Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 4 - 2018

Enclothed Knowledge:
The Fashion Show as a Method of Dissemination in Arts-Informed Research




[This article was originally published in 2017 in Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 18(3), Art. 2, http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/fqs-18.3.2837]. 



In this article, I investigate the processes, benefits, and dilemmas of producing a fashion show as a method of dissemination in arts-informed qualitative research. I examine a project that used a fashion show to analyze and represent interview findings about men’s understandings and performances of masculinities. Fashion shows facilitate the dissemination of new qualitative data — what I coin “enclothed knowledge” — that is embodied and inaccessible through static or verbal descriptions. Fashion shows also enable participants to shape knowledge circulation and allow researchers to engage diverse audiences. Despite these benefits, researchers have to be mindful of ethical dilemmas that occur from the absence of anonymity inherent in public performances; therefore, I suggest strategies to mitigate these threats to research ethics. Ultimately, I argue that fashion shows advance social justice because the platform can transform narrow, stereotypical understandings of marginalized identities.



  • arts-based research

  • arts-informed research

  • clothing

  • embodiment

  • fashion show

  • gender

  • masculinity

  • participatory

  • performance

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Introduction for Republication


As fashion studies grows as an academic field, researchers are experimenting outside of conventional methodological boundaries. New projects have incorporated the same creative mediums used by the fashion system for research generation and dissemination. From street style (see LUVAAS in this issue) to co-designing garments (LAPOLLA & SANDERS 2015), this new wave marks a different approach from earlier fashion studies methods. Past work stayed true to traditions within specific disciplines. Historians used archival methods, sociologists used interviews, and cultural studies researchers used semiotics and discourse analysis. To have their work taken seriously by the academy, these scholars could only play so much. Methodological experimentation was beyond the realm of innovation because it was already revolutionary to explore the devalued and stigmatized topic of fashion. Yet these first fashion studies scholars made fashion a legitimate and compelling field of study and set the foundation for the methodological revolution that we are seeing today. This article contributes to the emerging dialogue on methodology in fashion studies (see GRANATA, 2012; JENSS, 2016). It was originally published in the multilingual, open access journal Forum: Qualitative Social Research — one of the first open access journals founded in 1999 — to engage scholars beyond our field in fashion as both a topic and method of inquiry. I am republishing the article in Fashion Studies to spark dialogue among my peers about new methodological approaches. I hope that this article will inspire fashion studies scholars to consider the potential of using the fashion arts in their research, and to then use this journal to share the opportunities and challenges that come with these new methodological experiments. My article evaluates the process of using the fashion show as a mode of dissemination in research on men, masculinities, and fashion. I ground my work in arts-informed methodology, an emerging paradigm in which researchers infuse the arts — alongside traditional qualitative methods — during data collection and/or analysis and/or dissemination (COLES & KNOWLES, 2008a). While arts-informed methodology has primarily been linked to qualitative research, its approach has been used by fashion studies scholars outside of the social sciences — even though they do not name it directly. Fashion historians, for instance, curate exhibitions to emotionally, sensorially, and accessibily disseminate their work to diverse audiences (see AYRES in this issue). Yet the potential and power of arts-informed methodology in fashion studies lies not in infusing an array of arts into our research, but instead in specifically incorporating fashion arts into our research design from the beginning of our projects. Designing clothing, taking photographs, and performing fashion shows extends our research from analyzing and critiquing the fashion system to producing counter-cultural artifacts based on our analysis and critiques. In this way, we not only question fashion culture but materially generate a new fashion culture through our research projects. Incorporating diverse sources of primary data, methods, and methodologies aligns with what GRANATA (2012) calls the “in-betweenness,” “multi-methodological,” and “inter-media” nature of fashion studies in which no one source is privileged but instead diverse ways of knowing are valued and combined.

