American Apparel and the Politics of “Natural Beauty”
This week an American Apparel store in New York secured a flurry of attention after it installed female mannequins whose sheer lingerie reveal dense pubic hair. The Valentine’s Day window display in the American Apparel Soho store includes three mannequins in sheer white underwear exposing netherhair and nipples. The international media attention has focused on American Apparel’s calculated history of “shock” advertising, and delicate sensibilities may stop at this point and choose not to survey the range of the corporation’s provocative advertising, much of which is not-safe-for-work. American Apparel has been predictably superficial in its defense of the mannequins as symbols of “natural beauty” that confirm the “rawness and realness of sexuality.” In the hands of American Apparel the unshorn mannequins are marketing mechanisms that are, at best, an ironic illumination of ideological beauty standards. American Apparel’s mannequins underscore our social uneasiness with deviations from unexpressed feminine beauty ideals; they certainly emphasize how complicated it is to address such deep-seated ideologies in consumer space and in the hands of corporations like American Apparel.
American Apparel fancies its mannequins are statements of a novel notion of uncontrived, “natural” beauty. In a press release last week the company indicated that “American Apparel is a company that celebrates natural beauty, and the Lower East Side Valentine’s Day window continues that celebration. We created it to invite passerbys to explore the idea of what is ‘sexy’ and consider their comfort with the natural female form.” American Apparel’s defense of the “natural female form” is a strategically uplifting celebration of “real life” bodies, and perhaps it inches away from the notion of beauty materialized in super model aesthetics. For instance, last year the firm ran ads with a transgendered model and was crafting campaigns with more transgendered and transsexual models. The corporation has likewise long argued that it refutes the clothing industry’s ideological notion of beauty, suggesting last week that the hirsute mannequins reflected the philosophy of “our advertisements which avoid many of the photoshopped and airbrushed standards of the fashion industry.”
Nevertheless, corporations that celebrate “pushing the envelope” are often staking shallow claims to creativity if not activism. Taking aim on sexuality and beauty in particular always risks violating social mores if not outright legal codes; in 2012, for instance, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority banned a series of American Apparel ads because they were deemed “sexually suggestive, gratuitous and flirtatious” (the ASA had banned another American Apparel ad for the same reason in 2009). In 2012, American Apparel dismissively responded to the ASA ruling with the reply that “American Apparel will not be altering our classic advertising aesthetic which is internationally recognized for its artistic and social values.”
Some of this American Apparel “activism” has been clumsy or undone by the company’s own practices. For instance, American Apparel’s 2010 hiring policy required “pictures (full body head to toe),” an apparent effort to secure conventionally attractive employees. American Apparel dodged the accusation of screening for beautiful people and suggested that “to really showcase the fashionability of our products, we have to rely on the way our in-store employees style themselves with our clothes.” The corporation and its CEO Dov Charney have been sued for sexual harassment seven times, but none have resulted in financial penalties to American Apparel as settlement or punishment.
American Apparel has often been linked to hipster styles in its affectation for retro aesthetics, the absence of visible branding, and ads and products that play on irony, but in 2010 Dov Charney decreed that “hipster is over.” Nevertheless, in 2013 American Apparel’s “Period Power” t-shirt simultaneously tackled menstruation, pubic hair, and masturbation; the firm apparently believed consumers would see the motif as an ironic violation of mainstream silences about body discipline, but for most observers the irony seemed lost in inappropriate context.
The firm’s embrace of vaguely pornographic photographic techniques has included a handful of former adult actresses. Their 2005 ad campaign for tube socks, for instance, depicted a woman enormously satisfied by retro socks and encouraged its reader to search for her name on Google (probably not advisable on your workplace desktop). Some of the American Apparel ads are ostensibly of “real” young women, genuine non-professional models distinguished by their strikingly “anti-model” aesthetic: vacant expressions, awkward poses, and grainy photography. Leah Chernikoff details an overtly sexualized American Apparel aesthetic that has long revolved around provocative semi-pornographic visuals as the heart of the brand’s symbolism. Alissa Quart calls such practice “hipster sexism,” because it is sexism that attempts to rationalize itself through irony and humor; hipsters, she argues, suggest that something like pornographic visuals are ironic or funny when they are simply offensive in most social contexts (on context, compare Thomas Alleman’s The American Apparel photo project depicting American Apparel billboards in Los Angeles).
The New York store’s public display of an unshorn mannequin may indeed be funny as a sidewalk experience: that is, it presents us with something we almost certainly could not have anticipated in an otherwise mundane urban stroll. It means something somewhat different, however, in an advertisement. American Apparel has long been fascinated by the symbolic violation of revealing female pubic hair. The persistent appearance of public hair in American Apparel ads and now in their store windows admits our widespread fascination with our most intimate nether reaches. However, American Apparel’s ads and their Soho window do nothing more than acknowledge the existence of pubic hair and nipples; for those of us who recognized these corporeal realities, this is not really a productive starting point for a discussion on sexuality and the body. Advertising can trigger consequential public conversations and admit the repressed or evaded into public consciousness, but its primary obligation always remains to profit.
American Apparel may suggest what increasingly more early 21st-century corporations will look like: that is, American Apparel shrewdly avoids identification with both “the corporate right and the politically correct left.” The corporation champions labor rights and the conservative value of being “Made in the USA” even as they aspire to be seen as an “edgy” trend-setter embracing everyday mass desires and defying conventional style and values. The firm’s anti-sweatshop and green production policies stake a moral claim to youth consumption that evades implication in corporate capitalism; the firm simultaneously embraces material desire and sexuality invested in everyday youth culture. It remains to be demonstrated, though, if American Apparel can productively frame a reflective discussion on sexuality, gender, and personal grooming.
American Apparel 2005 tube socks advertisement image from American Apparel
American Apparel 2011 advertisement image from copyranter
American Apparel 2012 Bodysuit advertisement from American Apparel
American Apparel window image from American Apparel NYC Instagram