December 8, 2005

Why do gay men dominate the fashion industry?

The NYT asks
[There's] a growing tension between those who feel they are discriminated against and those who feel somewhat favored by a perception, largely unexamined, that men are better designers than women, and gay men are the best designers of all....

Many female designers perceive that their male counterparts have won more industry honors and are featured more prominently in magazines. On television, they note, advice on style and design is almost invariably sought from a vibrantly gay man - witness "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the new "Isaac" talk show with Isaac Mizrahi on the Style channel and "Project Runway" on Bravo, which began its second season on Wednesday night. Its cast of 16 includes 8 male contestants, 7 of them gay, a spokesman for Bravo said....

Of the young American designers most embraced by retailers and celebrated in the fashion press in recent years, the roll call is almost exclusively male: Zac Posen, Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez and Mr. Som as well as Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Their female contemporaries have had a harder time breaking through, among them Behnaz Sarafpour, Alice Roi and Ms. Subkoff.

"Gay men stick together like a band of brothers," Ms. Subkoff said in an interview. "It's more common for a man to bring up a younger assistant" who is male "and be proud of that," she added, "whereas a woman would be threatened" to promote another woman.
Isn't that a classic stereotype about women? We don't trust each other!
In some quarters, the perception exists that fashion's main consumers, women, are more comfortable taking advice about how they should look from a man. "Men are often better designers for women than other women," said Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.... "Of course there are many more gay male designers," Mr. Ford said. "I think we are more objective. We don't come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies."
We don't trust each other!
Michael Vollbracht, the current designer of Bill Blass, said he believes that gay men are demonstrably superior at design, their aesthetic formed by a perception of a woman as an idealized fantasy. "I come from a time when gay men dressed women," Mr. Vollbracht said. "We didn't bed them. Or at least I didn't. I am someone who is really pro-homosexual. I am an elitist. I am better than straight people. Women are confused about who they want to be. I believe that male designers have the fantasy level that women do not."
We can -- we do -- trust gay men. Is that the answer?

Maybe this is the best explanation:
The large number of visible gay men in fashion, say many in the industry, traces to the fact that Seventh Avenue has seemed a less homophobic career choice than, say, law enforcement or Wall Street. And the prominence of gay men enjoying fame and prosperity draws others into the field.
A lot of women are drawn into fashion too. But it may be that the most competitive and talented women are spread out into many fields, while a very large proportion of the most competitive and talented gay men choose fashion. Still, discrimination against women may well result. The chances seem high that these men, once there, benefit their own kind. Why should ambitious gay men be any different from any other sort of ambitious human being?


JBlog said...

"Why do gay men dominate the fashion industry?"

I dunno. Why do straight men dominate the tractor industry?

Ann Althouse said...

Uh, JBlog, the question is why don't women dominate! There are many more women than gay men who try to succeed in the fashion industry, and women buy most of what the industry makes. Read the article!

JBlog said...

I did, Ann. I was just making a joke.

Personally, I don't find it unusual that you find clusters of people with common interests dominating a particular field -- I think it's basic human nature.

While it may not be fair, I don't know that it's purposely discriminatory.

Ann Althouse said...

Well, but it's a serious question, not a joke. There are compelling allegations that women are being pervasively discriminated against in a large sector of the business world. Don't laugh it off because you think fashion is frivolous or because only gay men or only women are involved!

Al Maviva said...

Um, institutional discrimination and misogyny?

Nick said...

While this may not explain why gay men are more trusted than women... one explanation why straight men are considered better designers than women is to examine the goals of fashion.

If you're a straight woman, then is your goal to attract other straight women, or to attract straight men? Since its more likely the latter, wouldn't it make more sense to listen what they're telling you about how you should dress?

As for "trusting" gay men... I think the part about them being more objective is a valid point.

Personally, if I'm looking for something new to wear for a date, I ask one of my female friends to help me get something... I don't ask one of my guy friends.

Ann Althouse said...

Who are these straight men who are considered better designers than women? I think there are a lot more women designers. You might want to ask a straight man about whether something looks good, but is he going to figure out in advance what will look good and design it? Is he going to come up with anything new, or will his strong attraction to women lead him to the same old devices? Fashion needs new.

