Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director for Louis Vuitton, made an important move for the multimillion-dollar fashion house last week by casting Jaden Smith as the new face of the company’s womenswear line.
The 17-year-old rapper/actor/Twitter philosopher is already widely recognized by his gender-bending apparel. He wore a minimalistic black and white dress to friend and Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg’s prom and to Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. While at both, he not only looked chic but also comfortable. Besides the occasional bigotry we left in 2015—cc: gossip blog Bossip, that published an article beginning, “Dude, You’re a Guy…”—original reactions from millennials/progressives initially mirrored my own. Smith received praise from actor/DJ/love of my life Ruby Rose, his sister Willow Smith, and various publications across the U.S. But more criticism arose when the conversation shifted to that of transgender territory and trans erasure.
Let me begin by saying I am very aware of my place and privilege as a cisgender woman, meaning a person whose self-identity conforms with their biological sex, and this fostered my initial apprehension when I disagreed with the overall argument presented in a trending article published in The Independent. The article was written by author Katie Glover, and presents the idea that selecting Smith as the new face of womenswear works toward trans erasure.
The pull quote of this article reads, “People like Jaden are starting to wear the trans uniform without actually stating that they are transgender, and they’re claiming it for themselves under the guise of gender-neutral fashion.” Firstly, the LV apparel was very much “women’s” clothing, not an attempt at describing itself as “gender-neutral.” But more importantly, to assert that it is wrong for someone who may still identify as a man to wear women’s clothing and claim that he's somehow encroaching on transness is counterintuitive. If anything, that argument is belittling to those who choose not to conform to a single gender or those who don’t let their gender dictate their apparel. With Smith it is not a costume, but an intrinsic and integral aspect of both his character and wardrobe choice.
I also understand that a large role of gender identification goes into apparel, but womanhood isn’t prescribed through dresses and skirts. Glover’s sentiment is reminiscent of Caitlyn Jenner’s when she claimed during a Buzzfeed interview that the hardest part of being a woman was figuring out what to wear in the morning. Womanhood in its totality is hardly encompassed in a blouse and high heels. And while I concur that it is extremely difficult for a trans woman to express her own womanhood, I think it is just as important to remember what it means, and to remember that gender expression comes in various forms.
I am not saying straight men in skirts have it harder than a transgender woman by any means. I understand that yes, in an ideal world, Smith would definitely not be the figurehead of this campaign, per se. There are plenty of people who are pushing the envelop, challenging gender norms and advocating for breaking down the gender binary more so than Smith, but let’s also remember the industry we’re talking about and the reality of our world today.
Although I cannot personally speak for the esteemed fashion house on how pure their intentions are, the statement alone is undeniably turning heads, facilitating dialogue, and in a sense saying, “Wear whatever you want.” Social constructs and norms are what assign gender to apparel. What is important to acknowledge is that Smith is not sporting gender neutral clothing—rather he wears, by definition, explicitly women’s clothing.
Louis Vuitton, as many fashion brands do, is using Smith’s celebrity status for recognition, but also for advocacy. Louis Vuitton selected him as someone who isn’t playing dress-up, someone who on a consistent basis dresses in “women’s” clothing. The young socialite even took to Instagram and posted a photo of himself captioned, “Went to Topshop to buy some girl clothes, I mean ‘clothes.’”
Model Sarah Brannon, who is featured in the same campaign, is branded as a “tomboy” in the modeling industry, due to both her beautifully boyish features and her affinity for shapeless silhouettes. Obviously this isn’t the 1950s and the idea of women in pants is not so foreign, but her ensembles feature shapeless tops or hoodies, beanies, and sneakers, items that, when combined, are generally seen as masculine. In a way, seeing her alongside Smith, even though she is also in womenswear, reinforces the idea that gender expression is fluid.
Both Brannon and Smith frequent spaces of privilege. Smith belongs to communities where it is safe for him to wear a dress or a skirt, which is not a reality for most men who do the same, especially in the transgender community. But for a multimillion-dollar fashion company, the idea needs to start somewhere—and to be frank, people will not only follow, but will also accept celebrities’ lead. Smith currently has over 2.5 million Instagram followers and over 5.7 million on Twitter, a virtual, yet very real group of people he impacts on a daily basis. Obviously, “cross-dressing” should not be an idea to profit from but instead a way for people to feel comfortable wearing whatever they see fit for their bodies. Trans women have been featured in large campaigns before, and although the representation could easily be much broader, this conversation is one that revolves more around gender expression than gender identity. If anything, this campaign helps to break down the gender binary that we’re working to get rid of in the first place.