Mags: A feminist call to fashion arms (without sleeves)

After her comments about the designer "dolls clothes" she is forced to find models to fit into for her glossy pages (like the one pictured right) made international headlines last week, Vogue Australia editor Kirstie Clements (pictured below) has written about the designer sizing conundrum in her latest Sunday Telegraph column titled "Cold shoulder the sizing tyranny".

In the column, Clements insinuates that this is not something that she has spoken with her British counterpart, Alexandra Shulman, about, but reiterates that she gives her full support to the cause:

"There's been lots of talk recently about the tyranny of sizing and how many designers are making their samples too small for even size 8 models to fit into. The editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, has apparently challenged a number of designers on the issue and I say, "Well done, Alex."

It's a constant problem: the samples arrive from overseas and you put them on a willowy, super-slim teenager and cross your fingers that you'll be able to do up the zip. I mean, really, it's almost impossible to have tiny proportions and be tall. There are only a few girls in the world who can achieve that, and the window period is from about 14 to 18 years of age, until a more womanly shape starts to kick in.

When my fashion director and I fly from Milan to Paris at show time, the plane is often full of all the catwalk girls, and they are extraordinary, in the literal sense. They look like stick insects: if you find yourself sitting next to one you quickly ascertain that their legs are about the width of your arms. I don't think that they are all just genetically blessed, either (many of them are dieting hard); they look totally exhausted and either have a cold or are cold. I guess it's because they have zero body fat but I have never in my career heard a model complain that she's hot.

I don't think we need to regulate the industry or impose any specific sizes, because all body shapes will be slightly different, but I definitely think certain designers could put up their samples a good size or two. How radical a thought is it that, by easing up your sizing a little, you might make women feel good about themselves and, thus, buy more?"

The column then segues into Clements' applause for Country Road's new range for the 35+ market (Generation X meets Generation Jones), Trenery (which, in contrast with Clements' positive sentiments, other fashion editors have taken to task for using 20-something models at the catwalk launch; still, the issue is about weight, not ageism)...

"Country Road is set to launch a new label called Trenery which is addressing this very issue, dressing women over 35 who want clothes that are both fashionable and forgiving. I went to the launch last week and the pieces looked great: slouchy silk pants, easy trenches, T-shirts, jackets, all fluid and feminine and not trying too hard. They had taken into consideration that we have hips and thighs and that no woman is happy with her upper arms.

I suggested to a 40-something colleague one sweltering day that she take her jacket off and she said, "I can't, I'm wearing a sleeveless top underneath."
"But aren't you hot?" I asked. "I've been hot for 20 years," she answered.
We laughed, but there has to be a better solution. It seems to me it's been a long time coming.

Give us fashion that respects the natural contours of a woman and, hey, we'll give you our money."

Her final sentiment is one I hinted at last week. Let the sensible fashion labels sell!

Meanwhile, eloquent Irish writer Kevin Myers (pictured) has credited Shulman with initiating a turning point in history, while accusing the gay designer fraternity of misogyny – and female fashion journalists of feeding into the woman-hating game – while also coining a new term ("Cosmosexual") in this very excellent, historically contextual essay (extracts only):

"When they write a social history of women in the final decades of the 20th century, and the first decade of this one, may they engrave the name Alexandra Shulman in stone at that point where history turned...

Female anorexia goes hand in bony hand with the fashion industry. Our anglophone relationship with that industry is so craven and submissive that we accept that absurd French term, "haute couture" -- high culture -- to describe it. And that goes to the core of the problem.

From the outset, this bogus high culture has created an emotional and political imbalance, which places the fashion houses responsible for their fascist, woman-hating ethos, as our intellectual superiors. They are nothing of the kind. Only the word play of charlatans has caused this moral inversion, which allows misogynists not merely to appear to be superior to the rest of us, but to present themselves as what they are not: lovers of the female sex.

Almost no designers of women's clothes are women. Most are male Cosmosexuals -- who are either homosexuals, such as Yves St Laurent, Christian Dior or Gianni Versace, or more ambiguous denizens of the Cosmosphere, such as Gaultier, Lagerfeld and Valentino. Hardly any designers for women are simply straightforward heterosexual men. Tommy Hilfiger and Paul Costelloe clearly love women as they are. Which is why their clothes celebrate women's carnality, their sexuality and the sheer exuberant bodiness of the female form...

There are no more personally powerful alpha-female journalists than those in fashion: yet even they are enthralled by the personal magnetism of the barons of this bogus world of haute couture. And the ideal young woman of this demented ethos is a waif, an asexual, unbreasted, libido-free hermaphroditic elf...

Men who love women have been excluded from the process of dressing them, while the high queens of Cosmosexual high culture impose their terrible visions upon a strangely obedient female sex... And most paradoxically of all, the political triumph of feminism has done nothing to stem the rising tide of woman-hating body-fascism.

Indeed, the sisters' ideological blinkers have blinded them to the role of a misogynistic haute couture in creating the disease of anorexia. This is the first ever, culturally transmitted fatal epidemic. It is the brainchild of a fascist Cosmosexuality, which in turn was born in the fashion houses of the world..."

So good to see blokes, like Myers, Benzer and arguably Blimes, coming out in support of this issue, picking up where Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch), Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women) and our own Kaz Cooke (Real Gorgeous: The Truth About Body and Beauty) started so long ago. But why has it taken us (i.e. young/modern feminists/women) so long to wake up and smell the calories?

Is it simply because magazine editors are disempowered by their designer advertisers (which Shulman and Clements would contest), or, as has been suggested in the comments on this blog, women have always, and will always, aspire to be thinner and, thus, magazines promising entry to the Secret Society of Thin, the one all those emaciated elves belong to, will sell?