       Executing arts-informed research might make some fashion studies scholars nervous. Like myself, many of us have no formal training in materially designing and making. Rather than dissuade our creative engagement, arts-informed methodology is an invitation to collaborate with creative, design, and practice-based scholars. We can reach across departmental and faculty lines to co-dream, co-create, and co-work with faculty and students whose expertise and practice are different from our own, yet also simultaneously and intimately connected through fashion. These collaborations not only expand the possibilities of research and enhance our learning, but also help us realize the aims of many universities and funding organizations to develop research that connect theory and practice and reach multiple audiences. We started this journal, in part, as a platform to share this type of collaborative work that honours diverse ways of knowing and sharing that knowledge. Fashion Studies bridges writing and making, theory and practice, and seeks to reimagine the fashion system. Arts-informed research that incorporates theory, data, and writing alongside the design of clothing, editorials, and fashion shows brings these too often siloed research and creative approaches together and introduces new fashion artifacts and images into the system. 




In this article, I investigate the fashion show as a method of dissemination in arts-informed qualitative research. I explore a research project — Refashioning Masculinity — that used a fashion show to analyze and represent interview findings about men’s understandings and performances of masculinities. Some scholars might be hesitant to use a fashion show in research, given that fashion is frequently associated with superficiality (ENTWISTLE, 2000) and commerce (HOFFMANN, 2009). Fashion shows and the clothing featured in them, however, construct, express, and embody lived experiences (WOODWARD, 2016a). To explore fashion shows as research dissemination, I first examine arts-informed research methodology and the potential of using fashion shows within its framework. I then describe the project and analyze the processes, benefits, and challenges of producing a fashion show to share research findings. 


I find that fashion shows allow researchers to share new qualitative data, enable participants to shape knowledge creation, and engage diverse audiences.

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Researchers, however, have to be mindful of ethical dilemmas and I share strategies to safeguard research ethics. This article therefore focuses on the processes, challenges, and benefits of producing a fashion show to share qualitative research rather than on its result. Through examining the fashion show as a method to share research, I argue that it can advance social justice. The fashion show is a platform where differences are celebrated and where diverse people engage in the performance of a common pursuit.

       My analysis of the fashion show contributes to an emerging paradigm in social research methodology in which scholars incorporate the arts. Scholars across the social and health sciences have recognized that the senses and embodiment are integral to how people understand the world and have begun to organize approaches to capture and communicate these multisensory modalities (PINK, 2015; RICE, CHANDLER, HARRISON, LIDDIARD & FERRARI, 2015). Researchers have drawn upon film, fiction, dance, and other artistic mediums as methods to capture human experiences and to communicate their findings about them (LEAVY, 2015; PINK, 2015). Over the past decade, social researchers have written increasingly about the diverse ways in which they have included the arts in their work, but contention remains regarding the specific terminology used to describe a research approach that uses the arts. The lexicology of terms is vast, and there is little agreement about the differences between the definitions and uses (LEAVY, 2015). While I recognize the diversity of concepts and the lack of agreement about them, I nonetheless draw on the framework of arts-informed research to situate the fashion show as method for research dissemination within the qualitative tradition (COLE & KNOWLES, 2008a). The fashion show introduces a new mode to share embodied and multisensory data, which can be used by researchers who study topics related to the body, embodiment, and identity, irrespective of how they define their arts-based approach.


Fashioning Arts-Informed Research


In the “Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research,” COLE and KNOWLES (2008b) organized and synthesized the emergent use of the arts in qualitative research. While these scholars were trained in traditional qualitative methods, they became disillusioned with how knowledge was defined and represented by the academy. They found that traditional qualitative research inquiry failed to capture the complexity of human experiences while the language of research publications made findings inaccessible to the public. Subsequently, COLE and KNOWLES articulated the tenets of a new qualitative methodology: arts-informed research. They define arts-informed research as “a mode and form of qualitative research in the social sciences that is influenced by, but not based in, the arts” (2008a, p. 59). In arts-informed research, the arts are combined with traditional qualitative methods during data collection and/or analysis and/or dissemination. Introducing the arts into research enables scholars to understand and share a more holistic understanding of humanity by respecting “the multiple dimensions that constitute and form the human condition — physical, emotional, spiritual, social, cultural — and the myriad ways of engaging in the world — oral, literal, visual, embodied” (p. 60). Arts-informed methodology also aims to influence the lives of people and the thinking of key decision-makers by engaging participants and making research accessible.

