Every Body Counts, London Fashion Week, Feb 2010

Bodies Talk

Lets go back to a time when fashion was in its infancy. There was no such thing as Fast Fashion, Diffusion Ranges or indeed any inkling that something called Ethical Clothing might save the planet.

Fashion democracy was little more than a gathering of mavericks in homemade psychedelic ponchos. Even The People’s Republic of Arcadia, did not exist: their leader, Phillip Green, was still at boarding school after all. But in the 60s radical change took place. Designers replaced Dressmakers. Trend Setting replaced Classic Couture and markets and boutiques popped up in the days before any one knew what a Pop up was. London became centre of Street-style and in a final makeover,

The Rag Trade morphed into The Fashion Industry. The mainstream language of fashion was born. Fashion documents modern update; giving expression to social change and facilitating a stream of dialogue about where we are in our lives. Fashion, as a political barometer can be loud and clear: the unisex denim of the 70s channelled equality; the power dressing years of the 80s – a readiness for women’s career advancement in a post-feminist culture. In short clothes chart progress.

Now bodies have now become part of that language too, and in recent seasons, to facilitate display of strict, tailored artworks and cleverly sculpted silhouettes, a whippet thin model endures an intolerant and restrictive sample garment to promote modern femininity from a high fashion perspective. In 2010, it’s plain STRANGE that while designs are forward thinking and progressive, the messaging surrounding such fragile and unsustainable bodies is regressive and retrograde. Of course models need to be tall, streamlined and elegant. But Cindy, Naomi, Linda and sisters, were womanly and vigorous too, executing the role of Runway Diva to the satisfaction of onlookers far beyond the front rows of the fashion pack.

Those of us, who read fashion and its accompanying subtext, back Alexandra Shulman’s call for bigger sample sizes. We must also examine our attraction to a dysfunctional representations of womanhood. You see bodies do talk and those outside the industry are receiving us loud and clear, in fact the demand for us to explain ourselves has reached a crescendo.

At a Liberal Democrat initiated debate I attended recently, the power the fashion industry has to influence the way women feel about their bodies, and it’s inability to recognize this, was high on the agenda. Hmmm, we may be at the vanguard of creative clothing production, but we are last in line to understand the impact upon the psyche of women everywhere whose landscape: real and virtual is now teaming with fashion imagery. Rocket science it ain’t. “Things have changed since the days of smuggling out a roll of film from a catwalk show where only buyers and press were privy,” points out Debra Bourne former PR Director at Lynne Franks, “modern technology is a pervasive tool.”  Along with hard copy, now new media and social networking are recruited by all brands to reach a global audience, promoting the look of the season… and with it implicit pointers about the look of the body to a global audience. “We are continually updating ourselves to become part of what is fresh and contemporary.

Initially we may find the new fashions unwelcoming…and we may feel dismay, even a certain revulsion, but as similarly styled images pour out, they fill our visual field,” observes Susie Orbach in her current book Bodies. She alludes to the fact that; Fashion Forward, however oblique, soon becomes Fashion Now and commercial. The bodies – tall, overly thin and mostly Caucasian, are perceived as instructive from an industry that is The Authority On The Way Clothes Look Best. “Enjoy the cuts, the prints, be inspired by the styling, the hair the make-up, but ignore the body that wears them,” says our industry by way of a collective press release, as though that should suffice. But here’s the thing… The fashion consumer ranging from intelligent and accomplished woman to awkward and enthusiastic pre-teen cannot make a separation.

