I worked briefly in fashion — briefly, for a couple of years, because in general it’s not a healthy industry to work in, and I was privileged to be able to get out when my health required it. Still, the job was not without its benefits, and the fact is, I still enjoy it. I still like looking at the different collections and seeing how designers are interpreting different trends. I like seeing how other people put clothes together, since I’m not terribly creative about doing it myself. I like the pageantry. I like the sculpture. I like reading and snickering about the politics, because y’all, I could tell you stories, but it’s probably best that I don’t. I even like — although I’m not proud of it — looking at different designers and seeing what I can find secondhand for ridiculously discounted prices that would make the designer spit pinecones, and I tell myself it’s subversive but honestly it’s just consumerist. Clothes are so pretty, y’all.
And Jill is absolutely right that there is no shame in thinking that clothes are pretty. (This piece has been in the works since before hers came out, cross my heart.) She makes an important point that, like so many other things, fashion is seen as frivolous more because it’s a “woman thing” than for any other reason. Admiration of fashionable clothes is, overall, no more or less frivolous than admiration of fast/fancy cars or obsession with a given sports team. That cute new cardigan I got (cream, empire seamed, bishop sleeves) is hanging up in the closet next to my UGA football jersey, and I love them both, and neither of them will have any impact whatsoever on world peace. But only one of them will get me derided as a silly girl if I talk about it in mixed company.
But because clothing is something we can’t avoid — a guy can leave his midlife-crisis-mobile in the parking deck, but that dress is coming into the office with me or I might get arrested — we also don’t get to avoid the pressure placed on women who are forced into the game whether we want to be or not. We’re expected to dress a certain way, we’re expected to want to dress a certain way, we’re expected to care about dressing a certain way, and there are penalties for failure in every aspect of our personal and professional lives. If we care, we’re shallow. If we don’t care, we’re slovenly. If we try to care but do it wrong (“Nice knockoff Louis Vuitton you got there, loser“), we’re pathetic. There’s no winning, and there’s no not playing. So if fashion is your thing, you might as well fashion it up, right?
Is fashion feminist?
It’s a hard call, because a) the clothes an individual chooses to wear can be and frequently are very personal and selected specifically to make a statement, and b) frequently we don’t have access to the clothes we’d select to make a statement and are stuck making a statement we don’t mean to make, and c) the concept of feminism is so broadly defined that it can be hard to say exactly what does and does not qualify. But if we want to define feminism, at least in part, as “women’s equality,” it’s hard to square that with an industry that directly thrives on inequality. The reason the fashion industry works is that they have a steady population of the women who have what is being sold and the women who look at them and want to have it. Need to have it. Are compelled to have it, because society’s told us that we wear our value on our backs.
Money. As with any other industry, the fashion industry revolves around making money. But fashion enjoys a rapid turnover cycle: If you live in a place that gets four seasons a year, that’s three(ish) different wardrobes. And if you find yourself compelled to follow trends, you’re buying a new wardrobe every season. And since following trends is something that’s expected of us as women, shelling out for this fall’s trench coat (because wearing last fall’s swing coat would indicate that you just don’t care) is, in some cases, practically a requirement. (As an added bonus, last year’s coat was basically designed to self-destruct after about a season of wear, so you were going to need a new one anyway.)
That visible distinction — this is the woman who is good enough, and this is the one who isn’t — is what drives the industry. Designer clothes are meant to be not just beautiful (or, in some cases, not that attractive at all) but also recognizable, so the cool kids can recognize other cool kids when they see them and identify the kids who aren’t cool. When a designer won’t sell clothes at a price you can afford, it’s usually because then someone like you might buy and be seen wearing their clothes.
Resources. While sustainability is an increasing focus, the resources of fashion — materials and labor — continue to come at a high cost paid by people who don’t get to walk out and wave and then drive off in a Mercedes at the end of the fashion show. Textiles treated with toxic chemicals, garments assembled in sweatshops. Even in design studios, larger lines function on the work of assistants, buyers, pattern makers, pattern cutters, sewers, and tailors who often work long hours for not a lot of pay and no benefits — hardly sweatshop conditions, sure, but still not paying enough to be able to buy any of the clothes they spend their time making. To display the clothes, agencies import Eastern European teenagers — tall girls with great cheekbones and not a lot of money moving far from home for a better life — and cram them six to a two-bedroom “model apartment.” Designers pressure extremely thin young women to get extremely thinner, fitting them to the clothes instead of the other way around, sometimes paying them in clothes instead of money.
Bodies. And it is “bodies,” rather than “people,” because runway and print models aren’t hired as people, and the fashion industry isn’t advanced by treating them as people. They’re meant to be interchangeable person-shaped forms onto which clothing can be hung. And the forms are becoming ever smaller — over the past 15 years or so, the standard runway sample size has shrunk from about a 6 to about a 0, which even accounting for size inflation is a significant and unhealthy drop. But why? One study indicates that women are more likely to buy clothes when they’re shown on a model who looks like them, for an effect that is more inspirational than aspirational. So why would a designer want to make clothes a lot of women wouldn’t buy?