       Arts-informed researchers use all forms of literary, visual, and performing arts including novels, poetry, film, photography, dance, art installation, and performances. For example, arts-informed researchers have examined and represented the experiences of refugee youth through drawing (GURUGE et al., 2015); people with disabilities through digital filmmaking (RICE et al., 2015); and open-heart surgery patients through artistic installation (LAPUM, RUTTONSHA, CHURCH, YAU & MATTHEWS DAVID, 2012). As arts-informed research gains in popularity, there is growing discussion among scholars of how to address its unique ethical challenges (e.g., BOYDELL et al., 2012; COX et al., 2014). 


Although the fashion show has not been used as a method in arts-informed research to date, this artistic medium has been demonstrated to unearth and represent the richness of human experience.

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BUTTERWICK, CARRILLO and VILLAGANTE (2015) explore a research project that used a series of fashion shows to engage Filipino-Canadian women and share stories about their colonial histories and postcolonial experiences. By enabling participants to create, wear, and perform their lived experiences, BUTTERWICK et al. find that “the genre of a fashion show created space for telling complex stories about the colonization of the Philippines and how it is lived in the body” (p. 86) The authors also assert that their fashion shows created spaces for public pedagogy because the medium generated and circulated knowledge about women’s experiences.

       BUTTERWICK et al. describe the impact of fashion shows in research, but they do not analyze the process of creating them. The authors only examine the influence of fashion shows on the participants and audience through a range of qualitative methods implemented years after the fashion shows occurred. Without exploring the production process, the authors are unable to analyze fully the value of incorporating a fashion show into research and to advise scholars about the procedures of creating them to disseminate findings. BUTTERWICK et al. also classify their fashion shows as arts-based research. In the volume edited by COLE and KNOWLES (2008a), arts-informed and arts-based research are classified as different approaches: arts-informed research incorporates the arts alongside traditional qualitative methods, whereas arts-based research uses the arts as the primary mode of research inquiry and representation (COLE & KNOWLES 2008a; McNIFF, 2008). While I follow this distinction in terminology, I recognize — as I acknowledged in the introduction — that there is debate about the differences between arts-informed and arts-based research; in fact, arts-based research can be understood as the overarching term to describe all research that uses the arts (LEAVY, 2015). In BUTTERWICK et al.’s (2015) study, the authors employed qualitative methods to analyze retroactively the impact of their fashion shows rather than infuse qualitative approaches into its development. According to the distinctions outlined in the “Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research” (COLE & KNOWLES 2008a; McNIFF, 2008), BUTTERWICK et al. reveal the impact of fashion shows in arts-based research but do not explore its potential to disseminate findings uncovered from a qualitative inquiry.


Form and Fashion


COLE and KNOWLES (2008a) assert that the selection of an artistic form is a defining element of arts-informed research and they advise researchers to consider what form best expresses the richness of their data and how the form relates to the topic being studied. Given the importance of form in arts-informed research, it is necessary that I explore the fashion show as an art form in order to understand its potential for research dissemination. HOFFMANN (2009) examines whether fashion shows can serve as sites for social commentary by analyzing a fashion show from designer Hussein Chalayan that explored wartime migration. HOFFMANN’s analysis provides insight into the fashion show as an art form as she examines how Chalayan used its artistic elements to communicate political messages. She argues that fashion shows present garments by constructing narratives around them: these stories are created by adopting and combining various theatrical and performing art techniques. HOFFMANN also notes that the purpose of fashion shows is to disseminate new information from creators to consumers. Specifically, fashion shows are an entry point for designers to introduce new collections and trends to members of the fashion industry who then circulate them to the public through media and retail channels.

       Based on HOFFMANN’s analysis, I define the fashion show as an art form that presents clothing through narratives enhanced by the performing arts with the aim of circulating new ideas to the public. While HOFFMANN suggests that the commercial motive of fashion shows weakens their ability to share social commentary, she argues that the use of performing arts can rupture their capitalist foundation and communicate social ideas. Academics, however, are free of the commercial and retail imperatives of the fashion industry, and so can use fashion shows to share narratives about social research. Fashion shows in research would remain grounded in the purpose of this art form; instead of circulating new trends from designers to consumers, these shows would share new knowledge between and across communities. Fashion show narratives further operate through dominant discourses of beauty, glamour, and spectacle (EVANS, 2001). Although Chalayan’s audience attended his show for commercial reasons, HOFFMANN (2009) argues that he subverted their motivations by engaging them in political commentary. Similarly, researchers can leverage the associations of fashion shows to attract audiences who might otherwise not engage in socio-political issues and can subvert traditional fashion show discourses by performing a critical commentary about them. 