Simon Kenton said...

"Isn't that a classic stereotype about women? We don't trust each other!"

-- When speaking privately, none of the women I work with wants to work for a woman, though nearly all do. This is not the same as 'trust,' of course, but it is not an insignificant point.

Sissy Willis said...

"We don't come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies."

Oh. You mean size doesn't matter, after all?

wildaboutharrie said...

Nick, oddly enough, I think women dress to impress other women - it's a competition. Although the goal of appearing desirable is mixed in there too, of course.

I hate to admit this, but I'm part of the problem, though not through clothes (can't afford them) but hair. Whenever I can, I get a male hairdresser. I figure many women are drawn into hair cutting, some very talented, some competent, and some dangerous. With men, I assume that in general, only those with a real love and talent for hair pursue that career.

In fashion, perhaps it's the same dynamic on a large scale - lots of women, so the really talented ones get lost. And perhaps the red carpet icons who can make a designer are drawn to men because they assume they'll wind up with a good one. That and the camaraderie among gay men in the industry create huge imbalance.

It's a real problem.

JBlog said...

I'm not laughing it off, Ann -- just trying to keep it light.

But I don't necessarily agree with the premise that women (or straight men, or anyone else for that matter) are being specifically or intentionally discriminated against here.

Discrimination implies intent -- "we're NOT going to let black people vote," for example.

Whereas this has more of a clubby feel -- I'm not sure I believe that gay designers are purposely excluding straight women (or anyone else) from the club, although their behavior might lead to that result.

I think we have to careful about applying the word discimination -- it's used far to liberally in our society.

wildaboutharrie said...

Another factor - at some point it seems it became fashionable among fashionable women to have gay men be in charge of their "lifestyle enhancements" (clothes, hair, interior design). It's a (random?) status thing.

Goesh said...

I buy from gay chinese who distribute in Wal-Mart. Their work is higher quality. You can tell by the stitching which designers are gay and price has no bearing on this. Fashion styles for truck drivers on the other hand are clearly dominated by women and men who are not gay, but that's just my opinion.

brylin said...

Ann said: "Why don't women dominate?"

At the risk of being ostracized like Larry Summers, I point to the following in today's Seattle Times:

"Just like human boys and girls, male monkeys like to play with toy cars while female monkeys prefer dolls, a research project has shown.

"This intriguing discovery is one of many signs of deep-rooted behavioral differences between the sexes that scientists are exploring with the latest tools of genetics and neuroscience.

"Researchers report significant differences in the structure and functioning of male and female brains — in humans and in animals — that show up in different behaviors.

"The differences apparently date far back in evolutionary history to the time before humans and monkeys separated from their common ancestor about 25 million years ago... ."

Just something to think about...

Joan said...

I was struck by this line: Michael Vollbracht, the current designer of Bill Blass, said he believes that gay men are demonstrably superior at design[...]

How is this any different from a track coach saying that black athletes run faster? Why isn't Vollbracht being excoriated for being so prejudiced, and stupid enough to voice his prejudice in print to such a wide audience?

FWIW, the fact that he can make such statements and not be called out on it indicates to me that yes, there is discrimination going on. And if "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is supposed to the demonstrate superior design skills of gay men, then why is that the QE guys themselves look like train wrecks?

It's one thing to state an observable fact ("gay men dominate"), it's quite another to say "gay men dominate because they are superior."

oldgranny said...

Gay men dress for each other. That's why it's so amusing to see what the Queer Guys choose for the straight guys on the show. The straight guys mostly look uncomfortable and staged. I'll bet they were back in their old clothes as soon as the cameras were turned off.

I also think that women dress to drop the teeth of other women, not for their straight men who couldn't care less. For fifty years, my husband has told me I look nice whenever I take the time to comb my hair and put on a clean sweatshirt, yet I'm quite sure if required, on the death of his grandchildren, he couldn't describe what I was wearing in any detail.

Goesh, I'm stunned to know that truck drivers have particular designers who do their ensembles. We stopped at a truck stop only yesterday, and I was struck by the similarity of outfits on the guys at the "All You Can Eat Buffet." They all certainly did have a similar "look," but I never thought it was to make a fashion statement. I thought it was just what ever baggy pants and t-shirt came to hand. Live and learn.

