Masculinity, Masquerade and Display: Some thoughts on Rick Owen’s Sphinx Collection and men on runways more generally.

06/05/2015 § Leave a comment

This is the text of a paper I gave at the Laws of Fashion: between Transgression and Compliance conference co-organised by Cardozo School of Law and Parsons School of Fashion, in New York, on 26 April 2015.

I started thinking about the ideas in this paper earlier this year, when the fashion designer Rick Owens presented his A/W 2015, “Sphinx,” at Paris Mens Fashion Week in January. It draws heavily on the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan in its theorising of contemporary mens fashion shows, and takes as it’s point of departure the belief that fashion is inherently feminine.

In the Sphinx collection, Rick Owens presented several pieces that were robes, strategically cut to display glimpses of the models penises as they walked. According to Mr Owens himself, the models were carefully cast according to height and proportions so that neither too much nor too little of their member was on display. Owens later called the decision to display penises as “puerile” but, of course, the fashion press went wild over it. Headlines declared it “the menswear season’s most provocative statement” while others asked if a penis on the runway “is a flesh flash too far?” The voice of reason argued that “Groingate” was actually a non-issue, because there were only four penis-displaying garments in a collection of forty – as if penises are a non-issue in small doses. Comparisons were also made between mens and womens flesh, and there was some debate about whether a penis on display is really all that different from a breast.


Penis on the catwalk at Rick Owens’ show, SS2015 Photograph: kollektivnoir/Instagram/Instagram

I will pause here to observe that there is a significant difference between a breast and a penis, a difference that emanates from the asymmetry of the sexes at the level of the unconscious as well as the cultural, which means that masculinity and femininity are not directly interchangeable. We can see this asymmetry evidenced across our culture, if we care to look, and there is no reason to suppose this asymmetry changes in fashion, and in fact, in fashion, as elsewhere, penises and breasts are entirely different entities.

Likewise I’m not convinced by the numbers argument. I don’t think we can ignore the penis-displaying garments that made up only a tenth of the collection on the grounds that they only made up a tenth of the collection. The body is a profoundly important site where cultural, political and social meaning is constituted and negotiated, and any unorthodox presentation of the body is by definition significant – so, while one fashion critic said that in terms of Rick Owen’s work “we shouldn’t go too deep” I’m going to ignore his advice, and do precisely that in this paper.

In psychoanalytic terms, sexed subjectivity on the one hand pertains to the mind and the constitution of the self in and through unconscious processes, however the anatomical body is a site where unconscious processes are given form, indeed, given body. The body is one of the places where the unconscious speaks, and says what it cannot say in words. The question I’ve been thinking about is what is the male body in fashion in general, and Rick Owen’s penis boys in particular, are saying.

As Anne Hollander noted in her book Sex and Suits, “‘men’s fashion’ is an acknowledged subset, and has scarcely any of the fame and resonance attaching to ‘Fashion.’”[1] Fashion is unique in this. Usually, where cultural forms (literature, art, film, music) are gendered, they tend to default to the masculine, with the feminine as a sub-set within the form; there is literature, and there is women’s writing, for instance. There are artists, and there are women artists. Fashion is distinctive among cultural forms in that it is the only one that defaults automatically to the feminine. So what are the implications for masculinity when it appears, or appears to appear, in fashion?

In a sense, of course, masculinity – in its common definition as characteristic of and pertaining to men – has always been present in fashion. Our understanding of what fashion is begins with a man, Charles Worth, who was designing, making and selling fashionable dresses to aristocrats and the well-to-do in Paris in the late Nineteenth Century, and men have been an integral part of fashion ever since. However, the propensity to associate masculinity with men, to assume that it is some abstracted, enacted essence of man, in my view misses the point about gender, in anglophone parlance, and sexed subjectivity, to use the French term.

(For the purposes of this paper I’ll be using both terms, depending on which tradition the ideas I refer to are drawn from, although I will acknowledge here that they are not a direct translation of each other and the differences and connections between the two are still being determined.)