The clothes featured in fashion shows provide an additional art form to disseminate the human experience. Commercial fashion shows present clothes from brands but arts-informed fashion shows, with the aim of sharing qualitative research, showcase clothes from participants.


WOODWARD (2016b, p. 359) contends that everyday clothes “are central to understanding the sensual, tactile, material and embodied ways in which social lives are lived and experienced.” Clothing constitutes a personal experience of the body because it is “worn on our bodies” (WOODWARD, 2016a, p. 46), and it is a public marker of identity because it gives bodies meaning in culture (ENTWISTLE, 2000). As a visual signifier, “the dressed body is always situated within a particular context, which often sets constraints as to what is and what is not appropriate to wear” (p. 328). People feel included when they wear “appropriate” clothes, whereas they feel excluded and face social sanctions when they do not. While fashion shows function as artistic platforms to tell narratives, the clothes presented in them drive these narratives by sharing people’s experiences in, on, and through their bodies. 


The Project


Refashioning Masculinity was a two-year research project that explored how men’s engagement with fashion illuminated the ways in which they experienced, navigated, and reimagined gender norms. The project was theoretically framed by CONNEL’s (1995) concept of hegemonic masculinity: the most culturally exalted forms of masculinity within a system of gender relations. Based on patriarchy and dominance, hegemonic masculinity is hierarchically superior to all other configurations of gender practice — for example, gay masculinities (ibid.). I undertook research on men, masculinity, and fashion by following a feminist, arts-informed qualitative methodology. In research with men, feminist methodology seeks to illuminate and transform gender inequality (PEASE, 2013).


Refashioning Masculinity subsequently aimed to change how men understand themselves, each other, and gender in general by exposing harmful masculine norms and celebrating diverse expressions and embodiments of masculinity.


       Because men’s various identities inform their masculinities (BEYNON, 2002), I used purposive sampling to ensure the inclusion of diverse voices (PALYS, 2012). Participants were between the ages of 22 and 78 and reflected intersectional ethnicities, body types, sexualities, and disabilities. Recruitment requests were sent to social and professional groups as well as to my personal and professional contacts. I invited self-identified men from diverse subject positions to join the study. I encouraged men who wore a range of clothing styles to contact me, and participants did not need to have an interest in fashion. The final sample selection was based on diversity in demographics and sartorial presentations. During the first phase, I conducted wardrobe interviews with 50 men in their homes and used the contents of their wardrobes to prompt discussions (see WOODWARD, 2016a). Wardrobe interviews combine life histories and object interviews to explore how clothing materializes identity. This approach provides unique insights into how people think about identity when they talk about their clothes. Interviews began with a life history and overview of each participant’s fashion experiences. I then asked him to provide a tour of his wardrobe, describing the memories and feelings attached to his garments. With the help of research assistants, I audio-recorded interviews, photographed garments, and took field notes.

       An additional goal of the project was to examine the fashion show’s potential to analyze qualitative data and share it with the public. Subsequently, the second phase of the research was a fashion show — the focus of this article — that aimed to analyze and disseminate the interviews. All participants were invited to take part in the fashion show but only half of them agreed to do so. Once all of the interviews were transcribed, I analyzed them by using an approach that RICE (2009) employed in her work on women’s experiences of bodily difference: a combination of grounded theory and narrative inquiry. I first analyzed the transcripts through the grounded theory method in which research propositions are not specified a priori and findings are allowed to emerge from the data (CORBIN & STRAUSS, 2008). Interviews were coded to describe phenomena pertaining to the relationship between fashion and men’s understandings and performances of masculinities. During this process, I developed open codes by looking within and across the transcripts in an iterative process and using the constant comparison strategy. I then developed axial codes by grouping these initial codes into common categories and developing relationships between them. The result was a research framework that explained how men use fashion to understand and perform masculinities. As seen in Table 1, four main themes comprised the framework and each theme is noted in the column headings: men’s fashion influences, fashion motivations, fashion experiences, and fashion disruptions. I also developed corresponding sub-themes for each main theme. The sub-themes are noted directly under each respective main theme.



