You can buy the clothes -- just don't try to design them

Women are having trouble getting ahead in -- of all places -- the fashion industry.

Published December 9, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

This week's New York Times Thursday Styles section ran a hard-hitting exposé on the glass ceiling plaguing an unlikely industry: fashion. Apparently -- gasp -- the profession is dominated by gay men, and the gals can't get ahead. I started reading the article with a bit of an eye roll; there seem to be many more household-name female designers than female CEOs in other industries, so aren't women in fashion faring better than their less glamorous counterparts? And do I really have to care about the plight of slender, fabulously turned-out fashionistas who get to go to Milan, Italy? I'm too busy being jealous of them.

Once I actually read the story, though, I went from zero to outraged in about three paragraphs. Times writer Eric Wilson reports, "The Council of Fashion Designers of America, a trade group that vets those who apply for membership, is made up of 121 women and 156 men. Since 1986 its annual Perry Ellis awards for young talent have been given to 8 women and 29 men."

And the list goes on. "'Who's Who in Fashion,' a directory published by Fairchild Publications, is split 60-40 in favor of men, and 'The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion,' ... included entries on 36 female and 69 male designers." This despite the fact that the vast majority of fashion students are women.

Certainly, the numbers for women designers are better than they are for, say, female hedge-fund managers or auto executives. But women are high fashion's consumer base. And it's not like sewing is something we've been culturally conditioned to expect that women can't do. Shouldn't this be one industry in which chicks have a fighting chance?

Apparently not. The article points to the perception that men -- especially gay men -- make better designers. The unbearably hip Tara Subkoff blames favoritism by Vogue editor Anna Wintour and asserts that "gay men stick together like a band of brothers." But buried halfway down the Times story's second page is what seems like the real reason, and actually, it should come as no surprise.

"Women still prioritize getting married and having babies," says Norma Kamali. (And she's one of the most influential designers of the 20th century!) "There are fewer women willing to give up the time that is required for this kind of career." Oh, jeez.

So, let us get this straight: Women can't hack anything as all-consuming as a job in fashion, mothers definitely can't take the heat, and all gay men are stylish (and clannish)? Time to give the industry's self-image an extreme makeover.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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