First published by New Statesman, 2nd October 2014
If you weren’t already aware, little girls are in. Socially, we remain mired in a seemingly unbreakable obsession with youth, particularly when it comes to women. Fashion prizes young girls; repeatedly running advertising campaigns that feature teenage stars, insisting on the use of teenage models, and pushing childish garments that infantilize adult women. Men can age gracefully and become distinguished, but women are only worth celebrating when they are young.
Young girls have been fashion favourites for a long time, but this trend was made particularly explicit in the early 90s with the ushering in of “heroin chic”. A waifish Kate Moss was snapped topless at sixteen, and topless straddling a shirtless Mark Wahlberg a few years later for Calvin Klein’s infamous 1993 jeans advert. Moss brought her youthful, boyish thinness to the world of modelling, and the tired, circled eyes and vacant expressions of the “heroin chic” craze followed. Curves were out, flat chests and non-existent hips were in, and models got younger and their bodies stayed regressively little-girl in order to fit the trend. Despite the recent gains in fashion regarding the protection of young models and the push to see more diverse body shapes on the runways, youth still reigns supreme and little girls remain fashion’s first choice.
The US clothing site Dolls Kill runs several “looks” on every season. One is titled “La Femme Matilda” and features a model dressed in clothes inspired by the 1994 film Leon: The Professional. The title is a play on both Leon and director Luc Besson’s 1990 film La Femme Nikita. Matilda, played by a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman, is a twelve year old who smokes, curses and tries to initiate a sexual relationship with Leon, played by Jean Reno who was 46 when the film was released.
Dolls Kill’s look for “La Femme Matilda” includes crop tops, short dungarees with a rainbow applique on the chest, combat boots, fetish-style chokers, and tiny denim shorts bearing the legend “Lolita”. The clothes are for adult women, but inspired by a twelve year old character. The model used can be seen lounging in hotpants, wearing a heavy-duty leather collar, and clutching the stuffed rabbit that Matilda treasures in the film.
The character of Matilda is inappropriately sexual and wishes to mimic grown adult relationships, despite not having even entered her teenage years. This is how Besson communicates to his audience that Matilda is damaged by her physically and emotionally abusive upbringing, and the bloodbath that results in the loss of her family. In the film, Matilda’s sexual precociousness is poignant, but Dolls Kill makes it sexy, stylish and a desirable ‘look’ for adult women. Dolls Kill did not respond to requests for comment.
Fashion’s obsession with young girls has caused trouble with the censors. In 2011, the British Advertising Standards Agency banned the ad for Marc Jacobs’ Lola perfume. It featured Dakota Fanning posing with a giant, phallic-looking perfume bottle in her lap. The ASA ruled on the ad due to the fact that Fanning looked to be under the age of 16, coupled with the sexualised pose. It’s strange that fashion advertisements are not banned because they continue to feature eroticised teenage boys. Correct me if I’m wrong, but pubescent and pre-pubescent men are not culturally salivated over in the same way.
Roger David, a men’s clothing brand, was also slammed for using a highly sexualised image of a young girl in an advertisement, with a UPC code stamped on her shoulder reading “SLAVE”. True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld was fourteen when she appeared in a Miu Miu ad. She was depicted on a railway track, appearing to wipe one eye as if in tears. The ad was banned for showing a child in a hazardous situation, although the real question is why an adult brand like Miu Miu needed to use a fourteen year old to model their clothing.
American Apparel, a serial offender when it comes to controversial advertising, was recently forced to remove a schoolwear-themed advertisement that showed a model bending over in a tartan skirt, exposing her buttocks. The ASA banned the advertisement on the grounds that “the images imitated voyeuristic ‘up-skirt’ shots which had been taken without the subject’s consent or knowledge which, in the context of an ad for a skirt marketed to young women, we considered had the potential to normalise a predatory sexual behaviour.” It baffles me that these kind of advertisements get through the design process unscathed. Why is no one saying “hang on a minute, this might not be an okay message to send”? Or is American Apparel so cynical that they are willing to throw out sexist images that they know will cause offense, simply to gain notoriety for their brand? If you’re not convinced that AA adverts are sexist, check out the difference between how the unisex tartan shirt is styled on male and female models.
It might be sensible to ascribe the Dolls Kill look to the current popularity of 90s fashion and retro items that those in their twenties and thirties remember wearing as children and younger teens. The plastic backpacks, My Little Pony printed t-shirts and pleated school skirts are having a real fashion moment right now. There’s nothing wrong with looking back to retro styles, but there’s also something very strange about explicitly childish clothes on grown women. Monster highstreet retailer Primark currently has a whole hosiery section devoted to frilly-topped socks, reminiscent of those I was forced into as a six and seven year old (despite denouncing them to my mum as “too girly”).
The problem with fetishising and sexualising young girls is that it sends the message that all females, regardless of their age or developmental maturity, are fair sexual game. The Daily Mail is one of the most shameless offenders, referring to the eight-year-old daughter of Heidi Klum as a“leggy beauty” who “showed off her best model walk”. The paper also released articles drooling over the bodies of Elle Fanning and Chloe Grace Moretz who were both 14 at the time of publication. The “Daily Mail Reporter” turns teenage girls under the age of consent into knowing temptresses,describing Kylie Jenner (then also 14) as “displaying her trim figure for her two million Twitter followers to ogle at”. The article helpfully provides the pictures so that readers can also “ogle”.Guardian columnist Owen Jones started a change.org petition demanding that the Daily Mail stop sexualising children and introduce stricter guidelines regarding editorial style. Referring to teenagers and children as unafraid to “dance suggestively in skimpy bikinis” or displaying a “maturity and a lifestyle far beyond their years” is distasteful at best and positively paedophilic at worst.
Halloween is fast approaching, and there will be no shortage of teenagers and adult women dressed as sexualised schoolgirls, with little interrogation over the cultural messages that these costumes are sending. Adult women aping childhood fashions is perhaps symbolic of how far our social obsession with young girls has really gone. Is it because we’re looking back with fascination at 90s styles? Partly. But it’s doubtful that American Apparel would have deliberately sexualized a pleated school-style skirt if they weren’t playing, one step removed through the women who buy their clothes, to a heterosexual male audience. Schoolgirls are sexy. Teenaged Chloe Grace Moretz and Natalie Portman and Kylie and Kendall Jenner and Dakota and Elle Fanning are sexy. They weren’t even legal when they were being eroticised and fetishised, but that’s kind of the point.
Fashion shouldn’t need to use the bodies of teenage girls to sell clothing, particularly clothing aimed at women. It’s turning all of us into Humbert Humberts, and I for one am done with this Lolita moment.