Industry Insights: Claire Rothstein on the female gaze in fashion and advertising

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The luxury fashion photographer and founding editor of Girls. Girls. Girls. Magazine considers how her signature aesthetic of sex and glamour fits into the wider conversation around women’s representation

High-octane glamour and old-school opulence ooze from the imagery of Claire Rothstein. She’s shot covers for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Tatler and PORTER Magazine, and her commercial client list includes the likes of Chanel, Jimmy Choo, Ralph Lauren and Bulgari. But it is as the founder, editor and photographer of independent fashion title Girls. Girls. Girls. that Rothstein’s work shot to viral fame. First, in 2018, with an image of cover star Rachel McAdams dripping in diamonds and Versace while wielding a breast pump, and again in 2020 with a short film starring Cynthia Nixon – titled Be a Lady, They Said – mocking the myriad cultural double standards to which women are held. Last time Rothstein checked, the film had garnered over 50 million views.

In the industry, Rothstein is known for her sumptuous editorial spreads of seductive women: models steeped in deep crimson lipstick and thick emerald eyeshadows; cascading jewels and enveloping furs. At once ultra fierce and intrinsically playful, her photographs indulge the ultimate feminine fantasy, intended as a hyper-real space for roleplay and dress-up; a mischievous escape from life’s mundanities. But with a career that has taken shape at a pivotal moment for women’s representation in the media, the photographer has been no stranger to criticism. 

© Claire Rothstein.
© Claire Rothstein.
© Claire Rothstein.

“I am an advocate for women in any form. But my art isn’t about ‘real’ women. It’s not supposed to be taken seriously. It’s fine for people to want to see more realism — but Girls. Girls. Girls. isn’t the place you’d come for that”

© Claire Rothstein.

Rothstein had to defend herself last year after the Be a Lady film – and, by extension, her imagery – garnered judgement for upholding the same unrealistic beauty standards and sexually objectifying lens that have dominated the fashion and advertising industries for decades. The Rachel McAdams shot was questioned for depicting breastfeeding as a “glamorous” act. 

“I am an advocate for women in any form,” Rothstein says. “But my art isn’t about ‘real’ women. It’s not supposed to be taken seriously. It’s fine for people to want to see more realism — but Girls. Girls. Girls. isn’t the place you’d come for that.” The debate seems to encapsulate what journalist Charlotte Jansen calls thecultural predicament of the age of the female gaze”. After centuries of viewing the world through a man’s eyes, how should we look at women? 

Certainly, as new generations of female photographers have pushed their way to the industry’s forefront in recent years, representations of women in front of the camera have shifted. Subversions of conventional female beauty standards – raw, earnest, seemingly unpolished women; ‘real’ women – have burgeoned in campaigns, which is, by all accounts, a victory. The question is whether or not that, because (male-led) mainstream visual culture has historically used hard-line femininity and sex appeal to disempower women, the two are by default mutually exclusive with feminism. “I’ve realised this past year how divisive the world has become with its opinions, and how we’re forced to prescribe to binary ways of thinking,” Rothstein says. “But saying feminism has to be enacted in one way is the antithesis of feminism itself… And the fact is that not everything’s black and white. There’s a lot of grey in between.”

In any case, it’s worth noting that – while there’s no shortage of them – it isn’t just young, thin, white women who are allowed to be part of Rothstein’s fantasy. The pages of Girls. Girls. Girls. are graced with a range of sizes, races, ages and features, from Tracie Ellis Ross to Vanessa Hudgens; Precious Lee to Rose McGowan; Denise Bidot to Sophia Hadji Panteli, and Ajak Deng to Jan de Villeneuve.

© Claire Rothstein.
© Claire Rothstein.
© Claire Rothstein.

Given her trajectory, it’s somewhat surprising that Rothstein started shooting just five years ago, after nearly two decades as an industry hairstylist. “Glamour wasn’t in at the time,” she remarks. “Everything was Birkenstocks and socks. I remember as a hairdresser thinking, ‘If I have one more shoot where I have to do natural hair, I’m going to scream.’” Aesthetically inspired by her mum – who had been a model in the 80s, when it was “all dynasty and shoulder pads and eyeshadow” – the photographer missed the fun and frivolousness of eras gone by. And editorially, she simply wasn’t prepared to compromise on what she wanted to shoot.

“I didn’t want to shoot for publications where they’d tell me I’d have to dial stuff down, or that lipstick was too much,” she says. Having changed careers relatively late in the game, she felt she had little time to waste. Starting out as a photographer would require significant investment of time and money into building a portfolio to sell herself anyway — so instead, she put that time and money into her own publication. Girls. Girls. Girls. was born in 2018, soon growing Rothstein’s profile as an editorial and commercial photographer exponentially.

“Nice” as it was, the astronomical reach was never expected, she says. “Suddenly, rather than something that was a bit more targeted towards people who like fashion and glamour and our aesthetic, it went out to the entire world.” And so managing criticism became part and parcel of the job. On whether women photographers and commissioners have a responsibility to try to redress the fraught history of women’s representation in the industry, Rothstein maintains that “female empowerment” is always key. But “women have the right to choose to be empowered however they like” — including dressing up and being sexy.

For those who argue otherwise: “It’s just another double standard,” she says. “Another rule that’s put on us. You can’t win. Well, you can. Just do what you like.” 

claire-rothstein.com

© Claire Rothstein.
© Claire Rothstein.
© Claire Rothstein.
Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.