Revisiting the Gaze: Feminism, Fashion and the Female Body


  • Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London

Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London (London, UK)

Keynote Speakers: Prof. Reina Lewis, London College of Fashion; Dr. Mo Throp, Chelsea College of Arts; and Dr. Maria Walsh, Chelsea College of Arts.

In 2015 Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) enjoyed its fortieth year. The BFI hosted a panel to mark the occasion, where Mulvey emphasized that her essay was very much a ‘historical document of its time’: emerging from the politics of the women’s movement in the 1970sMulvey used the term the ‘male gaze’ just once in her essay yet the concept has become central to debates on spectatorship. Critique has focused on the psychoanalytic underpinnings of this concept as well as the privileging of gender over other aspects of identity (e.g. hooks 1992). Furthermore, Mulvey herself has acknowledged that elements of the essay have ‘necessarily been rendered archaic by changes in technology’ and has revisited it in her subsequent writing.

The idea of the gaze – whether male or female – has proved incredibly fruitful in making sense of the fashioned body. Yet, with the recent resurgence of feminist activism – being termed ‘fourth wave’ or ‘digital’ feminism – debates on fashion and the gaze have evolved enormously. Blogs such as Man Repeller playfully mock the idea of the ‘male gaze’ whilst other women have explored the empowering potential of self-authored images of the female body (e.g. Petra Collins, #freethenipple, Emily Ratajkowski). Activists on the street have used their own fashioned bodies as a site for articulating protest, through movements such as Femen and Slutwalk, with these protests, in turn, being subject to critique on social media for their privileging of white, heteronormative bodies.

Becoming visible opens up opportunities for empowerment but as Michel Foucault (1975) has noted, ‘visibility is a trap’, as underlined in instances of revenge porn and catcalling on the street. Furthermore, Angela McRobbie (2009) has argued the ‘male gaze’ has been replaced by super-strict regulation of appearance – whether by oneself, one’s peers or the fashionable milieu. The ‘politicized, hypervisibility’ of the veiled body, as well as the different gazes that fall on Muslim bodies in both online and offline spaces, has been noted by Reina Lewis (2015). Such visibility has in some cases proved empowering, but in others led to body shaming, reprisals and even to death – as in the recent killing of the Qandeel Baloch, the Pakistani Twitter celebrity.

These social and digital changes provide the impetus for a re-examination of fashion and the politics of looking. Working from the premise that the gaze is intersectional (Gamman and Marshment 1988), we want to consider what remains fruitful in Mulvey’s essay as well as thinking about new ways of theorising fashion, the female body, and the gaze.

More information and registration can be found at the conference website.