Fashion can be liberating. For decades, it’s been one of the key tools in challenging gender and broader social conventions. But fashion is also a source of control and repression — particularly when it comes to the body. A recent study suggests that as little as 15 minutes of looking at skinny women can change one’s idea of the perfect body. As someone interested in fashion, how much time have you spent looking at photos of skinny women on the runway in the last couple of months?
The idea that skinny is beautiful is often perceived as a given, yet in the last few years we’ve seen signs of a long-overdue change. Body positivity is on the rise, and, hugely, where it’s needed most — around the clothes we wear. Independent underwear brands like Marieyat and Base Range are embracing not only all kinds of sizes and shapes, but also the idea of comfort and the body’s natural particularities such as scars and stretch marks.
Sportswear giants (like Nike with their recent sports bra Instagram campaign) are finally admitting that you don’t have to be skinny to enjoy physical activity. In 2016, the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated U.S. — the magazine largely responsible for the idea of wholesome American beauty — finally featured models of different body size and shape.
Generally, “beauty comes in all shapes and sizes” seems to be the new banner proudly waving above all kinds of products and garments sold to women worldwide. In fact, since major global brands have realized the movement’s commercial potential, mainstream body-positivity campaigns are much more frequent than before.
Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” is over a decade old already, and this year make-up brand Glossier pushed the idea much further with plus-size models posing naked for their "Body Hero" ads. Undoubtedly, it’s a move forward, albeit not without awkward tiptoeing around the questions of retouch, inclusion and the concept of “a real woman”.
Despite the triumphant arrival of body-positivity on the pages of fashion magazines, advertising and the world of viral insta-posts (check Diana Sirokai recreating Kim Kardashian’s white swimsuit photos), fashion on the runway is still the domain of the young and skinny (and most likely white too). The politics of casting has been scrutinized in the last couple of years, mainly in relation to racial representation.
The lack of the different body types of course can’t be strictly classified as discrimination — but runway casting exposes both the stagnant idea of the attractive body and the mechanisms of power and control which exist not just in fashion, but in the larger part of the economy it drives.
This season it was New York where castings were different, if only slightly. Plus-size models walked for Chromat, Christian Siriano and Tracy Reese. Curiously, Rihanna who was herself recently internet shamed for being too fat, didn’t have anyone remotely different from the conventional model size in her Fenty x PUMA show.
But numbers aside, the shift of principle used in the casting was perhaps much more crucial. In their usual ethos, Eckhaus Latta cast their show from the collaborators and extended family which included Coco Gordon Moore, Alexandra Marzella, pregnant Maia Ruth Lee, Barbara Ferris and the stunning Paloma Elsesser. “Casting is a very important thing to show a range of bodies, sexualities, gender, diversity and races,” they told British Vogue.
The casting at Shane Oliver’s Helmut Lang debut made headlines: it was a fascinating crop of street cast kids and underground divas — and no instagirls. Once in while, personality and attitude were above the generic sizing parameters — which is perhaps the most forward-thinking approach to the issue.
But generally, why is the presence of diverse bodies on the runway so important? Catwalk imagery is one of the contemporary staples for shaping our idea of beauty. In a way, precisely because the standards on the runway are so strict, a model becomes a kind of contemporary goddess, and violation of the sacred often causes a backlash.
When Mark Fast put women of UK size 12-14 on the London Fashion Week runway in 2010, it made headlines in a few national newspapers, and his own stylist walked out of the job. The canons have to be broken — because realistically a size 12 body never moves the same way as the body of size 8, and the clothes would never fit the same way. It’s even more crucial for the emerging generation: at the age of 16, you have to see the proof that you thighs could touch and that your ass could exist — and there’s nothing wrong with it.
But in the end, any debate about plus size models in fashion usually missed one point, which is the very definition of plus size. Various modeling agencies and clothing manufactories use different standards to explain the term — but overall almost everything which deviated from size 8 is perceived as “too big”. Exactly this convention was one of the reasons for the backlash against the viral post by entrepreneur Robbie Tripp expressing love for his “curvy” wife. “She’s well within the American body type, which makes it all the more aggravating,” one commentator wrote.
The concept of the plus-size and the thousands of catwalk shots of skinny women are all part of the same unrealistic and potentially toxic idea of the norm — and it has too change, both on and off the runway.
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