Designers like making tiny clothes. A size-0 runway sample requires less fabric and less sewing than a size-6 production sample. There’s less variation in shape between two size-0 figures than there tend to be at larger sizes, making it easier to find a body to wear it; there’s only one couture gown, but there are a dozen extremely slender women who are dying to wear it. And sadly, one of the expectations of a runway model is to be able to disappear entirely underneath the clothes — which is much easier in a body that’s already under pressure to disappear.
We also have to keep in mind that consumers aren’t the real target market at fashion shows. The VIPs in the front row are fashion editors, stylists, and celebrities — the stylemakers who will be telling you what to wear six months from now when the clothes hit the stores, who don’t particularly worry about whether they’d buy a given style because chances are they’ll end up getting it for free later anyway. It’s a kind of scary, insular world where you spend so much time interacting with others in that same small world, talking about the same things, obsessing over the same issues, that it’s easy to lose perspective and a connection with the real world.
That world is the target, and the collateral damage is monumental; extremely thin models on the runway and in the magazines present an unrealistic view of the female body for anyone who isn’t 5’10” and 110 pounds. A study by the Girl Scout Research Institute looking at the influence of the fashion industry and the media on girls’ body image produces sadly unsurprising results that three-quarters of the girls say that fashion is really important to them, nearly 90 percent say they feel pressure from the industry and the media to stay thin, and nearly half wish they were as thin as fashion models and see the women in magazines as a body image to strive for. The images they’re providing to us are making us sick — and they seriously don’t get it. To the extent that they notice it at all, they are completely blinkered to their own culpability in it.
Conformity. We shouldn’t feel compelled to look to others to influence the way we dress. We shouldn’t care about — well, no, fuck that. It’s what we do. We’re people; we look at each other. Sometimes we care about what we see, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we compare ourselves, favorably or unfavorably, sometimes we don’t. But I don’t buy the argument that we should never care what other people are doing, never care about superficial things, never want to be like the people around us. The pressure placed on women to conform to unreasonable standards is unconscionable; the pressure placed on women to measure up by struggling to meet some arbitrary superficiality is unconscionable; two women’s desire to put on matching sweaters and feel like they have something in common is commonplace. For some people, being unique is empowering, and for others, it’s lonely. If style or fashion or apparel in any of its many configurations doesn’t appeal to you in the least, I congratulate you on avoiding a major societal pressure; for the rest of you, I welcome you to the club. Maybe, in a world without that pressure, fashion can actually be feminist.
Can fashion be feminist?
Can fashion be feminism-neutral?
Can it at least be not-not-feminist? Is there room for fashion — like, fashion-fashion, like industry fashion — to not be harmful? Some things are neither feminist nor anti-feminist — hydrangeas, popcorn, bike helmets, water skiing, sustainable flannel. Is there a way to fix fashion until it’s reduced to stamp-collecting-esque hobbyist level?
That would be awesome.
Money. Many designers have started realizing that they might be able to sell more product if they can sell to more people. Whether it’s financial in nature or simply out of a desire to Connect with the Masses — I’ll let you guess which one I think — more and more designers are introducing diffusion lines, offering lower-trim versions of their popular clothes at a more attainable price in more attainable locations. Target started with Isaac Mizrahi in 2002 and has since brought in capsule collections by Zac Posen, Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, and other big names at budget prices. H&M has done Versace and Stella McCartney. Kohl’s offers Vera Wang’s Simply Vera line and had a collection from Narcisco Rodriguez last fall. They’re still not cheap — an item from Isaac Mizrahi will still cost about half again as much as a comparable store-brand item — and of course buying clothes just because of the name on the label is less than ideal, but attainable price points and extended sizes make it possible for women who have been excluded from fashion to become included, which is always good, even when it’s not great.
To that end, fashion publications can become more conscious of their always-popular Splurges and Steals. Offering cheaper alternatives for women who want to wear high-fashion looks without high-fashion budgets is admirable. But the woman who can’t afford a $1,350 handbag still may well struggle with a $250 bag, or $215 shoes, or $120 of sunglasses to drop and then sit on. It’s great to recognize that fashion is often aspirational and that your audience is likely far removed from the high-fashion crowd; just be aware of exactly how far they are. At keystone, your $100 “steal” blazer represents maybe $25 of actual materials and construction; try to find your readers more value in addition to less cost, okay, magazines?
Resources. Designers need to insist on ethically sourced materials and labor. There isn’t a whole lot consumers can do as individuals at the high-fashion level to enforce this — Gucci could give two shits if I decide not to spend half a paycheck on a pair of slingbacks — but positive reinforcement by publicizing and rewarding ethical, sustainable practices could entice them to cut into their profit margin just a little to focus on responsible manufacturing without raising prices overmuch. We’re not all in the position to vote with our dollars — the most ethical brands are frequently the most expensive — but even the occasional “Hey, did you know Edun uses only sustainable, fair-trade cotton through their programs with farmers in Uganda?” can help draw attention to the stuff that hurts and the stuff that helps.