Gender can be understood in any number of ways – as “culturally constructed” (from the social constructivism of the 1980s and 90s) as “performative” (from queer theory) and, from psychoanalysis, as an on-going developmental process occuring in the unconscious mind. What it has virtually nothing to do with though, however much we might wish it did, is the anatomically determined subjectivity we refer to as “man” and “woman.”

Masculinity can refer to masculine subjects, usually but not always men; as pertaining to or contingent upon language; and as following a direct or simple logic (what Slavoj Zizek has referred to as “stupid.”) The extent to which masculinity, by these definitions, manifests itself in fashion, is yet to be determined. Suffice to say, the presence of man in fashion, as either designers or models, is no guarantee that fashion lends itself to the accomodation and articulation of masculinity, or vice versa.

I have noted elsewhere that fashion is inherently feminine. The inextricable link between femininity and dress, first observed in the 1860s by Baudelaire in his essay The Painter of Modern Life, is still very much present in contemporary fashion. As I said earlier, fashion is unique amongst cultural forms in that it defaults to the feminine. However, while Baudelaire was referring quite clearly to women, in terms of fashion, femininity can be understood in rather broader terms: as pertaining to feminine subjects, usually but not exclusively women; as pertaining to and contingent upon the body; and in a specifically Lacanian idiom, as following an impossible or contradictory logic. These three definitions of femininity allow for an understanding of fashion that anchors fashion to the category of the feminine whilst simultaneously rejecting the suggestion that the category is in any way anatomically determined, or reliant on social structures for its meanings.

Femininity also aligns particularly well with fashion in psychoanalytic terms through the idea of masquerade. Following Joan Rivière’s influential 1929 essay ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ the association between femininity and masquerade has become a widely accepted critical position.[2] Rivière argues that femininity is not covered or hidden in some way, but rather is itself the cover, the mask. The question of what it is that femininity masks is precisely what makes the condition of femininity so problematic; it masks that which cannot be represented. Mary-Ann Doane describes it as a “decorative layer that conceals a non-identity.”[3] Michelle Montrelay describes this masquerade in terms of the materiality of fashion (it “takes shape in this piling up of crazy things, feathers, hats and strange baroque constructions which rise up like so many silent insignias”) and observes further that “man has always called the feminine defences and masquerade evil.[4] (As an aside, and in light of this idea, we may wish to reflect on why there is so much hostility to fashion.)

For Jacques Lacan, the term semblance is key here, and refers to the requirement placed on women to don the colours, so to speak, of the Other’s desire, the better that they may be, as they are required to be, the phallus. The masquerade serves to demonstrate how the woman’s lack (of a penis) leads to her instead becoming the phallus. “Such is the woman behind her veil: it is the absence of the penis that makes her the phallus, object of desire.”[5] Referring to fashion as a paradigm of the veil behind which feminine sexuality must operate is a common device amongst critics, and the contribution of fashion and bodily adornment to the inherent masquerade that is feminine sexuality is well established.[6] Adornment is, then, the woman in the symbolic order, because she represents lack and lack “is never presented to us other than as a reflection on a veil.”[7]

The Lacanian notion of semblance is not exclusive to women. Indeed Lacan refers to its occasion in men as “virile display.”[8] However, as with all other sexuated relations, virile display is not symmetrical to feminine masquerade, because of the structurally differentiated requirements attendant upon either having (for masculine subjects) or being ( for feminine subjects) the phallus, and Lacan has observed further that even virile display itself feminises, by demonstrating the rule of the Other’s desire.[9] What is important though is that the notion of masquerade and display defines modes of sexuated subjectivity that operate through these notions and, crucially, defines them as feminine.

