A Family Affair: The Representation of Families in Fashion Advertising

Families and the depiction of family life have been a cornerstone of advertising since its conception. Stored in a box marked ‘for lazy advertising execs’, the image of the family quickly became a fail safe trick employed by brands time and time again to quickly connect to their target customer because everyone has a family, right? However, a lot has changed since the fifties and sixties when it was simple to portray a one-size-fits-all idea of family life. The decline of the nuclear family means that attempting to portray a family that customers can actually relate to is much more difficult and often leaves people questioning why they can’t recognise themselves in these ads, and why the hell everyone always has such a clean kitchen.
Other advertising concepts borne at a similar time already appear wildly outdated, particularly the gender stereotypes and sexism that dominated advertisements of the 1960s. With the Advertising Standards Agency recently vowing to crack down on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles claiming they had “costs for individuals, the economy and society”, is it really acceptable to continue to perpetuate outdated versions of the ‘perfect’ family which often feature similarly harmful stereotypes? Or perhaps it’s time to ditch these, too.
As well as the sexism often palpable in advertisements portraying families, they often feature unfeasibly young parents which raises another problem. Versace caused controversy last year with their Autumn/Winter ad campaign which featured supermodel du jour Gigi Hadid as the matriarch of a ‘modern’ interracial family. Hadid was 21 at the time of the photographs, an age which for one is unrealistic in relation to the age of the models posing as her children. But the real issue with Hadid’s youth in regards to her portrayal as a mother in the campaign is the message which accompanies Versace’s set of images.
Young mothers are constantly stigmatised in the media, often labelled as irresponsible and even as bad parents. As a result, many young families face a constant struggle to battle against the barriers which society imposes on them, and have to work incredibly hard to do so. Gingerbread, a charity which offers help and support to young parents, said that many young mothers it works with have been verbally abused by strangers, leaving them isolated and alone and even reluctant to leave the house. Experts believe that this discrimination is partly due to the misconception that teen pregnancy is much higher than it actually is, with the public still overestimating teen pregnancy levels by as much as 25 times.
So, while it is positive that Versace is not ignoring this demographic, in an advertisement that was said to depict ‘actuality’ it is unhelpful to suggest that young families can often be found strolling around Chicago/Bolton/Sheffield in their luxury clothes with not a care in the world. Of course, luxury fashion houses’ aims are to depict a sense of, well, luxury. But as such a global brand, isn’t it time Versace adopted at least a portion of responsibility for the images which they are creating, and how their messages may influence ideas of normality. Instead, their campaign created something which real young mothers would find alienating and that others would subconsciously adopt as a version of reality for teen mums.
Many people also put to question why the brand could not have opted to use a model that was in fact already a mother. Both Hadid and Karlie Kloss, the two models selected to feature as the mothers in the campaign, are currently without children and arguably, if Versace really wanted to apply a sense of ‘reality’ to their ads then perhaps they could have selected a model from the large number of whom have already experienced what it is to be a mother. Teen pregnancy rates are rapidly declining, with numbers having halved in the past two decades, they are now at their lowest levels since record-keeping began in 1969 bringing in to question again their choice of such a young mother. It seems that Versace’s decision was not actually an attempt to de-stigmatise young mothers but rather based on fashion’s constant obsession with youth equating to beauty.
It’s not all bad news however, as one brand who is consistently nailing the depiction of the family is Dolce & Gabbana. The Italian fashion house has used the representation of family in its campaigns for years and seems to have the ability to capture the sense of family in a way that advertisers strove to do back in the sixties, minus the stereotypes. Their images portray a range of family situations, from weddings to holidays, but without the previously inescapable sense of perfection (if you ignore the genes of the models that is). Their campaigns frequently feature families fighting and arguing. Finally, something we can actually relate to. Importantly, Dolce & Gabbana do not ignore the older generations of the family. There are grandmothers in D&G, now that’s something I can get on board with. Take note, Versace. Maybe there is still room for the representation of families in fashion after all.

Originally published by XXY Magazine
Available here.

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