Analysis of Steven Meisel's State of Emergency

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Cultural and Contextual Studies (CCS) DE 1206A

Essay Question: ʻThe clothing-fashion code is highly context-dependent” – Malcolm Barnard. Choose one of the two images (refer to appendix) provided and use four to six factors from the Model of Clothing in Context by Mary Lynn Damhorst and theories raised in Ways of Seeing by John Berger to discuss how the factors and theories make up the main suggested meaning/s of the images.

Name: Teo Jia En Class: FM4A Student ID: 12565 Date of Submission: 25th February 2011 Lecturer: Lucinda Law

Steven Meisel is famous for creating controversial work. His works depict








Meisel often creates controversial layouts by juxtaposing fashion and politics and social standards. In the context of the given image, the September 2006 issue of Vogue Italia, Meisel adapted the concept of infringement of freedom and rights post-September 11 America, with the models portraying terrorists and highly trained policemen. It generated much press as the models were presented in violent compositions, which suggests them as being victimized.

Figure 1: Steven Meiselʼs Image taken from Vogue Italia 2006 titled “State of Emergency”

Perhaps the first impression that viewers gain from the given image (Figure 1) is that the woman in focus is victimized. The woman in focus is subjected to the male gaze. John Berger (1972, pp. 40) observes, “To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.” and “a womanʼs presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste - indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.” Viewers are under the impression that the woman in focus is of high societal worth and status. The woman in focus is dressed in a very tasteful dark dress and shoes that resembles a business womanʼs attire and her well groomed long hair that is straight but slightly curled at the end and the smoky eye-ed make up suggests that she is of a high social worth, one who has the ability to afford such detailed personal grooming. The personal travel documents such as the passport strewn on the ground also suggests that she is travelling or about to set off on a travel. Mary Lynn Damhorst (1999, pp. 80) puts forward that, “A wearer puts clothing, hairdo, accessories, and grooming together to produce an appearance and may assign meanings to that assembled appearance.” At the first glance, the image is confusing to the viewer precisely because the seemingly flawless presentation of the woman contradicts with the criminal position and situation that she is placed in. This is because viewers do not expect a well-groomed, high society woman to be suspected as a criminal and placed in duress; on her two knees with her hands on her head. Flanked by two security guards with their muscular and hairy arms, the aggressively barking dog and the strewn personal documents on the ground suggest that the woman was taken on by surprise, possibly ambushed. The positioning of the guards and dog is also too close for comfort. Joanne Bourke (2006) states, “It is no coincidence that the security forces are shown to be protecting us from a person who is neither male nor

CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


obviously Muslim. Instead, the terrorist threat is an unreal woman.” However the dark dress and long hair that extends across the shoulders with the dark smoky eyes also creates a subtle impression and association of a woman dressed in the Muslim traditional garb. Nonetheless, the contrast of the well-groomed woman and uncomfortable security measures highlights the ill treatment of potential security threats, such as a terrorist.

In the same line of argument, Meisel portrays the males in picture as aggressors. Berger (1972, pp. 40) puts forward, “A manʼs presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies.” And this promise of power is carried in the physical muscular body, police uniform, baton and accompanying dog in picture. (Figure 1) The muscular arms suggest the ability to exert strong physical pressure. The police are identified as such by their vests that are labeled with “Police”, baton and fierce dogs. These suggest police security at cross-borders platforms. The dogs that sniff out potential chemical threat such as bombs and drugs and the police guards that catch and detain these threats, with the baton as a potential weapon to subdue defensive threat. In the language of clothes, Alison Lurie (1992, pp.18) writes, “No matter what time of uniform it is … to put on such livery is to give up oneʼs right to act as an individual” and “The uniform acts as a sign that we should not or need not treat someone as a human being, and that they need not and should not treat us as one.” Hence the police guards and guard dogs are typically seen as representative of protector and security however in the given image constructed by Meisel, these protectors are put to question as their aggression is against a helpless woman. CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


In an interview with 032c, Meisel says this of his work, “Everybody interprets these things in their own way, but itʼs not my intended meaning. I am simply holding up a mirror.” Therefore to title the fashion spread, which the image is taken from, as “State of Emergency” suggests the post September 11 terrorist attack against the twin towers in New York global situation where all around the globe, security is on high alert against potential security threats and dangers particularly at cross-borders platform as an attack at such places affects international tourists, thus international relationships and creates high press publicity.

