Ruffling The Feathers of Fashion

Somewhere out there lurks the great big garbage pile of sexism. Can you smell it? Or maybe it’s easier to hear: rubbish scattered across comment sections or bowling like leery tumbleweed along the streets. I enjoy blogs like The Vagenda for their unpacking, unpicking or otherwise tearing apart of examples plucked from this (very) figurative monolith of misogyny. But occasionally it’s good to pause for breath and turn attention to something truly positive - such as the Debenhams LookBook

My first glimpse of the LookBook provoked a marathon attempt at multitasking as I simultaneously tried to read the press release, tweet a link to it, nod excitedly, show it to various people and look at the images in detail, all the while attempting to return to what I was meant to be doing (writing an essay). The images have now been floating around for a while, with positive press winging its way from sundry corners of the internet including  thos strange bedfellows, Jezebel and the Daily Mail. 

The LookBook works through being both startling and understated. There are models posing in clothes. So far, so predictable. But it’s the fact that the models include a Paralympian, a size eighteen woman and someone of sixty-plus that makes it a little more magnificent than your average set of images. There is Philomena Kwao, aiming to be the first black plus-size supermodel, and Kelly Knox, who was born without a left forearm. The line-up was chosen by Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and co-founder of fashion diversity initiative All Walks Beyond the Catwalk. On the selection process she noted, “The casting took a long time to find the right balance of skin tone, size, age and individual physical characteristics. You can't charge for this within a commercial project because the enhanced budget would be offputting for the client, so I did it as a gift to the project. Debenhams were already paying out extra to employ 9 models, not 2 [the usual LookBook allocation], so we were all investing in it.” 

This is an important point regarding the justifications used by brands when it comes to criticism of the very narrow ideals they favour. Franklin also noted that “samples had to be individually sized” for the shoot. Beckoning in the unexpected incurs costs. The “identikit” body is cheaper to clothe. But although this may go some way to explaining, it cannot justify the large majority of the industry who act as though the only type of beauty is a slender size 6-8 - and gives no reason at all for it being young, able-bodied, and Caucasian to boot.

Other well-favoured excuses for fencing beauty within such narrow parameters include the importance of fantasy (because, as everyone knows, fantasy is reliant on a 24 inch waist), giving the problem to another part of the industry (editors blame agencies who blame clients), and the dusty claim that there’s always been a 'current barometer' of beauty. All are ways of deflecting attention. Few are willing to do what Debenhams has done, although Franklin stressed the importance of the “debate” that she and others have opened up through initiatives such as All Walks, lectures to “the next generation of creatives” and discussion with Parliamentary representatives such as Minister for Equality Jo Swinson. And this dialogue needs to be upheld by us too, not just as consumers but also as people. We are visible, and should continue being vocal. 

Unfortunately, the very thing that makes fashion so intriguing, powerful and enjoyable is the same that often leads to criticism – image. Image is what makes the process of getting dressed every day particularly enjoyable to some of us, but makes a body size or skin tone seem inadequate to others. “I recognised that each of my models had the opportunity to inspire their audience by their presence,” said Franklin. “I know that powerful images like this are important because [they] challenge fashion industry dependence on one unachievable ideal. You can show clothes just as efficiently on bodies that are older or curvier, differently-abled or Paralympian.” Fashion has a skewed scale of how it values (and thus validates) beauty, which is frustrating when it’s considered how much capacity it has to influence change. Visual messages, as we know, are direct and effective.

It's worth pointing out that there are various others out there who are also challenging the norms. Ada Zanditon had singer and amputee Viktoria Modesta catwalking through Trafalgar Square in one of her videos, whilst Jayne Pierson has previously employed a range of differently sized ballet dancers to showcase her clothes. There are even flutterings higher up the rungs, with Vogue signing the ten-point Equity Models Code and editor Alexandra Shulman announcing the production of a film showcasing the realities behind the finished model image.

It remains to be seen whether ruffled feathers will lead to more brands, photographers, designers and editors taking flight to embrace a more diverse form of beauty. But we can hope - and happily, it seems like we have reason to.

-RJ, who blogs here