SHE’S A LADY: A LOOK AT H&M’S NEWEST AD
When we are asked to think of the fashion industry and its media representation, we tend to conjure images of overwhelmingly white, waifish models, with Euro-centric, highly sexualized standards of beauty. This idea digs into our psyche from billboards and buses and magazine ads, deceptively dangerous. We are so used to this dismissive hierarchy that we absorb it like air.
However, H&M breaks that message entirely this fall with its new Autumn Collection 2016 ad. The video is only one minute and twelve seconds in total, but it manages to demonstrate both the tenderness and ferocity that women possess. And not just women, but women of various ages, sizes, ethnicities, shapes, heights, and appearances.
The ad is immediately different from the typical. We are treated to an opening shot of a voluptuous woman in a bra and underwear strolling away from the camera, as she goes to check herself out in her bathroom mirror. Then there is a rapid montage of models in various other locations—a wraithlike woman striding along a rooftop at nightfall with her suit jacket slung over one shoulder, a model in an ethereal pink dress and shaved head, and a group of young black women arriving at an upscale restaurant in stunning attire. Another important detail is the background music, a cover of Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady” by Lion Babe. Not only does this ad question what it means to be “a lady,” but it redefines it completely.
The video employs more powerful symbolism in the remaining sixty seconds. Models engage in traditionally ‘unladylike’ activities, like dominating a professional meeting, picking food out of their teeth with a fork while using a knife as a mirror, unzipping their jeans before sprawling on a hotel bed to enjoy room-service French fries, spreading out on the subway rather than shrinking to take up less space, and plunging into a pool after dark. The final shot, two women kissing underwater in a beam of moonlight, is brave and breathtaking. It seems to tell of a future where ads like this are not rare but commonplace; where this is but one of many unique, inclusive campaigns.
The diversity of models is equally impressive. The women featured are Adwoa Aboah, Hari Nef, Heather Kemesky, Iselin Steiro, Neelam Gill, and Katy Syme, as well as Jillian Hervey of Lion Babe, actress Lauren Hutton, and Fatima Pinto, one of the most profoundly skilled boxers in the world. These women represent identities that are so often cast aside in the realm of fashion and modeling. They are black, Asian, Latina, transgender, queer, curvy, athletic, and androgynous, as well as playful, striking, elegant, imperfect, and unapologetic.
This by far not the only example of women of color or queer women—or both—being seen and heard in mainstream media. Seventeen year old Amandla Stenberg (you may recognize her as the actress who played Rue in the Hunger Games), is a black, bisexual actress who speaks out on issues of race, heteronormativity, and gender, especially in popular entertainment and fashion. While she typically uses she/her pronouns, Amandla is also very open about her fluidity of gender. She has been featured in magazines like Teen Vogue, Dazed, and Elle, and has already made a tremendous impact on social norms at her young age.
Another boundary-breaking moment for women on the runway happened in spring of 2014, when designer Rick Owens hired four black American sororities to dance and model his clothing during Paris fashion week. The women performed a stunning, disturbing routine which lasted for over ten minutes, combining African dance, step, militant movement, and tap-dance. Owens is quoted saying that he envisioned the performance to be “vicious—I want royal street edge” (Dazed Digital, 2014). He did this to shake the institutional fashion hierarchy to its bones, and he succeeded. “Their full-throttle, hair whipping and teeth-gritting performance became a massive statement about the almost grotesque nature of fashion week,” said journalist Isabella Burley.
The message from these women may be a more intense version of the one in H&M’s ad video, but the meaning is the same. By breaking racial, hypersexual, heteronormative standards and antiquated norms of ideal body image, their statement is clear and unified: This is what it is to be beautiful and ferocious and unstoppable; this is what a woman looks like.