing jobs and poor working conditions”—all of which came to a head in the 1990s and persist today.25

To combat the loss of a secure gendered identity, women have bought into the fantasy of self-production. They cultivate brandable identities through considered purchases and the assistance of a socioeconomic system increasingly adept at monetizing all aspects of human experience. This process has been framed as emancipatory, and much talk of reclaiming autonomy over one’s narrative has circulated. Self-production has particularly honed in on bodily improvement (e.g., the beauty-industrial complex): “When there is a feeling of loss of control, people often turn inwards, reclaiming the body as the only thing they can control.”26 Thus, the turn of the century saw a steep increase in and normalization of disorders (e.g., eating disorders and self-harm). These disorders figure as the ‘necessary’ collateral damage involved in self-improvement and as a point around which women can commiserate together and/or compete against one another. Ultimately, self-production as emancipation is illusory; consumption is not an effective weapon against systemic oppression. It simulates progression by limiting the scope of change to the confines of the self.

A ‘sense of ambiguity and ambivalence’ and the quest for self-production have imbued fashion imagery, resulting in a model who appears increasingly independent and at the same time increasingly aware of her surveillance. The protocol for meeting the gaze of the spectator has morphed into a biting indifference—a stark departure from the coy, flirtatious gaze popular in previous periods. The postmodern model seems to signal sexual liberation through her dismissal of the gaze and reclaiming of her subjectivity. However, her self-reflexivity “remains locked within the terms posed by the Symbolic, so that she can only reflect on herself as object.”27 Objecthood is the condition dictated by the structure of the photograph, and it is still the dominant condition of femininity. The female looker fetishizes the model-object for her wholeness, aiming to replicate completion within herself. Yet, by tethering herself to bodily fixation, she instead reproduces herself “as alienated, a self-conscious Oedipal subject founded on lack in a preexisting phallocentric symbolic order” 28

Photographic styles oscillate, and the outright depressive model of the ’90s heroin-chic days has fallen out of favor. Yet, melancholia in modeling persists and will continue to persist as long as women remain compelled by the ambiguity of their sexuality and culturally constructed gender. People of all genders encounter ambiguity in these arenas, certainly, but the gendered women carries the unique burden of introjected objectification, which instills an enduring lack. It is confounding, femininity, and, thus, an obsession for the phantasmagoric fashion sphere.

  1. Rebecca Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001),81.
  2. Leslie W. Rabine, “A Woman’s Two Bodies: Fashion Magazines, Consumerism, and Feminism,” On Fashion, edited by Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press), 61.
  3. Rabine, “A Woman’s Two Bodies: Fashion Magazines, Consumerism, and Feminism,” 63.
  4. Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, and Singapore: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2009),98.
  5. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, translated by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1990),17.
  6. Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 81.
  7. Ashley Mears, “Size Zero High-End Ethnic: Cultural Production and the Reproduction of Culture in Fashion Modeling,” Poetics, 38 (2010): 29.
  8. Mears, “Size Zero High-End Ethnic, 37.
  9. Elizabeth Cowie, “Pornography and Fantasy,” Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate, edited by Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 136.
  10. Cowie, “Pornography and Fantasy,” 137.
  11. Cowie, “Pornography and Fantasy,” 137.
  12. Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 109.
  13. Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 71.
  14. Rabine, Rabine, “A Woman’s Two Bodies: Fashion Magazines, Consumerism, and Feminism,” 64.
  15. Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 74; 85.
  16. Arnold, Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 90.
  17. Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 93.
  18. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol XIV, translated by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1925),258.
  19. Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, and Singapore: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2009),98.
  20. McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 109.
  21. McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 104.
  22. Diana Fuss, “Fashion and the Homospectatorial Look,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 4 (1992): 730.
  23. Fuss, “Fashion and the Homospectatorial Look,” 730.
  24. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 153.
  25. Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 283.
  26. Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, 290.
  27. (McRobbie 102).
  28. (Rabine 64).
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