The male gaze in knitwear design: the self, part 1

This is a continuation of the exploration of male gaze in knitwear photography. For the working definition of male gaze as I’m using it, click here. For the second installment, about the spouse as photographer, click here. For the third installment, about the crafter’s gaze, click here. For a discussion of the female gaze as I’m trying to define it, click here. If you are interested in contributing to this series, either as a photographer, or as a writer, please contact me.

My last post in this series said I’d be writing more “soon,” which turned out to be a terrible lie. I will be honest that the first reason was that I was having a lot of trouble composing my next post – this post. The other is the more broad and bland reason that I was busy with school once I got accepted and started attending. (BEST. THING. EVER. I will try not to gush about school too much in this post, but I love it unreasonably lots and I hope some of what I studied, including the male gaze, will inform this series as I try to slowly inch it forward.)

I’m going to focus today on an internalized male gaze combined with a craftsperson’s view of making. This internalized male gaze does not simply result in the appreciation of the female form, but also an insertion of self into an idealized female form. The pattern photograph that will sell patterns is often the one that allows the female knitter to place herself into a scene, outfit, situation that uniquely appeals to her. This hybrid view – female, male, and crafter – is one that results in a slightly different appreciation of form than any of these individual gazes if they could be isolated. An awareness of our own imperfections allow us, when we are inserting self into the frame, to appreciate imperfections in another woman. At the same time, we seek an idealized version of self that conforms to the standards set by the standardized (male) gaze, so ultimately, the photographs that appeal to us will allow our personal taste to flourish in imagination.

This post is structured to move from actual self to imaginary self, and as illustration, I’m going to show you some photographs that I personally find appealing for various reasons.

Me, only better.

This is a photograph of me, taken by my husband, for my ebook collection Jolie with Pointy Sticks. It’s one of my favorite photographs of me personally, but I don’t think it accurately portrays my usual appearance. I’m dressed up, for one thing, with my hair styled simply, but in a style that usually results in the clip falling out after a fairly short time. I have a string of pearls, as you can see, but I wear them very very rarely. I was aping styles I’ve seen in movies when we shot these photographs, and as a result, I think the picture is of a more glamorous me. Yes, I wear that dress fairly often. Yes, that’s my face and body. But it’s a frozen ideal moment in time in which I’m a better me – one that better conforms to a vision of femininity that appeals to me. My own taste tends toward a somewhat retro vibe influenced largely by classic Hollywood movies. When I’m seeking out a project to knit (in my imaginary abundant spare time), I tend to gravitate toward photographs that represent a similar aesthetic – one that is very male gaze created, but that evokes a time now past. The past is what lends an air of elegance and formality to styles that may not have been seen as “dressed up,” but simply “dressed” in their own time.

I am very attracted to the designs and photographs of Andi Satterlund of Untangling Knots. Andi has a gorgeous retro style replete with a lot of the cropped pullovers and cardigans I love.

Andi, wearing her Chuck sweater.

The view in this photograph is also idealized. I don’t have the lovely dress worn with the sweater, knit in an orangey red I love, but I kind of wish I did. The beauty represented by this picture is one I’d love to replicate in my real life, however unrealistic a prospect this may be for me personally. When I look at this picture, I tend to imagine myself in this sweater and moreover, in this scene and the life it represents, one where I’m always well dressed and in beautiful settings. Because I’m a knitter, because I could in theory purchase this pattern and the yarn and knit this sweater, it feels tangibly close. I might not look just like Andi if I did so, but I’m able to capture some of what I love about this picture by making myself some of this picture.

What I want to note here is that both of the pictures I’ve shown so far are rather passive. Neither Andi nor I am doing anything in these pictures. We are decorative. The important thing is what we look like, not our actions. In other words, we are presenting ourselves as objects of gaze. This is important in this analysis because part of the male gaze inserts the man presumed to be viewing the scene into a character who acts. In fashion photographs this can be negated at times, but in the movies, in commercials and still ads aimed at a male audience, the avatar for the viewer tends to be someone who is doing something.

I did an analysis of a scene in the movie Double Indemnity during my last school semester, and the scene I chose was one where the viewer was implicitly understood to see [him]self as Walter, the main character portrayed by Fred MacMurray, while Phyllis, Barbara Stanwick’s femme fatale, is the object of gaze. What I think is interesting is that when we choose to replicate a retro style, part of that retro style is the passive woman as object of gaze. We don’t consciously think that we need to be passive when we pose for a retro photo shoot, but the pose itself is part of a gaze created by the movies of the same period as Double Indemnity.

Are we the big strong man in this picture or the tiny lady hanging from his shoulder?

I’m not being entirely fair in this, because fashion photographs, especially those meant for craftspeople, have to include details that might be harder to see in a more action packed pose. But it is entirely possible to create a narrative of a female main character who exists for more than gaze without losing details that a knitter would want to see. I refer you to the oeuvre of Lee Meredith of Leethal.

Lee in Parallel Lines, one of the patterns from her music-themed ebook, Remixed.

Even in still, posed photographs, Lee’s patterns demonstrate a dynamism that is incredibly appealing. When I imagine myself as a character in a Leethal pattern, I’m not just imagining what I would look like, but also the activities I might be doing, the sort of person I might be. Lee’s photographs are posed for the crafter, but the female character they create and recreate is a protagonist, someone who exists to do rather than to be seen. That doesn’t mean that the being seen part is neglected entirely, but neither is the look of the main character neglected in the typical male gaze scenario that imagines a male protagonist. The avatar we select for ourselves is typically a better version of ourselves, and that includes how we look, but the difference between these scenarios lies in what the protagonist’s purpose might be. The passive object exists to be seen while the active protagonist exists to do.

Lee in Robin, a shawl pattern

I want to point out that this dynamism is not absent in the above photograph, which is still in more ways than one. The shawl itself, with its dramatic lines, suggests movement, but the pose is also one that allows Lee to look at the viewer rather than simply being observed. Even though Lee is not moving herself, is not holding anything, is in a setting which is sterile and empty, she is still active in this shot. Her gaze means that she is not relegated to the passive. While the photograph certainly invites us to imagine ourselves wearing a beautiful shawl, the gaze in the photograph also offers an opportunity to be the sort of bold person who does not look away when she is looked at.

I have had offers to use photographs by more of my favorite designers and I really want to do so, so I’m going to break this post into multiple parts to offer a chance to assess more pictures and talk about how we insert ourselves into them. Thank you to everyone who has contributed photographs to this project, and as before, I want to re-extend my offer for guest posts in this series. I’d love to hear what other people have to say about this!

Posted in Feminism, Knitting, Male Gaze
One comment on “The male gaze in knitwear design: the self, part 1
  1. Natalie says:

    I was *just* thinking about the series of posts you were doing earlier this week, and then I saw you’d done another one. Very interesting, as always.

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