“Refashioning Masculinity” research framework.


       RICE (2009) asserts that grounded theory allowed her to discover commonalities across difference, but she also explains that this method fragmented individual accounts and did not allow for analysis of complex meaning according to each participant. By using narrative inquiry (CLANDININ & CONNELLY, 2000) as a second analytical lens, RICE (2009) preserved the coherency of individual interviews and privileged each participant’s unique ways of interpreting their experiences. Similarly, I used narrative analysis to capture the complexities, intentions, and agency embedded in participants’ accounts. I engaged in a close reading of each transcript of those participants who agreed to be in the fashion show and mapped their key stories (and corresponding garment images) onto the research framework developed during grounded theory analysis. This process enabled me to develop an individual research framework for each participant that corresponded to the general research framework. I noted the diverse ways that men’s narratives related to each theme and in particular that the experiences of many participants did not map onto all of the themes. By combining an empiricist grounded theory method with a poststructuralist narrative analysis, this analytical approach “shed light on social processes underpinning personal accounts, while illuminating [participants’] abilities to craft and maintain a sense of self” (p. 248).


Fashion Show Production Process


The research team and I met over four months to translate the interview findings into a fashion show narrative. The team included a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture and three students (one undergraduate and two Master’s) with backgrounds in fashion show and theatre production. The research team and I first decided that the research framework would be used as the fashion show narrative. The four themes in the research framework told an organized and chronological narrative of the contexts in which fashion influences men’s understandings and performances of masculinities. By starting with fashion influences, the audience first learned the various ways that men are taught about masculinity through fashion. Fashion motivations then explored how these influences affect men’s thoughts and feelings when they decide what to wear, while fashion experiences detailed how men’s chosen outfits influence their daily social encounters. Concluding the show with fashion disruptions provided an empowering culmination that illustrated how men use fashion to resist, rupture, and reimagine masculine norms. Each of these four research themes became a fashion show scene. To construct each scene, the research team and I drew upon the interview data to integrate participants’ voices authentically and to share fully the qualitative research findings in the fashion show.

       The students with backgrounds in production suggested that the fashion show should be no longer than 45 minutes to maintain the audience’s attention. The research team and I therefore had to reduce the list of quotations developed during the narrative analysis from approximately 40 per participant to 2. Using each participant’s narrative framework, we selected key quotations and, where relevant, corresponding garment images for each theme. We chose quotations that represented each man’s story and highlighted his unique experiences of masculinity based on his intersectional identity. Through an iterative process, we then reduced the number of quotations for each participant to two per theme, eventually removed the framework sub-themes, and finally selected four quotations for each participant. These four quotations were sent to the participant who was asked to indicate whether he was uncomfortable sharing any of them publically. The research team and I incorporated the men’s feedback into our final selection of two quotations per participant. We then mapped the final quotations onto the fashion show narrative framework, using the quotations to bookend each scene and frame an overall introduction or conclusion.

       The final fashion show narrative consisted of four scenes with an introduction and conclusion. Participant quotations were shared in two ways during the show. Participants had previously audio-recorded some quotations, and these recordings were played over speakers. Other quotations were typed out and live posted on Instagram. We used Instagram because the interviews revealed that social media influences men’s engagement with fashion, and our integration of this medium into the show enabled us to share the interview findings further. Instagram also allowed us to share more participant quotations during the show but still keep it within time limits. Quotations were not shared when the speaker was on the runway because we did not want to distract from his aesthetic performance. Instead, quotations were used to create breaks within and transitions between scenes when the runway was empty. Before the show, the audience was asked to download Instagram onto their mobile phones and follow a specific account. During the show, the audience heard a “ding” notification sound over the speakers that alerted them to refresh their feed. An image of the garment referenced in the quotation was included in the Instagram post. Figure 1 provides an example of an Instagram post from the fashion show. Each participant had a quotation in two thematic sections of the show and they took part in the same sections in which their quotations were placed.

       Throughout the production process, I experienced the strengths and dilemmas of using a fashion show to share qualitative findings. The next sections draw on my journey to analyze the fashion show in arts-informed research.