Where models are concerned, weight or BMI restrictions put the onus on them to maintain a healthy weight in an industry that constantly pressures them to stay thin. Give a model the choice between making weight and losing that extra half-inch off her hips to make it into a designer’s narrow-cut dress and see if she doesn’t starve off the weight and then hide a roll of quarters in her hair at weigh-in to make up the difference. Instead of pressing young women to be simultaneously thin enough and heavy enough, just freaking offer bigger clothes. Restricting runway samples to no smaller than a 4 or 6 — currently the standard for editorial and showroom samples, so it’s not like the industry lacks the infrastructure to knock together a bigger dress — could relieve the pressure to fit into a 0 and even encourage healthy habits that would allow a model to maintain a size that is healthy for her and still find work. The extra money spent on fabric would be offset by the decrease in young women literally dying from hunger for fear of losing their jobs.
In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America established their Health Initiative, educating the industry about eating disorders, offering help for models with eating disorders, and encouraging healthy backstage environments and responsible model casting and management. The council circulated their guidelines in spring of 2012 recommending that designers not hire models younger than 16 for runway shows and not keep models under 18 out past midnight. Inveterate dickbag who should fall off a bridge Marc Jacobs, himself a member of the CFDA board, then cast two 14-year-olds in his show, because “I do the show the way I think it should be and not the way somebody tells me it should be.” Enforce that shit, CFDA. “Now, everyone, it would be super-nice if you didn’t perpetuate habits that are connected to illness and death in women in and out of the fashion industry, okie-dokie?” does not represent a commitment to women’s well-being. In my mind, Jacobs should have been tied down across his own runway while his models strutted across him like a rug, but your mileage may vary. (At the very least, it might encourage him to give them flat shoes next time.)
Bodies. Publications and designers need to start using models outside of the thin-and-white cohort. (Last February’s Fashion Week was the most diverse on recent record, with a mere 79.9 percent white models.) And not just in special issues — “Look, this is how fashion looks on a fat person!” doesn’t count, nor does, “You asked, we answered: our annual quota of black models, all in one issue!” It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye, and it’s great to acknowledge in a pointed way that yes, there are non-skinny, non-white (and, shazam, even non-tall and non-able-bodied!) models. But once you’ve done that, you have to start actually including plus-size women and WOC as a matter of course. Call in straight- and plus-size samples, and use them in your magazine. Show a wide variety of bodies — mix different sizes into the same editorial, with no division of these are the thin girls and these are the rest of them. Show women bodies that look like theirs — including models’ bodies and celebrities’ bodies that look like theirs — and identify them as beautiful, because a lot of people need that validation. At this moment, with the samples already available to you, you could be mixing size-4/6 models and size-10/12 models — so why aren’t you, magazines? Fix that.
In general, fashion publications (and many of us, frankly) need to reexamine the way they talk about “real women’s bodies.” Usually, when they say that, they’re referring to non-models who will be used to demonstrate figure flaws that can be solved with the help of this trendy clothing. When the public says it, they’re usually referring to non-thin bodies, generally in contrast to bodies that are thin — “womanly” versus “boyish” figures, as if a hip-to-waist ratio is the ultimate determinant of Realness and Womanliness. Fact: If a woman isn’t an android or a hologram, she’s a “real woman” with a “real woman’s body.”
If we want to talk about “unreal bodies,” though, let’s talk about Photoshopping. The bodies created by carving inches of an already-slender model definitely qualify as unreal. It’s one thing to correct for color or tame flyaway hairs, but bodies are shaped the way they’re shaped. A cover model should be pretty enough to play herself on the cover. Last year, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm launched a petition imploring Seventeen magazine to use fewer ‘shopped images, and the magazine responded with a Body Peace Treaty. To my knowledge, Seventeen hasn’t gone under since making that pledge. It can be done. This can be fixed.
Can I still like fashion?
There’s nothing wrong with liking fashion. There are plenty of things to like about it, and there are plenty of equally “silly” or “frivolous” things you could be interested instead. Those of us who have picked fashion as our frivolity of choice, though, do have to acknowledge the extremely problematic aspects of it. That said, there’s good news: There’s room for change, and the changes are all things that are possible using the existing industry infrastructure. Now, my individual participation as a consumer isn’t going to make it happen — I couldn’t afford those clothes if they were left on a park bench with a note saying “steal me” — but as a fan of Big Fashion, I can note the need for change and any efforts to not change. I can talk up the good and the bad until someone who actually matters to them takes notice. In short: Edun’s pretty cool, Diane von Furstenberg’s heart is in the right place, Marc Jacobs can suck my left one, and the list goes on, and the list should go on. Because fashion is problematic, but I really like it.
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