Selling Reform, Sex, or Both?
by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
It’s finally getting cold outside. And having heard from my hipper friends about the wonders of American Apparel, I went to their website with the intention of snagging myself a pair of tights, or maybe a couple of pairs of tube socks, at an exorbitant but guilt-free price.
After all, American Apparel is not just fashionable. The company is famous for its struggle for immigrant rights. Its employees are paid $12 an hour, have access to English-language classes, and receive adequate health care - something virtually unheard of for people who may or may not be legal citizens, and make their living sewing t-shirts. Combined with the irresistible possibility of buying the same t-shirt in 35 colors, and still feeling fashionable, American Apparel is the dream of America’s semi-apathetic youth. We want to feel good about our purchases, but we don’t want to be inconvenienced. American Apparel delivers up a laudable message in the form of a comfy lamé leotard - we can be eccentric, but still conform, and virtuous, but not obnoxiously (read: visibly) so. What could be better?
Needless to say, I was excited for my purchase. But I am still in desperate need of leggings, because when I signed on, credit card in hand, I didn’t make it off American Apparel’s homepage. I was mesmerized by the parade of photos which slid past my eyes.
This is what I saw:
Close-ups of a purple shirt, pulled up to reveal the edges of the model’s breasts. Models leaning against the wall in leggings, legs spread, their arms crossed over their bare chests. Women contorted into strange positions, topless, wearing sheer stockings that did everything in their power to suggest nakedness. Women with their skirts pulled up to reveal elaborate garters. Models in a bathroom, draped over a towel rack and shot from below, wearing nothing but a pair of red panties.
And interspersed among these photos, as if they were completely normal, are pictures of American Apparel employees as babies, photos of signs from Los Angeles immigrant rights rallies, alarming border patrol trucks, cheerful American Apparel factory workers and, most puzzling of all, straight-on shots of the company’s founder and CEO, Dov Charney, looking beardy and unwashed. The few male models were also rather grimy looking, but fully clothed and surrounded by women in various states of undress. The women, I might add, were very clean.
This much was clear: American Apparel wasn’t selling clothes, it was selling sex. And it was using only women’s bodies to do so. But it was also trying to hide this blatant objectification within a cloying rhetoric of “immigrant rights” and “fair pay”.
The website likes to use words like “honesty” and “reform”, and sports pictures of similarly reform-minded L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s visit to the factory, smiling at the primarily Hispanic workers. The cause of immigration reform is, surely, just. But why must it be cloaked in the sexualization of women? To sell these admittedly expensive clothes, why do we need to revive the pin-up girl, and turn her borderline-pornographic? Why do women’s bodies have to be sacrificed to immigration reform?
A recent profile of Dov Charney on Portfolio.com sheds a little light on the practices of this very eccentric CEO, and his hipster-beloved company. Charney has been the subject of repeated sexual harassment lawsuits (three so far), and is unabashed about his company’s platform of sexualization.
His most shocking quote:
“That’s what a beautiful, intelligent woman wants, to go to dinner in a pair of pants that makes her look good. She’s on top of the fucking world. That’s what it’s all about. The pants! The pants! That’s all a beautiful woman wants! A pair of pants that takes her into a restaurant. She looks beautiful. She looks intelligent! She’s got a pair of pants! She’s on top of the world—and it’s the pants, the pants!”
Charney claims that fashion is about sexuality. And he claims that the “sweatshop-free” environment which he provides his workers is more important than the way the models are portrayed. But should we really need to be tricked into buying clothes that were made under decent conditions, by workers who were paid enough? American Apparel is lauded for its “generous” salaries, but in Los Angeles, that’s only a living wage. Charney’s supposed virtue is really just basic decency, and reveals his essential superficiality and misogyny. All a beautiful woman wants is pants (they do make me feel smarter!)? And all a beautiful man wants is grime and kooky glasses? Because that's what American Apparel seems to be offering men.
The culture of American Apparel is to create what are really kind of boring clothes (they’re cotton, so what if the colors are a little unusual?) and convince the buyers that they are purchasing an edge, that they are purchasing sex. And as for the righteous feeling that American Apparel wants you to have when you buy their clothes - just remember that the workers are just getting the treatment that they deserve. And it’s women who are losing.