Robin Givhan zeroes in on debate over plus-size women in fashion

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010

The conversation about plus-size women and their relationship to the fashion industry has taken on new contours recently thanks to the current issue of V magazine, the celebrated young actress Gabourey Sidibe and a first lady who has decided to make combating childhood obesity her signature issue. The rumblings about physiques -- rotund and petite -- should get even livelier beginning Feb. 11, when ready-to-wear designers in New York unveil their fall 2010 collections over the course of a week. (Their counterparts in Milan and Paris will follow soon after.) And that means attention will once again turn to the proportions of the models who walk their runways and who serve to define our culture's beauty aesthetic.

For several years, fashion observers have complained on blogs, in letters-to-the-editor and over cocktails with friends about the spindliness of models -- lollipops wrapped in silk or cashmere is how they have derisively been described. And industry insiders have debated the cause and effect of these profoundly skinny mannequins on our self-image. Do they push women to be more prone to eating disorders? Are they an insult to womanhood? Are they merely part of a designer's creative prerogative? Or are they the product of lemming-like style-makers who feel compelled to follow trends? It would be a welcome relief if the majority of those designers who put their wares on the runway in the coming months took a stand and refused to use models whose ribs are plainly visible and whose countenance cries "ill-health." What is the point of creeping out consumers, after all?

To be fair, a bit of headway was made in plumping up models when designers presented their spring collections a few months ago. The models were often still quite thin -- much slimmer than they were back in the 1980s heyday of women such as Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell -- but rarely did they look as though a strong wind would send them rolling down the catwalk like glittering bits of tumbleweed.

But after a volley of exhausting complaining, defending, finger-pointing and declaring one's right to creative license, a new conundrum has presented itself: It's hard to even know what an acceptable-size model is supposed to look like anymore. How big is big enough? And when does plus size, in a profoundly overweight population, become just as distressingly unhealthy an image as emaciation?

The niche fashion publication, V magazine, has received a significant amount of attention among style aficionados because of its "size issue," which features photos of women who measure in at size 12. The star of the issue is arguably the model Crystal Renn, who captures the same air of detached, unattainable glamour as any size 0, perhaps even more so because Renn is classically pretty rather than startlingly odd. But some of those readers who have seen the photographs of her have complained that she's only a size 12. She really isn't large enough to be considered a plus size, which despite the fashion industry's definition, most people consider to be a size 16 or larger, which is the threshold at which women typically find their fashion choices abruptly limited.

Just how big does a model have to be before folks are satisfied that she represents some ever-shifting vision of what a "real" woman looks like? Must she be precisely 5-feet-4 and a size 14, which is the fashion industry's accepted stats for the average woman? And if she is, will that transform the fantasy photographs in fashion magazines into the equivalent of catalogues? After all, a large part of our fascination with Hollywood is because it's populated with absurdly stunning men and women who are so far from average they ignite our wildest desires and persuade us to pay good money to go to bad movies.

The most compelling spread in V is the one in which the same ensemble is photographed on a skinny model and on a larger one. The lesson to a lot of women who have an insecure relationship with fashion is that they, too, can participate in the world of Dolce & Gabbana and Proenza Schouler. And the lesson to designers is that all sorts of women can make their clothes look good. Attitude often counts more than body size. Although, there are certainly times when no matter how good you think you look, reality tells another story. See: Mariah Carey at the Golden Globes.

The recent awards show also provided an opportunity to see the plus-size actress Sidibe, who stars in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," all glammed up. She has been dazzling interviewers with her charisma and Valley Girl patois. (She was also photographed for V.) And she has been a marvel of self-confidence in an industry that values thin. We have all seen the fan magazines with their sad tales of incredibly shrinking actresses. They shrink, in part, because they want to fit into the teeny-tiny clothing samples that they borrow from designers. They shrink for fashion.

The L.A.-based designer Kevan Hall created the gown that Sidibe wore to the Globes, a deep green, flowing floor-length dress with soft, short sleeves and beaded embellishment at the waist. He has worked with a lot of actresses who are what he describes as "special sizes" and the reality is that "it's all about picking the right silhouette for her shape."

And it doesn't matter if a woman is a size 2 or a size 16, "you're always treading lightly. I've had actresses who are a size 2 stand in front of me and weep. I've had young girls who want to cover their arms and older women who want to cover their arms," he says. The most significant difference in creating a dress for a larger size is that often a designer has to tamp down his ego. He can't as easily force his vision onto the woman since she doesn't have the physique of a hanger. "But at the end of the day, it's always really about the client," Hall says. "Let's be realistic, after all. What is the end-use of these clothes?"

One might also ask, what is the ultimate goal -- on the part of the fashion industry -- in celebrating the confident Sidibe? Is it about her work? Is it a fascination -- a marveling -- over this big girl who doesn't seem to have any existential angst about being big? Is it about a broader definition of beauty?

"I'm hoping that things are changing," says an optimistic Hall.

We all hope that we are getting closer to a less judgmental, more accepting society. But we also are faced with an uncomfortable question: How does a culture celebrate the beauty of all shapes and sizes even when statistics are telling us that certain sizes are unhealthy?

In V magazine's celebration of size, there's a group of photographs taken by Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld of a voluptuous burlesque performer. The way she is depicted is unsettling because it reads as a kind of fat porn -- that tendency to show heavyset women as overly sexed, ribald or just plain sideshow. Fashion fetishizes women all the time and in a host of different ways. But the one thing that fashion loathes is a cliche. And the worst cliche about large women is that they are creatures of insatiable appetites -- both real and metaphorical. And, of course, the stereotype about the ultra-thin is that they are brittle and cold.

Somewhere between emaciation and obesity lies good health. And somewhere between those extremes there is also a definition of beauty that is inclusive, sound and honest.

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