I'm not much of an affirmative action feminist. If a woman comes up with some great designs, she'll probably get some attention. Women today have lots of opportunities and most of the nation's wealth is in the hands of women, so they should get themselves some venture capital and open their own fashion house if they think their designs would sell.

That's how a market economy works.

Bruce Hayden said...

To me, it doesn't make a lot of scientific sense. The traits that would seem to give a gay man an advantage over a straight on in this area are, well, feminine. Such things as noticing and obsessing over details, matching, etc. And so why shouldn't women do as well?

Bruce Hayden said...

As to who dresses for whom, women usually dress for other women, but sometimes dress for men. It is usually quite easy to tell the difference.

The best way of describing it I think is that when women overtly display their sex, they are dressing for men, and when they don't, it is primarily for women.

One way to see this is to go to church. The women there are almost all dressing for other women. But in a singles' bar, they are usually dressing for the men.

That slinky black thing? Men. Well tailored bright colors? Women.

This isn't totally sexist though. John Mallory in his "Dress for Success" tells us to ignore our wives and girlfriends when dressing for work. The ties they pick, the suits they pick, are usually (my mother was an exception) inappropriate. In an office environment, men usually do best dressing for other men. And save that trendy tie for a night with your wife or girlfriend.

knoxgirl said...

On "Project Runway" last season, one of the contestants (a very talented female designer who ended up being a finalist) said she wasn't surprised when a pop star chose one of the male designer's work over hers... she said that female celebs always want male stylists.

I do think women designers get kind of looked over, myself, much as I love Mizrahi, etc.

chuck b. said...

I can't agree that obsessing over details is a feminine trait. Straight men appreciate the fine details of all kinds of things. Details are gender-neutral.

The skewed gender balance toward men in the fashion may offset the skew toward women in other industries, like veterinary medicine which is becoming hugely female. More women are going to college than men nowadays... expect to see women dominating many fields in the coming years.

Also, I would be curious to know more about the gender balance in fashion over time. The article discusses recent trends and names names I've never heard of. Couldn't we just be in a male cycle?

chuck b. said...

And Nina's Adorable Torts class... were there any men in there?

Eli Blake said...

One thing I have noticed is that a group of men doing something often develops a brotherhood, in which they support each other. This likely also includes gay men.

Women may have a group and call it a 'sisterhood,' but the same kind of bonding (the kind that leads a man to lay down his life if necessary for his 'brothers') isn't there.

I think that is probably an evolutionary trait-- when men went hunting, or into battle, or building pyramids, cities or other great works, the ability to work as a unit and put aside personal differences to achieve something greater together was really important. Women never had the same need to be able to do that.

Now, I used to be in boy scouts and my wife has been a girl scout leader for a long time, and I still see it at a young age. Girl scout activities tend to be more oriented towards the individual achievement (maybe even one reason why so many more girls than boys excel in school, now that they are on an equal footing academically) but boy scout activities often involve group achievements and activities.

Nick said...

Ann said... "Who are these straight men who are considered better designers than women? I think there are a lot more women designers. You might want to ask a straight man about whether something looks good, but is he going to figure out in advance what will look good and design it? Is he going to come up with anything new, or will his strong attraction to women lead him to the same old devices? Fashion needs new."

Look who's stereotyping now

Goesh said...

Granny, I've uncovered evidence that there is what is called the khaki gang and the denim gang who have a monopoly on truck driver fashion, but, they have a mutual agreement on using very subtle ways of advertising that have truck drivers brainwashed for the most part into believing that anything but khaki or denim indicates certain sexual preferences. they have intentionally confused the guys on this, and since truck drivers tend to be tight-lipped about their sexuality, they pretty much stick to denim and khaki. It should be investigated. Surely there is some business law to prevent exploitation like this.

Meade said...

"...[gay men's] aesthetic formed by a perception of a woman as an idealized fantasy" - Michael Vollbracht, the current designer of Bill Blass

I think this is the essential truth. But what is it that gives gay men this unique power of perception? And would it be logical to predict that lesbian designers should have a superior sensibility for for truck driver aesthetic (Goesh's keen insights notwithstanding)?

bill said...

