Op-Ed | Violence Is Not Pretty, But It Can Hide Behind a Pretty Face

Italian Vogue’s domestic violence-themed cover story proves that fashion photography is a powerful medium which can carry important messages, but it should have been stripped of its commercial credits, argues Mimma Viglezio.

'Horror Story' in Vogue Italia May 2014 | Source: Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia

LONDON, United Kingdom — Whilst I was going through the pages of April’s Italian Vogue and reading Katharine K. Zarrella’s argument against the domestic violence-themed, Steven Meisel-shot cover story, dubbed “Horror Movie,” I started thinking more than ever about an issue I am passionate about and on which I have spent some time in the past few years. Let me start by sharing some data:

Thirty-three percent of women in the European Union are victims of some kind of domestic violence yearly. Many die. Every three days in France, one woman is severely wounded or killed by the hand of a family member. Women worldwide aged 15 to 44 are more likely to die as a result of domestic violence than as a consequence of war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. Far more American women have died in the last decade because of domestic violence than soldiers who have perished in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer. Most violence against women worldwide, whether sexual or not, is committed by their intimate partners.

And last, but certainly not least, intimate partners commit 38 percent of all murders of women worldwide.

So, when we finally are made aware of this startling data and we realise that even a beautiful neighbour in our lovely and wealthy neighbourhood could be being beaten, as we speak, by her gorgeous boyfriend, or that our best friend is not telling us that she is mentally beaten, and often physically too, by her own husband… Well, then we stop for a while and we decide to act.

Domestic violence is too awful a reality to be ignored and it needs the voices of many people to make it real to lawmakers. It hits women hard everywhere. It is not only about child wives in India, unborn daughters in China or shame crimes in Pakistan; it is everywhere, socially and geographically.

I think that the discussion about May’s Italian Vogue should shift. The problem is not that the violence is staged, everyone is beautiful and the clothes are fashionable; the culprits are not the photographer Steven Meisel or the make-up artist Pat McGrath. The only problem is that there are fashion credits next to the photographs.

If a film director shot a movie on the topic, casting Charlize Theron in the role of a well-off banker who gets horribly (and secretly) beaten by her abusive husband, he would film her beauty and glamour too; the film would then be nominated for several awards and turn into an important piece of awareness and denunciation, but at the same time a piece of culture. So what’s different with Vogue? Well, with a film, the clothes are not credited to specific designers after every shot.

Therefore, Sozzani is right to assert that fashion photography is a powerful medium which can carry important messages. But to avoid offence, Vogue could have called it an “artistic editorial” on an important theme and avoided the commercial side of it by eliminating the fashion credits. The brands would probably have accepted it.

The fact is, violence is not pretty, but it can hide behind a pretty face.

So, I am grateful to Katharine Zarrella for saying out loud that this is no topic of glamour and beauty. And I am also grateful to Franca Sozzani for having the guts to put it in Vogue and push people like you and me to think about it. We might wake up from our indifference and start to act, or come out of our fear to denounce what we know or, even worse, what we experience. At the end of the day, it is thanks to this controversy that I felt the urge to write about this.

Mimma Viglezio is an independent consultant based in London.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. That’s not Karen Elson but Natalie Westling.

    Daniel Kleber from Bernau, Brandenburg, Germany
  2. thank you Mimma for your perspective and for raising awareness…completely agree with you that it would have been more correct not to assign fashion credits at the editorial…but either way, I am grateful to Franca Sozzani for addressing this unspoken about issue, to the society, unlike American Vogue, for example, which are sticking their head in sand when it comes to a serious issue.

    Olga Vladimir from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  3. We think alike! I wrote something very similar on my blog yesterday and I too wondered if people would take offense if a similarly styled footage appeared in a movie about domestic violence.

    Neharika Roy from Kharagpur, Bengal, India
  4. Sooo true these points. It would have been more subtle, elegant, to put the credits in the last pages of the magazine. In this case, the photos stand as beautiful photographic art with a strong statement…all of which comes thru, without the “commercial” element.

    Adrienne Jalbert from Rueil, Île-de-France, France
  5. Important opinion on a fascinating subject, I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of things Mimma Viglezio says. But while Viglezio thinks in this case it is important to remove the credits, I believe it can be equally powerful to sometimes really concentrate on them, to use credits to emphasize values in fashion and behind the labels it supports.

    Franca Sozzani and Steven Meisel have repeatedly done great job in raising the bar in the fashion world, building a system of values and references, quoting important societal issues. On August 2010 Italian Vogue published a controversially viewed fashion spread titled Water and Oil. Shoot by Steven Meisel and inspired by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it featured black-clad model (Kristen McMenamy) covered in oil or tangled in fishing net in an oily sea, among other images. The photos immediately caused a stir: was this glamorising the disaster or just a fashions poetic interpretation? The supporters saw it as a good example of fashions power to be political and the ones against argued that fashion should not mess with serious things.

    These debates are clearly welcome: why would it not be allowed to bring some content in the world of flat, commercial fashion spreads? But the important thing is, no matter how touching these photos (of Water&Oil) by Meisel were, the approach was still stylist and superficial instead of structural critique. The clothes of Water and Oil had no reference to the subject: the editorial was still an ordinary commercial listing of the companies it wanted to promote.

    One way to tackle this question could be to use more methodical, holistic approaches. Highlighting the processes and values behind fashion can deepen it’s content and as a result benefit the whole sector of fashion. People are increasingly interested in the whole lifecycle of the clothes: whether being specific design details; the conditions of workers; the source and production methods of the materials; the maintenance of a finished item; or end-use possibilities.

    Why not go a step further and – for example in the case of Water&Oil – shoot – use clothes that are made with modern sustainable production methods (like 3D printed zero-waste-clothes by Iris van Harpen&Neri Oxman; Issey Miyakes 132 5. –collection; AirDyed clothes; etc.).
    I understand that not all products mentioned are commercially available hence do not bring in advertisers, but I think it would be interesting to at least mix conceptually matching items among these beautiful, thoughtful editorials.


    Aino Korhonen from Helsinki, Southern Finland, Finland
  6. It’s an insult making fashion shots with these kind of theme

    António Frazão from Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal