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The ‘Woman-child’ in Fashion Photography, 1990-2015: Childlike Femininities, Performativity, and Reception Studies

Laing, Morna (2016) The ‘Woman-child’ in Fashion Photography, 1990-2015: Childlike Femininities, Performativity, and Reception Studies. PhD thesis, University of the Arts London.

Type of Research: Thesis
Creators: Laing, Morna

The childlike character of ideal femininities has long been critiqued in feminist literature, from Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) to Susan Faludi (1992). Yet, despite the partial gains of feminism the ‘woman-child’ continues to be a prominent subject-position in fashion photography of the West. This thesis builds upon earlier feminist critiques of the infantilisation of women by considering the meaning of childlike femininities in the period spanning 1990 to 2015. In particular, it questions whether representations of childlike femininities can shed their dehumanising, ‘second sex’ connotations and be resignified to a more progressive end in the contemporary context. The possible appeal of ‘girly’ subject-positions to women, following several waves of feminism, is explored through reception studies carried out with female participants in focus groups, as well as theory on the ‘female gaze’.

Images were principally drawn from three British fashion magazines: Vogue (UK), i-D, and Lula. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which discourses on childhood, girlhood and womanhood overlap and intersect to produce the figure of the ‘woman-child’ in the fashion media and beyond. This subject-position is shown not to be singular but rather as appearing in a number of guises. The many permutations of childlike femininity are subsumed into four overarching categories: the Romantic woman-child; the femme-enfant-fatale; Lolita style; and the Parodic woman-child. This thesis thereby contributes to existing debates in fashion studies by considering in greater detail the different discourses on childhood and femininity that come into play when women are positioned as childlike.

A multi-faceted visual methodology is employed, combining visual analysis of imagery with experimental reception studies. Reception studies were conducted in focus groups with female participants and provide insight into the way these women made sense of the ‘woman-child’. In addition, they provide an indication as to whether the participants liked or disliked childlike femininities in the fashion media, thus pointing to the possible investments women might have in childlike subject-positions. Finally, including an element of social research served to challenge and/or reinforce the researcher’s own readings of the imagery, pointing to new avenues of research and expanding the discursive field of enquiry. This aspect of the thesis makes a methodological contribution to literature on the reception of still media imagery in fashion studies, magazine studies and feminist media studies.

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Keywords/subjects not otherwise listed: Cultural Studies
Your affiliations with UAL: Colleges > London College of Fashion
Date: 6 June 2016
Funders: University of the Arts London
Date Deposited: 26 Jul 2016 18:06
Last Modified: 14 Mar 2024 09:08
Item ID: 9818
URI: https://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/id/eprint/9818

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