Robin Givhan on Fashion: Size of the Model vs. Size of the Customer

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, October 18, 2009

The fashion industry just finished its twice-yearly round of runway shows and like clockwork the voices of discontent rise up to complain about the excessiveness of the clothes, the high prices and, most vociferously, the skinny models. The industry has been unveiling its wares in the same manner for decades and each time, it opens itself up for attack by a culture that has turned bitterly -- and in some cases, irrationally -- against it.

It's always a bit discombobulating when people raise their voices in anger because they've gotten wind that designers are making and selling $25,000 dresses. After all, it's not as if the existence of a dress that costs as much as a car negates the availability of cute $25 frocks at Target. And it isn't as though edicts have been issued that all women must now dress like one of the superheroes on Balenciaga's runway.

For personal and sometimes tortured reasons -- I can't have it so no one else can! -- observers declare that they just don't understand the attraction of these strange and expensive clothes. That would be a fair argument if those same complainers lashed out at people who spend thousands of dollars on Redskins season tickets, vintage wines, first-edition books or midlife-crisis cars. But those industries don't stir nearly as much ire from people who are uninterested in them.

Everyone has a passion that is lost on others. And to be fair to the fashion industry: It may be struggling, but so far, no government has had to bail it out.

But the latest spate of complaints about the models being too thin are something else entirely. They've been a seasonal frustration ever since the era of the supermodel ended in the 1990s and the industry turned to waifs. Everyone intimately responsible for employing these wispy mannequins typically deflects criticism by declaring the skinny young women part of a fashion cycle that mysteriously churns all on its own.

The size of the models came up this season, in part, because one of the most widely read German women's magazines, Brigitte, announced it would stop using professional models in its pages beginning in January and would replace them with women from its staff or those who audition online, which is to say, it would replace professional models with amateurs.

Then there was the recent flap over Polo Ralph Lauren model Filippa Hamilton. A photograph of her in an advertisement was retouched into what amounted to a cartoon. She looked like a big-headed doll with a noggin larger than her derriere. The design house said, in a statement, that the altered image was a mistake. Then the former model said she was fired by Polo Ralph Lauren because she didn't fit the samples. The design house called her beautiful and healthy but unable to fulfill her contractual obligations.

The story of Hamilton, and the often-repeated detail that she is 5-foot-10 and 120 pounds, makes for a perfect rallying point for anyone concerned about the impact of the fashion industry on impressionable girls, disconsolate women and the culture in general. But something more complicated is going on than just the insensitivity of designers who want to drape their wares on hangers with legs.

It is true that aesthetics are cyclical and the fashion industry's preferences for models has shifted from Mayflower society ladies to girl-next-door blondes to Brazilians to Eastern Europeans to jolie laide -- often for no clearer reason than the zeitgeist. Black models, who have become a cause celebre because there are so few of them on the runways, had a moment of stardom in the 1970s. But in one respect, preferences haven't changed in the last decade. The stubbornly celebrated fashion body has remained extremely thin to gaunt. Why?

All those emaciated models have to be seen against the backdrop of a population that is overwhelmingly afflicted with obesity. It has to be viewed in the context of a first lady who has taken up the cause of healthy eating and exercise because nearly one in three children in the United States is either overweight or obese.

The fatter the general population, the thinner the idealized woman. And for all the public posturing and blogging, the only force that stopped people from buying clothes and magazines was the souring economy, not righteous indignation over skinny models.

By its very nature, fashion is a business of falsehoods and costumes, all in service to self-definition. The uncomfortable truth about the fashion industry is it has a knack for tapping into unspoken cultural obsessions and taboos. Fashion sets up a rarefied world of perfection that is, in many ways, defined by how much it differs from the mundane, from the norm. And all indicators suggest that as a culture, we hate what we are becoming: fat.

Fashion doesn't just reject the overweight and the obese. It also gives the average a hard time, too; it makes them worry about every cookie eaten at the end of a meal or every exercise commitment that goes unmet. Fashion is a test of willpower and determination. It is a measure of good fortune. It is a purveyor of status. It is a badge of honor for having outrun, outfasted saddlebags -- unless, of course, they are floral-printed and made by D&G. Those who can indulge in fashion -- and do -- feel their prize is that much more valuable.

A moment in pop culture history comes to mind that underscores that value system. When Oprah Winfrey appeared on her talk show in 1988 looking startlingly thin after a liquid diet and wearing a pair of size 10 Calvin Klein jeans, she joked that because they were fancy designer jeans, they were really more like a size 8. The implication, of course, was a size 8 was an even better result.

NBC's "Biggest Loser" isn't a success because contestants lose 50 or 60 pounds and improve their health. It's a popular show because they lose tremendous amounts of weight; they become svelte and buff. The men strive for a six-pack. The women aren't aiming for an average size 14, they're passing out and throwing up in the gym to become size 8 or 4 or 0. They are competing to be thin. And we don't blame them; we embrace their agony.

There's plenty to be said about whether the models on the runway are healthy. Most definitely, some of them are not. But most folks aren't demanding to see a doctor's note. The focus of the concern is aesthetics. And some horribly airbrushed photos notwithstanding, the main focus of the complaints isn't that the look is unpleasant but that it's unattainable for most people.

With that in mind, maybe all of the protesting about deluded designers has been wrongheaded. Maybe all of the demands that editors and photographers just use heavier models have been misguided. Because before fashion models will get any bigger, people in general will just have to get smaller.

Fashion tells us something about ourselves and our culture. It does that by reflecting a heightened or twisted reality. It may be that the only way to change the fashion industry's portrayal of women is not by trying to make sense of the funhouse reflection but reconsidering the original subject matter.

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