Any fashion lover of any gender will likely be able to agree on one thing: the fashion industry at large is geared far more towards women than it is toward men. In 2022, the worth of the global women’s garment industry reached a staggering $965.3 billion US dollars and is expected to reach as much as $1,207.4 billion by the time 2028 rolls around. In contrast, the men’s fashion industry was worth $506.2 billion — paltry by comparison. The question of why the women’s fashion industry is worth so much more than the men’s industry is one that we’ve asked for a long time. The answers that we’ve unearthed on our quest to explain the differences in the industry aren’t quite what you’d expect. Let’s take a closer look.
Women’s Fashion — Is It Really for Women?
Historically, fashion was always a woman’s sphere. If we look back to Victorian times, to the Roaring Twenties, and consider times as recent as the fifties and sixties, it is easy to see that the vast majority of most fashion houses’ budgets for marketing, design, and production were dedicated to one segment of the market: women. Some of the most beautiful and detailed fashion advertising in fashion history comes from the time periods we mentioned, but almost none of it showed men’s apparel and accessories.
Gloves, womens designer dresses, high heels, and underwear were all the staples of the fashion market over different periods of time. It’s interesting to note that although a lot of the clothing industry was focused on appearing to cater to women, men were more often than not pulling the strings behind the scenes. As of last year, only 14% of the top dogs at the biggest fashion houses in the world were women. Less than 50% of general womenswear brands were run by women in 2022 — and this is in the age of feminism and female empowerment. One would think that an industry that focuses so much more heavily on the products they release that serve women would be more female-driven.
To understand this dynamic, we have to take a step back and examine why men would want to be in charge of fashion at a corporate level. There are a lot of men in fashion because they love fashion — this is an undeniable fact. Some of the best designers in history have designed for both women and men and have had female muses throughout their lives. The facts we’re about to discuss are not an indictment of men in fashion but an exploration of how the male gaze has permeated women’s fashion at such a fundamental level and created an industry that women should be served by but which often functions in the opposite direction.
The women’s fashion industry is not only a huge money maker, but it has also historically been a way for cis-gender, heterosexual men to create and control an image of femininity that serves them rather than the women in question. Brassiers, garters, corsets, high heels — who mandated these garments that were historically and are currently considered symbols of feminine fashion? For the most part, these items were invented at the behest of men or continued because they provoked desire by achieving what men believed to be a pleasing feminine shape. High heels were invented in 10th century Persia for men who rode horses but were re-fashioned for women (including higher and slimmer heels) to give them a higher social status because of a pleasing aesthetic. The inventor of the brassiere was indeed a woman: bras came in to replace the even more constricting corsets that had been worn by women for hundreds of years. Both of these devices were intended to shape women’s bodies to appeal to the male gaze.
These examples show the hand of the approval of men in how women see themselves and, by extension, how they dress. The seeking of male approval by women is something baked into the fashion industry on a deep level — but it’s something that women are actively trying to correct on a daily basis for no one other than themselves. It is true that many women’s love for clothing is a personal expression of an internal sense of style; it would be dehumanising and completely untrue to say that women dress the way they do today and favour the clothing that they do solely because “men said so”. However, women have become increasingly aware of the idea of the internalised male gaze and even internalised misogyny that they live with, and that is inherent in the fashion industry in many ways. Once any increasingly self-aware woman begins to understand where some of her own fashion beliefs come from, she can begin to untangle her own sense of style and likes and dislikes from what has been taught to her in service of the male gaze.
In summary, we believe that fashion has historically been overtly female-centric partially because men have sought to control how women perceive themselves. This also extends to how they present themselves — partially because clothing is a form of expression that the female mind often favours more than the male mind does. The dynamics in the fashion industry are, thankfully, changing day by day. Women are taking up space because they want to make the rules for themselves or do away with rules in fashion altogether. We’re dying to see how women reclaim their space, their expression, and their sartorial sensibilities more and more as time goes by.