THE CLOTHES ARE ON THE BODY and all women receive fashion imagery into their lives on the very basis that it is a prescriptive ideal for the body too. Anyone who learns that 8 out of 10 women are dissatisfied with their reflection, and more than half may even see a distorted image and that young women now see more images of outstandingly beautiful women in one day than older generations saw throughout their entire adolescence cannot fail to make the connection that fashion imagery speaks volumes to women about bodies…unless of course they are several vol-au-vents short of a champagne reception. Interestingly Caucasian women suffer lower levels of body image self-esteem than darker skinned women underlining the power of image-maintenance industries to influence opinion around appearance and concurring with Orbach’s observations… the more repetition there is, the louder the message. The number of catwalk and advertising images of Black models in the media is one of the areas for discussion at The British Fashion Council’s ‘No Barriers,’ forum chaired by Professor Louise Wilson. “The forum is an opportunity for parties to share views with the aim of bringing about collaborations to expand upon Black and Ethnic Minority representation within the industry, not just in modelling but design and image making fields too,” say’s Caroline Rush chief executive of the BFC. Whilst they and London Fashion Week audiences welcome progress, there are surprising obstacles. “There was subtle discouragement,” say’s one emerging designer who asked not to be named, “when I was casting for my show.”  Dark skinned models, with weaves, tight curls and short hair, did not offer the same photographic or showcasing opportunities for the sponsor’s hair care products.

For them it was only about long, straight European hair. I needed the sponsor to make my show happen so I felt under pressure to pick models they approved of.” But designers further up the runway ladder have enormous power to override the status quo. At William Tempest, a refreshing proportion of the women wearing his immaculately structured dresses for Autumn/Winter 2010 were non-Caucasian. “Diversity is something I have been thinking about recently,” he said post show, after putting curvy model Hayley Morley in his previous line up, “there is more to it than size. I think my hairdresser would have preferred it if I had made his life easier but that’s not the way I work.” Diversity would mean a range of bodies of different ages too. Sexagenarian Vivienne Westwood insists feminism or any assessment of how women feel about fashion messaging does not interest her, but even without an agenda, she is effortlessly non-conformist. By staring in her own advertising campaign, shot by gritty realist Juergen Teller, Westwood offers a refreshing reality for us all: At last, an authentic individual who hasn’t had the living daylights airbrushed out of her skin. A recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for airbrushed images to be ‘kitemarked’, after scientific evidence backed up claims that airbrushing and digital manipulation really does damage mental health amongst young women, resulting in eating disorders, depression, extreme exercising and cosmetic surgery. Our need to see women who bear some resemblance to real women, just to say sane, has put the manipulation of bodies and faces on the political agenda too. Jo Swinson and Lynn Featherstone of the Liberal Democrats launched their Real Women campaign. “We encouraged people to send complaints about airbrushing to the ASA,” says Featherstone. “This resulted in almost 1000 people asking the ASA and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) to force advertisers to come clean when using airbrushed images and to ban airbrushing in adverts aimed at children.” Nice one, after all without the small imperfections that make one body look different from another we have repetition of the same unachievable thing over and over and while we become more disoriented and miserable, the large corporate benefits. Repetition of perfection is what grooms a responsive consumer to rectify a Hopelessly Imperfect Existence, with unnecessary purchases. The dialogue for a capitalist practice can’t be blamed on Planet Fashion at least, but we could agree to listen to research that shows how undermined women feel by current fashion imagery and still run a successful business.

