Almost a decade ago, when I started volunteering with All Walks (the campaign for diversity in fashion), the idea of ‘plus size’ models in high fashion was a stretch for many in the industry. People thought our campaign was well-meaning, sure – but, realistically, they couldn’t believe it would ever happen. When bodycon knitwear designer (and All Walks collaborator) Mark Fast cast three UK size 14 models in his Spring/Summer 2010 show, the tabloid media latched onto the unusual catwalk images, and a possibly sensationalised story that Mark’s stylist had stormed out in protest (some have suggested she was unhappy about their inexperience, not their size) was widely reported. Fortunately, the industry has moved on since then. But you wouldn’t know it from an opinion piece published on the prestigious fashion business website, Business of Fashion (BoF), this morning.
Using the title "Why The Plus-Size Revolution Will Fail", Israeli fashion writer, lecturer and longtime BoF contributor Liroy Choufan argues that fashion is a belief system akin to religion, and just because there is undeniable proof that it is exclusionary (and therefore missing out on money from those consumers), doesn’t mean it will change, or that industry’s faith in its binary delineation of what’s on-trend or not on-trend, will falter. He argues, somewhat apologetically, that ‘plus size’ models are just not on-trend. "Despite a cry out for diversity and a scientific approach to life, people continue to use their bodies in the completely opposite direction – they still pray and subscribe to very specific and limited stylistic hierarchies," he writes. "That is why we still have churches and politicians who continue to use the name of God to motivate crowds and why fashion brands still show preferences for slender (and younger) body types. People still believe that these are better."
Which sounds futile and, sadly, sort of true. Liroy frames it as one of those issues that just exist, through no one's devilish intent; as an issue that is undeniable, but also unmovable. An a priori bias. He describes this "paradox" as "serpentine" and I agree with the biblical metaphor. Just like the story of the snake’s intent in the garden of Eden, Liroy’s argument is a deception. Conveniently, he leaves two things out of his assessment that are of vital importance: the question of why people believe in ‘limited stylistic hierarchies’ (exclusionary body and beauty standards); and the very obvious point that, in fact, not everyone does believe in them.
Fashion is far from fully integrating models over a UK size 10... but it is making progress. Succeeding slowly isn’t the same as failing.
Let’s start with the why. Some people do believe young thin white non-disabled women look better than women with other descriptors. This is an oppressive belief, but one that is informed by an image-saturated western commercial culture that continues to hold those characteristics up as ‘better’ through constant repetition. If that body is always (or at least most often) presented to you as an ideal, you will likely come to believe it is the ideal – unless you undertake the long and difficult work of deprogramming yourself, by actively changing the balance imagery you consume. It is a legacy of colonialism, a factor of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. These are major systemic issues, both historically and to this day – but that doesn’t mean they can’t be broken down. Which brings me onto the second point.
The number of people who reject that oppressive ‘ideal’ is growing, both among the public and within the fashion industry. Liroy uses a statistic about the rise of cosmetic surgery in America to suggest the ever-increasing grip the fashion ‘ideal’ has on people. I suggest he takes a closer look at the catwalks, because I do not believe those size 6/8 models inspired the trend for butt augmentation with fat grafting (up 28% from 2014 to 2015; and up 10% from 2016 to 2017), and butt implants (up 36% from 2014 to 2015; but down 56% from 2016 to 2017), as reported by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). Those figures, the report notes, only include procedures by ASPS-approved doctors, and not the very real black market, which is cheaper but not as safe. In the wise words of Homer Simpson: "Aw, you can come up with statistics to prove anything."
Brands are simply targeting the unspeakable desires of society
Liroy continues: "Brands are simply targeting the unspeakable desires of society, or as Christian Dior is claimed to have said regarding the success of his ultra-feminine and retrogressive New Look in 1950's, it's because women long to look like women again. From that perspective, the plus-size revolution's failure is inevitable. Not because perceptions or tastes or the ideal body type can't change or evolve… But those changes are always limited at any given time. And therefore, the revolution must ultimately fail in its attempt to promote true and radical inclusivity."
Are the changes limited? Sure, fashion is far from fully integrating models over a UK size 10 into the industry and its output. But it is making progress. It may be succeeding slowly, but that isn’t the same as failing. Do women "long to look like women again", when looking ‘like women’ means conforming to oppressive and unachievable stereotypes? Some do, perhaps. Not any I know. As we used to say at All Walks: Fashion is boring when everybody looks the same. To deny the change we have seen from both fashion brands and other commercial brands in the past 10 years – to embrace a far more diverse vision of womanhood – is to be wilfully blind.
There have been a number of sea-change moments. Just as all the most exciting new models are black – including, of course, Adwoa Aboah, but also Adut Akech (who was the Chanel couture bride and is the face of the pre-fall campaign), Shanelle Nyasiase (Alexander McQueen’s campaign face, and in the Versace campaign), and Slick Woods (face of Rihanna’s Fenty, Calvin Klein and Moschino) – ‘plus’ models have gained both industry co-signs and popular recognition. Ashley Graham is mainstream famous. Paloma Elsesser is cool famous, Instagram famous, and has been on the cover of Vogue and i-D. And, just as the industry has moved past using black models in ‘jungle’ or ‘safari’ shoots, plus models are no longer confined to clichéd 1950s styling.
These changes aren’t just politically correct self-policing. They represent a meaningful change in the way fashion sees these models, and the contexts it believes they make sense in. Slick – a black, shaven-headed, gap-toothed, heavily pregnant model – is on the new cover of Elle magazine. Barbie Ferreira is on the cover of Oyster magazine, and Masthead magazine. That is fashion. If you can’t see it, the problem isn’t some biblio-philosophical one, unfair but unchangeable in the mysterious fashion monolith. The problem is you.