The fashion industry is based on revolution every six months, but I am often shocked by how little changes. The phrase Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose describes it perfectly.
It is the most politically incorrect, backward, intolerant, and prejudiced industry you could ever choose to work in–except for maybe the Hollywood film industry. It is riddled with “isms”. In one of my classes last week I broached this matter with a group of students, average age: 21. I showed images to prompt discussion on these “isms”, some of which are simply pesky annoyances, while others are appalling invasions of human rights. It was a discussion admittedly somewhat superficial on topics that require much more thought and dialogue. Definitely more of an expanded knee-jerk reaction–much like many of the responses within the fashion industry.
Here’s a snapshot of what went down:
Daphne, in her mid-80s, grandmother and widow, became a successful model at the ripe old age of 70, has said she would not get Botox or plastic surgery, and is exactly 50 years older than Madonna was when she wore the same Gaultier-designed outfit on her Blond Ambition tour.
Class verdict: The image was distasteful, unpleasant to look at. Some allowed that if it was what she wanted to do, then fair play to her. But they didn’t need to see it.
By all accounts, an elegant and well-preserved older lady. Class was in agreement. Many of them mentioned their grandmother.
Unanimous disapproval. The sound was like a crowd of spectators at a sporting event reacting to a bad foul. One said she looked like she was “about to do the nasty.” Another declared, “There’s no need for that.” I observed a room of disgusted faces.
During a long stretch from the late 90s to mid 00s, we became used to models more or less looking the same. One face was equal to the next. Dispensable and replaceable. All personality was stripped away. The idea often put forward by designers is that a model should be like a blank canvas ready to be painted.
Class response: The general consensus–I’m paraphrasing here–was “Hell, yeah!” Standing out is the clarion call in design school; it was even back in my day. (Of course, many of the students I teach have pink or other synthetically colored hair and piercings, so how much they really stand out is a question for another time.)One guy responded to this photo with: “I thought she looked really cute until I saw this.” But interestingly, it was the females who objected most vociferously to the underarm hair. “For a start, there’s the hygiene factor,” reasoned one. A girl in the back far corner said “I’m in a long-term relationship, my boyfriend sees me like this all the time.” “Not a chance! Never!” responded all the other females in the room.
On the news we have heard talk of the emergence of a new African-American Middle Class. I showed the class this photograph from Prada’s runway show Fall 2008.
Several students said they were unaware of this fact about Prada. Otherwise the class remained quite quiet. I asked eventually if it changed their view of Prada. One girl said she would not look at them anymore, and wouldn’t buy anything from them, even if she could afford it.
One student said it was disappointing that Vogue Italia felt the need to label it, the “Black Issue.” I had a copy of the current issue of Vogue US, the cover of which proclaimed a “new era of diversity” on the catwalks and featured cover girl, Rhianna.
One student, African American male, said this “diversity” was just a trend, a fad. Another noted with interest the new face of the ad campaign of Prada’s second line, Miu Miu: Lupita Nyong’o.
In the US, unlike the rest of the fashion world, there are two types of catwalk models. There are the usual skinny girls, those faces of the moment who open or close the big shows and who we see in all the important editorials and on magazine covers. The second group contains the skinny models with boobs: the Victoria’s Secret catwalk girls. Their earnings rival and even surpass those of the first group. The only difference between the models of the two groups is the possession of a set of boobs. Kate Moss’s statement Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels still rings true throughout the fashion industry.
The average American woman is a size 12/14. The average catwalk model is a size 2/4.
The term “Plus Size” is no longer acceptable in the fashion industry. The correct description is “Curvy”. The class approved of this change and agreed Tara was beautiful. Cindy Crawford at her supermodel weight would fall into the Curvy category today.The above comment drew gasps from the class. I told them I had heard such comments often on fashion shoots. Within earshot of the model in question. More outrage.
The students’ reaction to this image was less clear-cut. Some found her skin color troublesome, others thought the background blue might be at fault, perhaps even the red hue of her hair. The impression was that there was something not quite right about this image. When they compared Beth with Tara, they considered Tara healthy looking, implying that Beth wasn’t.
I told my students that I got along better in the industry when I lost 10 pounds. I still performed my job as well as I had done before but I received more recognition for it when at a lighter weight. They looked thoughtful but said nothing.
In the fashion industry, all kinds of complicated sexism is at work. It’s an industry in which mostly men tell women how they should look. This alone can be a thorny issue. Everyone agreed that this model was beautiful. One girl commented however that her face was just like every other typical blond face. One girl said that although she was skinny, at least she had curves.
I agree I have been a little manipulative in how I have presented this category. By one student’s reaction I could see she knew immediately the model was male and I put my finger to my lips to silence her. The remainder of the class was initially shocked at the reveal. Many then commented that he made a beautiful woman. An interesting discussion followed in which the females expressed concern that we have come to a stage where we are not only comparing ourselves to impossible standards of womanhood but now we are comparing ourselves to males. Their final opinion encapsulated in one student’s comment seemed to be: “this is normal in the fashion industry.”
I hope it doesn’t come across that I think fighting to retain pink hair is on the same level as struggling to be accepted for your skin color. I really hope there is no insensitivity in this post. I am offering up a series of random examples of how often the fashion industry rejects diversity. From the most petty level right up to gross prejudice. And yet, once in a while, as in Andrej Pejic’s case, diversity is embraced.
I have tried to draw conclusions from these interesting conversations. They might be crass conclusions derived from minimal research, in a design school at the centre of a culturally diverse city such as New York, and rather on the general side, but I thought they were interesting enough to share.
1. While Jessica Lange is introduced as the new face of Marc Jacobs Beauty or 62-year-old Jacky O’Shaughnessy poses in a leotard for American Apparel, 21-year-olds believe growing old and attempting to be sexy is unacceptable. It’s pretty icky, actually.
2. Females are more offended by the idea that they grow body hair than the males they shave it off for.
3. While I see some encouraging results towards eliminating racism in the fashion industry, probably emanating from the pressure put on the CFDA by the new Diversity Coalition headed by Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and Iman, this new generation of professionals entering the fashion industry is not so optimistic. They believe that racism will continue because they have seen incentives like this before fade away just like other fashion trends.
4. Being curvy, even having rolls, is considered beautiful if it looks healthy. Healthy seems to mean caramel skinned, or tanned, but not milk bottle white.
5. The younger generation is accepting of all gender play within clothing. They see evidence of cross dressing at school every day.
By far, Daphne Selfe received the most disapproval. Maybe ageism occurred in my classroom because it is the issue the students feel farthest removed from. When you are 21, you cannot possibly imagine how it must feel to be 80. The closest thing they had around to old age was me! They felt safe to express their distaste openly.
I found it all so interesting. But I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the above…
My debut novel is a humorous look behind the glamour of the fashion industry. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.