Our culture tends to support the anatomical illusion that men are the haves and women are the have-nots, and certainly this seems to be one of the points that Rick Owens was making in his Sphinx collection. By displaying the penis, peeping through fashion garments that we have previously understood as a part of the feminine masquerade that covers the lack that is a central defining factor of femininity, Rick Owens collection suggests one of two possibilities

The work suggests either that fashion, the masquerade, is not uniquely feminine as it can slip to show the signifier of masculinity – the penis – as well as the signifier of femininity – lack, and the terrifying maw of castration. Alternatively it alludes to the possibility that masculinity is a masquerade too, a case put forward by Donald Moss, amongst others.[10] I am not convinced by this second argument, owing as it does a debt of gratitude to ideas about performativity and thus, by definition, largely ignoring the psychic aspect of gender that is so central to its formation. The first argument is a little more compelling, but falls down in the face of the point that, as I said earlier, even virile display, the masculine appearance of masquerade, feminises. It feminises because to appear as object, as other, as objet petit a, is only possible for feminine subjects. Genitalia is irrelevant, and while penises may well maketh the man, they have little to do with masculinity.

I should say at this point that I am fully persuaded by Tim Dean’s argument in Beyond Sexuality, that “in its most fundamental formulations, psychoanalysis is a queer theory” [11] Tim Dean also notes that castration isn’t Lacan’s only rubric for loss. “Lacan’s model for subjective loss is not the phallus but feces, an ungendered object. In the face of this object-cause of desire, the controversy over the concept of the phallus pales into insignificance, since whether or not we’re all – men as well as women – missing the phallus, certainly we’ve all lost objects from the anus.”

Leigh Bowery

Leigh Bowery

Where masculinity can appear on the runway is in more radical models of sexed subjectivity, of the kind we see in Casey Legler, a woman who models menswear and who appears in fashion as the archetype of the phallic woman. We see it also in the radical dissolution of phallic masculinity in men explored through the trope of the cloacal man, a figure who does not appear in fashion, so much as in performance – we see the cloacal man in Leigh Bowery (above) and his propensity for on-stage enemas, for instance, and more recently we see them in Christeene (below) a US-based “drag terrorist” who is carried on stage wearing a tunic so short it’s barely legal with a butt plug with helium balloons attached to it fastened firmly into their rectum – thus turning Leo Bersani’s grave into a rather lively place indeed.[12]



Rick Owens declared himself a Christeene fan in an interview with Butt magazine in November 2011, and I have no doubt that he is more than aware of the problems, the complicated network of splits and schisms, inherent in sexed subjectivity itself, as well as in the relations between sexed subjectivity and the individual subject, and between differently sexuated subjects. However, I am equally convinced that his work in the Sphinx collection is not as radical as the fashion press would like to think it is. Fashion remains feminine, for all the men, and their penises, that appear within it, because it remains anchored to psycho-cultural practices of masquerade and display that are determinedly feminine, or feminising. That said, fashion also remains a cultural form where gender radicalism is possible, where masculinity appears in the disruptive form of the phallic woman and the cloacal man, and not in its usual, predicable, and frankly tiresome search for the phallus. Fashion is one of the places where the models of sexed subjectivity that are usually silenced or at least disavowed, can find their voices, and this, I feel, is its greatest strength.


[1] Anne Hollander Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (Brinkworth: Claridge, 2004) p. 11.

[2] Reproduced in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, Formations of Fantasy (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 35-44.

[3] Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York, London: Routledge, 1991), p. 25.

[4] Michèle Montrelay, ‘Inquiry into Femininity’, m/f, 1:1 (1978) 91-116, p. 93.

[5] Lacan, The Écrits: A Selection, p.322.

[6] See Ellie Ragland Sullivan and Mark Bracher, Lacan and the Subject of Language (New York, London: Routledge, 1991): Barnard and Fink (eds.), Reading Seminar XX (particularly ‘Feminine Conditions of Jouissance’ by Geneviève Morel and ‘What Does the Unconscious Know About Women’ by Colette Soler): Evans, ‘Masks, Mirrors and Mannequins: Elsa Schiaparelli and the Decentred Subject’ for examples of this.

[7] Jacques Lacan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. trans. Tomaselli, Sylvana. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 261.

[8] Lacan, The Écrits, p. 584.

[9] Lacan, The Écrits, p. 585.

[10] Moss, Donald Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Man: Psychoanalysis and Masculinity (London, Routledge 2012.)

[11] Beyond Sexuality p. 268.

[12] Leo Bersani ‘Is The Rectum A Grave?’ in Aids: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, ed. by Douglas Crimp (Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 1988.)


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