Sample Instagram post from “Refashioning Masculinity” fashion show.


Translation of Research


The first challenge was to find an ethical means by which to translate interview findings into a fashion show format because public performances lack confidentiality. Qualitative interviews guarantee anonymity to participants through a series of strategies, such as giving them pseudonyms in publications (KVALE & BRINKMANN, 2009). Arts-informed research using photography and performance often creates ethical uncertainty because participants are publicly identified through their likeness in visual outputs (BOYDELL et al., 2012). I provided confidentiality to participants in the written work that resulted from their wardrobe interviews, but the fashion show was a public event. The audience saw participants on the runway, and so their role in the research was disclosed. I also had a photographer and videographer capture the show, and the audience was invited to take pictures on their mobile phones and share them publicly on social media. I did not want to place black bars across the eyes of participants or blur their faces in these images.


Because this research aimed to empower diverse bodies and aesthetics, disguising participants would perpetuate their marginalizing and undermine the project’s emancipatory goals (ibid.). 

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The use of participant quotations during the fashion show further limited participant confidentiality. The recorded quotations did not identify the speakers and were not played when they were on the runway, and the quotations shared on Instagram only identified participants by their first name. Nevertheless, the audience could have connected participants to quotations because some quotations referenced the outfit that they wore during the fashion show. In other cases, audience members would know participants (they could invite friends and family to attend the show) and would be able to discern their voices in the recordings. The images posted on Instagram also featured aspects of the outfits participants donned in the show and in certain cases showed participants’ faces. Although participants consented to the absence of anonymity during the fashion show and in its subsequent images, these public artistic mediums prevented me from sharing certain findings.

       Participants were uncomfortable sharing stories in the fashion show that they considered intimate and/or that negatively depicted family members or colleagues. By eliminating these stories, I was unable to disseminate crucial interview findings about fashion and masculinity. For example, one participant, who is transgender, explained the role of underwear in his life:

"Underwear is important, particularly if I'm packing [wearing a phallic object to give the appearance of a penis] which is my normal way to be. I don't want to feel like my dick is going to fall out of my pant leg and that I'm going to have to think about it all day because it isn’t in the right place."

      This quotation troubles the relationship between sex and gender and suggests an important relationship between wearing men’s underwear and creating a male identity. However, the participant deemed “packing” too personal an experience to share in a public setting, especially with his family and coworkers in the audience. Research ethics requires researchers to avoid causing harm to participants (ORB, EISENHAUER & WYNADEN, 2001). However, arts research often exposes participants to types of harm beyond natures and levels that ethics committees typically consider acceptable because participants are vulnerable when they share their stories through the display of art (COX et al., 2014). Participants were given a list of quotations to approve for use in the fashion show; however, I eliminated quotations that I suspected might cause harm before the list was provided to them. I reasoned that even suggesting the inclusion of intimate stories might cause distress and discomfort, outweighing the benefits of sharing these stories with the participant for consideration let alone publicly.

       I also had to eliminate quotations that negatively represented participants, such as those depicting them as sexist or homophobic, from the list shown to them for inclusion in the show. For example, one participant did not like to wear shoes that “clip clop, like high heels” because it made him “feel feminine, and I don't like that.” This quotation reveals that the repudiation of femininity structures many men’s fashion practices, but showing it to the participant could have made him feel attacked for his position or preference. I therefore faced a dilemma: I had a duty to prevent harm to participants who agreed to be in the fashion show and I also had a commitment to feminist methodology that locates men in the context of hegemonic masculinity and patriarchy (PEASE, 2013). As a feminist researching male rugby players, SCHACHT (1997) argued that challenging interviewees’ sexist comments would have made them uncomfortable and ended the interviews. He therefore remained silent when participants made sexist statements because doing so elicited these comments and provided knowledge to challenge sexism. While I used SCHACHT’s strategy during the interviews, he was nonetheless able to share sexist remarks in print publications because his participants had anonymity whereas mine did not have this same protection in the fashion show. PINI and PEASE (2013), however, suggest that SCHACHT’s silence in the interviews provided tacit support for his participants’ sexist practices. In my case, I would be doubling my support of sexism: remaining silent during the interviews and the fashion show.