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Project Runway: A democracy of identity

By Chris Kempf
On November 29, 2012

This autumn, I greatly enjoyed the tenth season of "Project Runway," the reality design competition hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. Most television programming is so vapid and artificial that extended viewing dulls the senses, but at least from watching "Project Runway" one can get a sense both of an individual's design aesthetic and of the process and technique by which that artistic world-view can be translated into a tangible product, all to the tune of Tim Gunn's erudite banter and advice. The final result of the season's competition was thereby the triumph of process over concept, of the meticulous construction of garments over a bold avant-garde vision. But whatever the decision the judges have made, this conceptual dialogue is an important one. "Project Runway" has, in this way, done much to reveal fashion design to national and international audiences alike as a compelling form of artistry capable of serving as a forum for this and other artistic debates.
What distinguishes this forum from others, though, is its accessibility to the masses. Fashion is unique in that it has a utilitarian design (pardon the pun) - the goal is to create garments that will actually be worn. Of course, the industry produces its fair share of unfeasibly intricate objets d'art, but the general appeal of a piece of clothing is the likelihood that it will be worn. Thus, fashion must appeal to all functional needs and artistic tastes. Fashion, as Tim Gunn points out, is a form of semiotics. Identities are reflected and constructed by the clothes that we choose to wear, and an ability to understand and enhance those identities lies at the core of the industry.
That is why it is particularly troubling to see fashion and design so often conflated with preconceptions about sexuality and gender. It is a rarity to see more than a trivial number of heterosexual men represented as contestants on "Project Runway" - and it is even rarer to see those men in the audience of the popular TV program. I happen to count myself among those latter few, but I fail to see why my attraction to women should preclude me from having an appreciation for fashion as an art and a business. Just as we generally regard sculptors, photographers, musicians and composers without this sort of preconception, so too should we look on designers.
How, then, to reconcile masculinity with a field so stereotypically effeminate? Perhaps we should not. The fear of having one's sexuality or masculinity called into question is not merely a contemporary problem, for it has infected the culture and history of American and most other human societies for thousands of years. But if masculinity cannot be made to accommodate the possibility for all forms of creative or artistic work, then it deserves to be discarded outright. A world in which people of all genders and sexual orientations with an eye for design and, yes, a passion for fashion could feel free, even encouraged, to get involved in this field would also be a fairer and a more productive one. However, given that so much work remains to be done in our society to secure a democracy of work and cultural emancipation for women and for the various transgender identities approximated by the acronym LGBT, this goal, alas, must be a far more distant one. When women and homosexuals and transgender people can take their rightful places at the construction site and in the corporate boardroom, then we can trouble ourselves with the paucity of heterosexual men in the fashion industry.
So until that point, "Project Runway" will have to suffice as the proving ground for a projected dialogue and synthesis of identities and sexualities. The relative stability of these socially-determined roles and hierarchies from a historical perspective is not likely to change anytime soon, but at the very least the TV program can demonstrate for us that identity and expression through all media matters, that they need not be predetermined or repressed, and that it is possible to be a peacock in a world of pigeons. And I think that the "Project Runway" mentor Tim Gunn, a former champion swimmer, a librophile, a student and a teacher of design and a proud gay man, demonstrates this potential perfectly. Given identity, social constraints and personal ambitions, his advice has scarcely been more apt: make it work.  

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