Interesting article and comments. Reminds me of the Cheers episode when Norm is hired to paint a couple's house because they think he's gay. The implication being they wouldn't have hired him if they thought he was straight because of course gay men are just naturally born with fashion sense.

ps: anyone else watched Cheers in the last couple years and think it hasn't aged well. What I once thought was funny, now seems uncomfortably sexist. Or is this just me? Sam rapping the sportscast is still funny.

Roger Sweeny said...

Michael Vollbracht, the current designer of Bill Blass, said he believes that gay men are demonstrably superior at design, their aesthetic formed by a perception of a woman as an idealized fantasy.

So should we add to Althouse's Law: "You can talk about differences between men and women only if you phrase it to be complimentary to women."

"You can also talk about differences between gay and straight men only if you phrase it to be complimentary to gays."

wristpain said...

One thing that we are largely ignoring is that fashion as an industry is not concerned simply with the product produced. A lot of what makes a particular fashion fashionable has nothing to do with the fabric and cut and all the other blah, blah, blah that goes into designing clothes. A fashion house doesn’t sell clothes, it sells FABULOUSNESS. And right now gay men enjoy a certain cache when it comes to this sort of glamour. Which is exactly what they are leveraging into their outsized success in the fashion industry. Just like 50 cent is able to leverage his image and personal history into record sales that are completely out of proportion with his talent as a rapper, gay male designers are able to do the same thing with their cultivated air of fabulosity. Is it fair? No. But it is not discriminatory either. It is just taking advantage of certain cultural trends and preferences that happen to be in the air at the moment.

And I agree with one of the earlier statements about how crazy it is that we just ignore statements about the superiority of gay people. That kind of talk is every bit as bigoted and perverse as what we hear from the anti-gay crowd. Hearing a statement like this from someone who should know firsthand the abuses that bigotry can lead to makes me think that no one is interested in justice, just promoting their own interests.

oldgranny said...

Goesh, you might want to do some field work. May I recommend a truck stop on a major interstate highway? We were on I 95 near Jacksonville, Florida, as prime a location for observation of the sartorial details of the drivers attire couldn't be found. If you haven't been out in the field lately, be reminded that their physical appearance tends to be rotund, not anything like the men pictured in the fasion magazines. In fact, they can hardly be credited with being of the same genus.

Good luck with your research.

chuck b. said...

Eli Blake wrote "Girl scout activities tend to be more oriented towards the individual achievement... but boy scout activities often involve group achievements and activities."

That's interesting because it's adults who set the scouting agenda, not the kids. Do adult males prefer to impart group-consciousness to the boys while women prefer to instill individuality in girls?

It seems like you'd want to instill both virtues in both boys and girls. If the adults can't bring themselves to appreciate both approaches, maybe it's time for women to run the Boy Scouts for awhile while men can mentor the Girls!

sonicfrog said...

The answer is so clear it hurts: "IT'S THE FASHION INDUSTRY SILLIES!!!"

Ooops. Another stereotype.

I was going to pull this quote and that quote from the article, but figured that would just complicate things. Here are a couple of simple question to ask.

What makes great fashion? i.e. Why is one considered a better design than the other?

How many gay bars, pride parades, and drag shows have you, Ann, fellow bloggers, and the author of the article, been to?

The second question first. I, for one, find drag shows and the like dreadful and boring. Not my cup of tea (god I sound so gay). Now I am mostly a failure as a gay guy. I don't saschet when I walk. I work on cars. Can't lisp if I tried. Have absolutely NO fashion sense. I'm registered Republican. Never watched Will and Grace. Don't own a Madonna record. I don't like Barbara Streisand (and not just for her politics). But when you're young and gay and want to meet other gay men and not feel alone in the world, you go were the gay men are, including drag shows and pride parades. So I've seen a lot of this stuff. The one thing I can tell you is that, for one reason or another, gay men who participate in these things seem to have an affinity to accetuate and exagerate those qualities that make a female female. Maybe it's because the GM has to try so much harder to look and act the part. Reguardless. The thing is, queens are bold, often to the point of satire. Nothing is held back. What a superb training ground for a fashion designer, where noting is held back in the fashion experiment. Now I'm not implying that the current crop of designers are drag queens. They're probably not. But I will venture to quess that they have all spent some time honing their skills in that environment. They find out what works and what doesn't. What kind of expreience do hetero females have to rival that? And you want to consider the power of networking here. I agree totally with the gentleman in the article who describe the gay aspect as a club. This is our golf coarse, where deals are brokered and made.

