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Robin Givhan on Culture: Fashion Loves an It Girl but Still Doesn't Get It

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009


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The fashion industry has always been filled with contradictions when it comes to the women it idolizes -- from Marilyn Monroe to Patti Smith. But things have gone so topsy-turvy recently that it's nothing short of miraculous that everyone here isn't wearing a neck brace.

Designers are embracing a broader swath of women because of the unique power they project. There are countless famous and stylish women who could be elevated to the status of fashion icon or It Girl, but at the moment, the industry is mesmerized by the look of power and fearlessness.

Almost from the moment that she stepped into the spotlight, first lady Michelle Obama was deemed an icon. Designers like nothing more than a prominent woman who wears clothes well and is not afraid to express her affection for a business that, at its best, is a cauldron of creativity and a financial boon to the world economy. (See also: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, first lady of France.)

But a few things made Obama unique. She is 45 rather than 25. She has curves. She is black. And she does not have a Top 10 hit on the Billboard charts.

The fashion industry surprised the naysayers who did not believe it had the capacity -- even when it would be to the industry's financial benefit -- to look beyond its often narrow definition of style, beauty and glamour.

Another example of this phenomenon is Beth Ditto, the lead singer of punk band the Gossip, who stepped into the fashion maelstrom last week. She stands about 5 feet tall, weighs in at about 200 pounds, and is an activist lesbian who first broke out with a song pushing for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

She has become the season's It Girl, rivaling Kate Moss for attention. She was here to perform a private concert at a party sponsored by Fendi. She is a cover girl for a British music magazine -- and a naked one at that. And she sat in the front row of fashion shows by designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, her apple figure squished in among the reeds. Her style could be called: I'm fat. Deal with it.

Oprah Winfrey is another exceptional woman on which the fashion industry has a crush. Designers get giddy because of the power she represents and because of the benefits of merely standing in her shadow.

When a woman has power, nerve or the willingness to get publicly indignant over issues that this industry considers righteous, designers treat her with the respect that any woman would want -- even one whose authority goes no further than her kids. What plus-size woman wouldn't like to be courted by designers? What woman wouldn't enjoy being made to feel like she's a fashion savant because she enjoys wearing brooches with her dresses or flats?

Yet even as the fashion industry honors individual self-awareness and chutzpah, it continues to chip away at the dignity of women as a whole with each model that it sends down a runway. It's difficult to reconcile fashion's slobbering affection for an individual woman who is in the public eye with what they are willing to dole out to women as a group.

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