I like to think not. Because denying the natural female form, and failing to celebrate it in its many splendid and curvaceous varieties, is robbing us of the progress made by our feminist forebears, by keeping us from feeling intellectually, creatively, spiritually and physically empowered and emboldened. There's nothing more disempowering than an obsession with diet and image.

I hope all this talk leads to a cultural shift and a reinvigoration of the feminist cause – one we'll proudly wear on our shirts-without-sleeves (don't worry, we'll shave).

The Evolution of a Fashion Story
From little things, big things grow. Vogue "Size Zero" story links:
- "The death of size zero" - Times of London
- "Is size-0 finally over?" - moi
- "Vogue editor launches new war on size-zero fashion" - Times of London
- "British Vogue Editor's Lame PR Coup: No More Size Zeros!" - Gawker
- "Fashion heavyweight bags thin models" - The Sunday Telegraph
- "Bravo to UK Vogue Editor, Alex Shulman for saying ENOUGH to size zero." - Mamamia
- "Shulman shuns size zero" - moi
- "Vogue running backwards in high heels" - moi
- "Shulman’s Campaign Against Subzero Sizing Lands Down Under" - The Cut
- "Vogue & The Size Zero Problem" - Jezebel
- "Fashion houses hit back in row over who's to blame for 'size zero' models" - The Guardian
- "Cosmosexuals redesign women to suit their own demented needs" - Independent

Pic credits: Kirstie Clements via; Liz Hurley in Valentino via; Trenery via SMH;

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Rachel Hills said...

It's so refreshing to see magazine editors like Shulman and Clements speaking out about this. Good on them. I found the Myers article a bit over the top and homophobic, though.

I have a hard time believing that the major fashion houses are going to change any time soon (and the bizarre thing their probable stubborness is that no one's even posing a major challenge to the existing beauty ideal - all the editors are asking is that they send them clothes that tall, skinny women can actually fit into).

Theoretically, the mags could stop shooting their clothes, but they're reliant on the advertising for their survival.

The only real way a cultural shift is going to happen is if people stop viewing tall and extremely thin bodies as the most glamorous ones to aspire to, and other bodies as lacking in some way. That would be a massive shift though, and there's no quick fix to getting there.

On that front, I'm been reading Kate Harding's and Marianne Kirby's 'Screw Inner Beauty' at the moment, a book which I think has the potential to revolutionise the way women think about their bodies in a practical way, much as Naomi Wolf did in a theoretical/political way. I think you'd like it, Erica.

Alison said...

This is a great post!
It seems to me that some designers are determined to transform women into disembodied coathangers - because it is easier to design that way. And this causes huge health and esteem problems for the young women who model the clothes.

And it also causes problems for the next generation! What are we to say to our daughters who are swamped with images of starving praying mantis looking young women? And when , as you have pointed out, magazines pounce on women who are carrying some weight ( I'm referring to the viciousness with which the media commented on Perth model Gemma Ward, who apparently gained some weight.)

I have heard some designers and editors argue that anorexia is unrelated to the thin models they use. I don't buy this argument. But then , as previously discussed, I don't buy their product either!

rujing said...

This is such a brilliant post!

I always knew the fashion industry encouraged unrealistic
ideals about body image, especially for young girls, but it never
dawned upon me how it could be perceived as misogynistic.

This post reminds me of a lecture on feminism I attended recently.
The lecturer asked us to consider women’s clothing and fashion across the globe.
She asked us to think of high heels, burkas, corsets, etc - they're all designed
to restrict the movement and freedom of women.
In ways, it echoes a very similar sentiment to that of your post.

I completely agree that there needs to be a shift in attitudes in the fashion industry,
so I applaud people like Shulman who make such a stand. I think it's especially hard when
you in the industry and the people you're criticizing are your peers, etc.

Once again, brilliant post!

Caro said...

But one important element in standards of beauty is the combination of rarity and status.

Right now, in Europe and America, it is rare to be thin. Only the rich can afford to be thin (expensive healthy food, gyms and personal trainers). So for the time being, thinness is a status symbol.

The beauty standard of thinness has staying power because it is so scarce and difficult for anyone who is not rich to achieve.

leetranlam said...

Great (and totally necessary) piece, Erica!

Anonymous said...

I'm really shocked and quite disappointed to see you praise Kevn Myers's piece. He is a vile misogynist who constantly writes about the evils of feminism and how some sort of feminist cabal is secretly running Ireland (I wish), and I think it's ludicrous that you have just compared someone who, in this piece, refers mockingly to the "sisters" and the supposed "political triumph of feminism" to Greer and Wolf. He is also, as I think is pretty clear from this piece, a raving homophobe, and, which is not evident in this piece, a complete and utter racist who last year wrote a piece entitled 'Africa has given the world nothing - except for AIDS'. I don't expect readers outside Ireland to be totally familiar with him, but I would have thought that this piece was extreme enough to inspire checking out a few more examples of his rantings.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Thanks for the enlightenment with regards to Myers, Stella, and for adding your thoughts to the debate. Of course, I'm not familiar with his work and should have investigated further (such is the nature of the blogosphere). Look forward to reading more of your views via your livejournal.

Thank you to all other commenters, too. Rachel, it seems you may have been right in your thoughts on Myers, clever cat.

Bring on the curvy cultural shift - it's long overdue.


youth girls tops said...

"They look like stick insects: if you find yourself sitting next to one you quickly ascertain that their legs are about the width of your arms. I don't think that they are all just genetically blessed, either (many of them are dieting hard); they look totally exhausted and either have a cold or are cold. I guess it's because they have zero body fat but I have never in my career heard a model complain that she's hot."

This piece right here is so true...