Figure 2: Post September 11 Airport Security Meiselʼs work is truly a keen observation at the current state of society. A comparison with Figure 2, a photograph of post September 11 airport security shows the similarity of police guards and security dogs that travelers and citizens are familiar with from the imagery that is frequently featured on national news.

CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


Figure 3: Abu Ghraib Torture Imagery A comparison with Figure 3, an image of the torture at Abu Ghraib prison revealed in 2004 shows a striking similarity through the use of framing and positioning of the guards and dogs. The images released in 2004 were highly sensationalized by international press all over the world because of the highly controversy content of the unjust treatment of the prisoners by the American soldiers. It is also noteworthy that the soldiers have used dogs as a form of aggression against the prisoners who were Muslim and fearfully against dogs. Naturally these images created uproar internationally against the ill treatment, cruelty and religiously insensitivity towards the Abu Ghraib prisoners, citing an infringement on their basic human rights. The release of this series of images on Vogue Italia also coincided with the Milan Fashion week as well as the week commemorating the 5th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York, hence fashion writers have identified Meisel始s work as a critique on Bush administration (

Meisel is well known for creating fashion imagery that also serves as social commentary. Notably in July 2008始s all black fashion spread that touched on racial bias as well as campaigning racial equality. (Cathy Horyn, 2008) Essentially, working for Vogue Italia, it is Meisel始s responsibility to create publicity for Vogue Italia始s partnering brands. To quote Berger (1972, CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


pp.125), “Publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.” Thus ultimately Meisel is in the business of manufacturing glamour. Berger observes that “Publicity … recognized nothing except the power to acquire.







homogenous, simplified, so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase. … The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product.”

Figure 4: Beauty in distress. Another image from Steven Meiselʼs “State of Emergency” fashion spread. Therefore no matter what position the model in focus is placed in, whether as a potential threat or aggressor in the fashion spread of discussion, she is depicted as a flawless individual, highly styled and glamourized. A look at Figure 4, another image from Meiselʼs “State of Emergency” fashion spread, we see that the woman in focus although in a position of great distress, she is still impossibly beautifully poised in the red dress. This is

CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


because she is someone the average individual can aspire towards. Berger (1972, 134) also suggests, “Publicity needs to turn to its own advantage the traditional education of the average spectator-buyer. What he has learnt as school of history, mythology, poetry can be used in the manufacturing of glamour.” Perhaps that is why Meiselʼs work is so intriguing and famous. He has the ability to use associations that the public that are familiar with and the use of such controversial topics – and subverting them - for his fashion feature that in turns brings great publicity for. Bourne (2006) says this in her review of Mieselʼs work, “Torture has not only become normalised, it has been integrated into one of the most glamorous forms of consumer culture - high fashion. In our current moral state of emergency, torture imagery has become fashionable.”

In conclusion, Meisel is undeniably an outstanding photographer and image-maker. He has repeatedly shown great talent and excellence in bringing social issues of note to the fore whilst featuring beautiful and fashionable clothes to the public. As Alison Lurie puts it, “Fashion is free speech, and one of the privileges, if not always one of the pleasures of a free world.” Meisel has used this right greatly to reflect the glaring injustices of a free world. Word Count: 1540

CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


Book References Berger, J., 1972. Ways of Seeing. BBC and Penguin. London. Damhorst, M.L., 1999. The Meanings of Dress. Fairchild Publications. New York. Lurie, A., 1992. The Language of Clothes. Bloomsbury. London. Online References Bourke, J., 2006. A Taste for Torture?. The Guardian, [Online]. 13 September 2006. Available at: ublishing?INTCMP=SRCH [Accessed 12 February 2011] Horyn, C., 2008. Conspicuous by their presence. The Guardian, [Online]. 19 July 2008. Available at: Published: June 19, 2008 r=1 [Accessed 12 February 2011] Alexandre, P. A., 2008. Who is Steven Meisel. 032c, [Online]. 2008. Available at: [Accessed 24 February 2011]

State of Emergency by Steve Meisel for Vogue Italia 2006. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2011]

CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


Image References Figure 1: Steven Meiselʼs Image taken from Vogue Italia 2006 titled “State of Emergency” [Online] (Updated 20 June 2009) Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2011] Figure 2: Post September 11 Airport Security [Online] Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2011] Figure 3: Abu Ghraib Torture Imagery [Online] (Updated 11 August 2009) Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2011] Figure 4: Beauty in distress. Another image from Steven Meiselʼs “State of Emergency” fashion spread. [Online] (Updated 20 June 2009) Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2011]

CCS Steven Meisel Essay By Teo Jia En FM4A 12565


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