As for the first question. What make fashion?

Unlike say, a physicist, there is no test or cognitive measure that tells you if a designers work is good or not. It's all subjective and instinctive. A design that may have bombed 30 years ago may be considered briliant if presented today. And so much of the industry is about what is en vogue, and well, er fashionable. No one is using the treffle right now because it's not in fashion (a "treffle" is something I made up; it's not real as far as I know) . Lets face it. As far as the industry goes, gay men are in fashion.

chuck b. said...

There are many ways to discriminate between design choices based on objective criteria. Among them: how well a design under consideration meets its structural and functional expectations, cost and method of production, its statistical marketability.

Fashion students don't just sit around sewing and gossiping. They get surprisingly rigorous training in all the above. (I have a friend pursuing fashion as a second career and I've seen his homework; it looks hard.)

Goesh said...

Granny, I hit a stone wall. I called the Teamsters Union and was told that they don't endorse any style of clothing for dues paying drivers and uniforms per se are not mandated. On the condition that his name not be used, the fellow I spoke with however said there was a strong perception among drivers that anyone not in denim or khaki was thought to be, in his words, " a little light on his feet, if you know what I mean". It is going to be impossible to prove that the fashion czars for truck drivers are promoting homophobia. It was worth a shot - I could have made a few bucks.

wildaboutharrie said...

"cost and method of production"

OK, chuck b, that finally explains gauchos to me. Cheaper than a full pant. Hideous, but they had their day (1979-80, as I recall).

37383938393839383938383 said...

Ann, who thinks men lack the brains to come up with new fashion designs, is apparently a sexist.

But, anyway, maybe gay men dominate the industry because they, on average, are better at spatial thought than women. They can render designs better.

Or maybe it is because gay people just happened to get into power, and are protecting their kind.

Or maybe women designers have never heard of unions.

Truly said...

That fantasized ideal is one reason I find clothes shopping so difficult. The clothes fit the fantasy, not the reality--where does that leave those of us with "real" bodies?

So first, I wonder who they're actually designing for.

I also wonder about the purpose of fashion. Is it art that happens to be made of fabric and holes for your arms and head? I'd be much more comfortable with designs that actually appreciate the female body as it is. I don't get that from modern designers.

I resent having my options limited to what some NYC clique thinks I ought to be wearing. I know what I want, what flatters me, but it's not out there for sale. Would that I knew how to sew!

knoxgirl said...

wildabout said: "it became fashionable among fashionable women to have gay men be in charge of their "lifestyle enhancements""


lindsey said...

"That fantasized ideal is one reason I find clothes shopping so difficult. The clothes fit the fantasy, not the reality--where does that leave those of us with "real" bodies?"

This would certainly explain how models bodies have changed.

jim said...

Have a family member in the fashion industry and am happy to provide some unPC stereotyping that exists within the industry:

Straight men (without shoe and lingerie fetishes) are normally into the tried and true and practical. They and "passing for hetero" designers do a lot of preppie and evening classics, unless they're Brit and then all bets are off. Non-designer regular guys are content if wives keep the same comfortable but fairly presentable shoes for twenty years, shopping bills from Neiman's or Barneys not always appreciated.

Metrosexual men are a little too interested in their and companions' appearances, have their nails manicured, sometimes wear sweaters knotted around neck, and tend toward either retro or updated classics when designing clothes or dressing their girlfriends. Image is all important. Barneys and boutiques all good.

Gay men are into pushing the envelop, fads, novelty and drama when designing, but they also like glamorous classic done well. Comfort is far less important than visual/ sensory impact and snob appeal. Many are good at mimicking to the point of cartooning femininity and are obsessed with youth and beauty. They thrive in the flamboyant and brutally competitive fashion world and are happiest when gorgeous or outrageous men and women are dressed up gorgeously or outrageously. And expensively. They know "It" and true panache when they see it. They and club doormen know arcane stuff like designer make of clothes and accessories on other people.

Straight women, as shoppers, split between choosing classics and sexy, the newest trends and flattering, between pleasing each other and appealing to men. As designers, they tend to design for the everyday market in which most women live, but can get arty or do beautiful sophisticated couture. A women designer usually needs to develop an artist persona or have a society/money name to be given respect in the sharp elbow world of frivolous and deadly serious fashion. It's still a man's world of making bucks and the ladies look good (even most fashion photographers and model agents are men and often gay). Why is that? Perhaps women inherently think other women don't have their best appearances at heart, and the marketing, manufacture and money men of the fashion world are predisposed to hiring and working with other men, gay or not. Women are cast more as fashion objects and consumers, the sense of female agency being mostly that of posing, looking pretty and shopping . (Daughter's a model, so well I know!)

Some gay women both push convention and emulate it, as in that of straight men, while sister sophisticates are more attention-seeking hipsters or glamour pusses. As designers, it would seem their gayness would help with attracting notice and being seen as avant garde, but I don't happen to know which women designers are gay. So does it help, I wonder?

Last, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Samuel Clemens, Winston Churchill and others said it best: "No generalization is worth a damn, including this one."

miklos rosza said...

Who's hiring and evaluating and promoting (or retarding the progress of) entry-level people in the industry?

If most of the bosses are gay men then is it "homophobic" to think it's possible they stick together a bit?

Tony said...

while a very large proportion of the most competitive and talented gay men choose fashion. Still, discrimination against women may well result.

Can you discriminate against one protected minority with another protected minority?

Tony said...

"We don't come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies."

Oh. You mean size doesn't matter, after all?


Woman: Who are you going to satisfy with that little thing?

Man: Me. :)

Gerry said...

"Isn't that a classic stereotype about women? We don't trust each other!"

Just because something is a stereotype, does it mean that the stereotype is not earned? I am speaking in general.

At my current job, I have seen very little of this sort of stereotypical behavior from any of the women.

At my last job, and during my college years? I would have said it was a well earned stereotype, because it seemed to be a characteristic of most women I knew.

Wade_Garrett said...

Women also trust gay men to do their hair, so I guess they really do entrust gay men with their overall appearance. I agree with some of the earlier comments; a lot of gay men do idolize fabulous female stars, like Marilyn Monroe, Cher, and Madonna.

I'm reminded of the Daily Show's broadcast from the Republican National Convention, when the camera zoomed in on a batch of delegates, all of whom had terribly combovers: "See, Jon, this is what happens to your hair when you don't let gay people touch it."

chuck b. said...

Too funny. I would like to very politely suggest a modification to the statement above: *Some* gay men *idolize*, while *many* *appreciate*, Cher and Madonna, and *a few* even *fancy* Marilyn Monroe.

As for me, I appreciate Cher slightly more than Madonna for her musical longevity and acting talent. Cher, storied and wise, embodies a certain darkness and a certain sincerity that Madonna does not, and probably can not.

Jim said...

Gay men dominate the fashion industry because men dominate all industries, including Haute Cuisine and Haute Couture, only straight men spend so much time dominating physics, engineering, chess, music, politics, cabinetmaking, etc, that they leave fashion and hairdressing and the like to their gay brethren.

Women are too busy chasing husbands and making babies to provide any real competition in anything that matters. Of course, since Shakespeare, they have been seen as needed to play female roles on stage, so they are still somewhat visible.

Banjo Time said...

Jim dominates being a misogynist because he has been systematically socially rejected by women all his life.

Rachel Bennett said...

Amen banjo!

Jabriel said...

"Why do gay men dominate the fashion industry?"

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"Why do gay men dominate the fashion industry?"

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Antony Levine said...

Because men are stronger and have that power? : )

Snippy Titwhistle said...

Just as most academic feminists are men, so with fashion designers. Men are better at pretty much anything technical, commercial, or kinetic. We're even better whores than women (just ask anyone who's taken up Ladyboys). Women have a number of evolutionary traits that put them behind the curve in the modern world, and by 'modern' I mean the past 5000 years.