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Fashion and the Well-Trodden Path

Imagine walking through a mall. Every storefront window is filled with advertisements of its brands, whether that be through displays, images, or videos on tv screens. Now, imagine walking into your favourite clothing store. You are instantly met with a decision of whether to go left or right into the store, into the 'men's' section or the 'women's' section. This choice is dictated by your self-identification to gender, while also being influenced by external factors such as one’s similarity to the visual displays, the visual stimulation with images portraying either men or women, and the similarity one has to other individuals engaging within each area. The choice you make exemplifies the gendered paths individuals take based on the conditioned coercion into one of the two differential social roles: Being a man or a woman (Risman, 2004: 431).


​The following discussion and analysis consider the following question: How does fashion advertising work to reinforce the expectations and values surrounding the gendered roles of both men and women as opposing entities? And how do these roles come into question alongside sexual orientation?

The two paths to gender are embedded in the gender binary system that has been held within society, on an individual, cultural, and structural level (Risman, 2004: 432). This system is so deeply embedded that it has influenced the organization of life by normalizing gender into specific roles and displays (Butler, 2004: 41). Gender is constructed through socialization and is reaffirmed through the process of everyday life interactions and social organizations (Risman, 2004: 430). Individuals learn what it means to be male or female through conditioned behaviours, actions, and physical appearance. Alongside these characteristics, the expectation of being either male or female is further enforced and standardized by those around us (i.e., through our parents, peers, teachers and so on). West and Zimmerman (1987) present that gender is the activity of managing situations through the use of specific attitudes and behaviours appropriate to one's gender category; these are based on the normative conceptions grounded in the gender binary system (p.127). That is, there are socially acceptable attitudes and behaviours expected of each gendered individual that must fall into the categories of being strictly male or female, and not falling in between this dichotomy.

These long-held and socially accepted standards strengthen the binary system within our society, making clear distinctions in what is right and what is wrong, penalizing those who fall out of line with these set pathways (e.g., such as through gender policing). Sara Ahmed (2006) describes this as the well-trodden path of gender as binary and heteronormativity as the standard for all spaces of society. Both gender and sexuality give an understanding of orientation, that of being oriented to others along several lines such as identity or physical attraction. Just as we find ourselves in space, we begin to see the ways in which we orient ourselves to things and people in life (Ahmed, 2006). We inhabit space and come into relation to others, finding a need to position ourselves. These orientations are both personal to our identity while also being socially constructed through our individual learning from our parents or peers. This internalization of identity is imbued with certain behaviour roles, and actions that are utilized throughout interactions with others (Risman, 2004: 430).


This highlights the essential nature of the endorsement that the gender binary has for the heteronormative space of society. Just as gender has been widely understood as the classification between masculine and feminine, man and woman, so too has heteronormativity. Heterosexuality has been the widely accepted norm in sexual orientation, also known as “compulsory heterosexuality” (Ahmed, 2004: 557). Ahmed refers to this as the straight tendency to act in a ways that assume heterosexuality (Ahmed, 2004: 560). All perceptions of life have surrounded the idea that all should and will follow the heteronormative pathway; the structure of heterosexuality gives that men are to always be understood by women as the producers of gender, ultimately creating a relationship of subordination (Butler, 2004: 53). This structure entails an orientation of women to men without consideration to the other paths that can be walked. So, what happens when an individual does not fit within this set pathway and deviates from it? And, In what ways has the gender binary system been called into question? 


Here, we draw the discussion back onto the visual media of fashion campaigns, especially in designer brands. In the 21st century, we have seen an influx of media such as imagery, advertisements, and designs, made to promote the consumption of visual aesthetics (Zukin, 1998). Visual imagery has become a form of nonverbal symbols that act as socializing agents representing certain messaging and meanings common to the collective ideology (Kang, 1997: 980); in this, the collective ideology is that of the widely accepted and normalized gender binary and heteronormative system. When it comes to fashion campaigns, there is a significance towards bodies and their social realms; the aesthetics of individuals become one means in which we come in relation to one another through clothing, makeup, and so on, as a means for formulating identity. The world of fashion has become widespread through various media platforms. In this, we see individuals partaking in the newest trends and styles to which large fashion brands and designers have played a significant role. These images of the ideals in fashion become key socializing agents, representing highly influential imagery that is consumed by all ages.  


​To answer the above research question, three designer brands were considered in their use of gendered scripts applied to their images. In this, it will be explored how fashion brands employ the normalization of the gender binary and how this simultaneously reinforces the heteronormative spaces in society, especially as it pertains to consumers. It is through these images that the gendered expectations and values for both men and women continue to be reinforced within society and that it is not until these scripts are broken that they finally come into question. Using the models of both Erving Goffman (1985) and Mee-Eun Kang (1997) these standardized scripts will be analyzed as it pertains to 2021 fashion campaigns. Likewise, it is through a rewriting of these scripts that we neutralize the gender binary and heteronormative spaces in society.

Research Question


How does fashion advertising work to reinforce the expectations and values surrounding the gendered roles of both men and women as opposing entities? And how do these roles come into question through sexual orientation?

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