“I found that women are more likely to purchase a fashion product when they see a model who resembles them – their size, age, and ethnicity – in the advertisement,” says PhD student Ben Barry of Cambridge University who is the first to study female consumer response to fashion product cross-culturally and has interviewed 3000 women between the ages of 14 and 65 in Canada, the US, and UK. “This provides empirical evidence to show that the success of Dove, Mark Fast, and other brands that have included size and age diversity in their advertising are not anomalies.” Hard and fast research which supports growth in profits when a realistic representation of femininity is offered must challenge a default setting which has every brand automatically reaching for an underweight teenager to advance profits. Challenging the motivations of those who see women as flesh to be stylistically manipulated for an arthouse wank is equally necessary. Who exactly is getting off on the rash of beauty and fashion porn where nubile pre-orgasmic women posture inappropriately? ‘Top shelf,’ magazines don’t accesorise naked women with expensive handbags, fashion publications that do, condone an internalised misogyny that is routinely dressed up as artistic and edgy expression. Lack of imagination crops up in writing too…should we really be asking a world famous model what she hates about her body? Perhaps institutionalised body dysmorphia is a default setting for all of us, and only to be expected in an industry where breasts in particular are all but ignored by an aesthetic that that aspires to pubescent waifdom. On that note…should one also assume that the skill set of some catwalk designers is limited? “Pattern cutting is a craft in itself,” explains Kathryn Sargent Head Cutter at Gieves and Hawkes who is originally Art School trained. “The bespoke skills I now have as a result of being on Saville Row for 14 years allow me to deal with each body as an individual set of measurements. Pattern cutting for a production line, and a Ready to Wear range, is a different skill.” Understanding that Ready-to-Wear bodies need to be identical to slot into the idea-sample-runway-process like a non variable component is one thing, but the attraction to underweight teenager, when a sleek and healthy adult woman works just as well, surely reflects an industry struggling with its own arrested development. In recent months there has been plenty of fashion debate about bodies, but to prevent any enlightened thinking being relegated to ‘trend’ by an industry that craves the next big story, we have to act. Blue Sky thinking begs the question…What if the entire fashion industry approached things differently this time, to lead the way in acknowledging what a powerful force it is in communicating to women about their bodies, more powerful than music, sport, art and film put together and Actually Did Something About It? Better still, what if student designers upon entering Art School had the chance to see the body as a shape that has infinite design possibilities? What if there was a whole range of tailors dummies in different sizes to work on giving students of design the opportunity to be creative with bodies too? Gosh darn it; what if there was excitement around Individuality? Difference? Otherness? The very thing that makes London what it is? “This is the debate that education can influence,” agrees Adrien Parry Roberts course leader fashion U.C.A Epsom. “I was asked by a school leaver looking to begin her fashion training with us, how my teaching staff approached diversity. It was an excellent question and as we, like many other colleges only have a UK size 8 tailors dummy for students to train on I realized we needed to act on her question. We have to find the recourses to expand upon what we offer to designers.” Now we’re cooking with gas. So while we are at it, let’s recruit other trainee fashionistas: the image makers, the stylists, the show producers, the photographers, the writers and the fashion editors to question the concepts and the culture underpinning today’s thinking around bodies, faces diversity and difference. After all Every Body Counts. It’s what All Walks Beyond the Catwalk (a campaign devoted to broadening the range of professional models at London Fashion Week in age, size and race) will discuss with 61 course leaders at Graduate Fashion Week in June. Because if today’s students: tomorrow’s big industry names, truly understand the power and the reach of contemporary fashion imagery… then perhaps, just perhaps we are talking about an industry with something new to say. Caryn Franklin Photography Captions All Walks beyond the Catwalk presented ‘Every Body Counts,’ a live photographic exhibition at London Fashion Week Feb 2010 from Vauxhall Fashion Scout, to canvass opinion about diversity. 168 people responded…read more on www.allwalks.org Photographers Credit: Alice Hale, Matt Ritson and Matt Craig NB. We may also have a film… BodiesTalk/Every Body Counts. Lets go back to a time when fashion was in its infancy. There was no such thing as Fast Fashion, Diffusion Ranges or indeed any inkling that something called Ethical Clothing might save the planet. Fashion democracy was little more than a gathering of mavericks in homemade psychedelic ponchos. Even The People’s Republic of Arcadia, did not exist: their leader, Phillip Green, was still at boarding school after all. But in the 60s radical change took place. Designers replaced Dressmakers. Trend Setting replaced Classic Couture and markets and boutiques popped up in the days before any one knew what a Pop up was. London became centre of Street-style and in a final makeover, The Rag Trade morphed into The Fashion Industry. The mainstream language of fashion was born. Fashion documents modern update; giving expression to social change and facilitating a stream of dialogue about where we are in our lives. Fashion, as a political barometer can be loud and clear: the unisex denim of the 70s channelled equality; the power dressing years of the 80s – a readiness for women’s career advancement in a post-feminist culture. In short clothes chart progress. Now bodies have now become part of that language too, and in recent seasons, to facilitate display of strict, tailored artworks and cleverly sculpted silhouettes, a whippet thin model endures an intolerant and restrictive sample garment to promote modern femininity from a high fashion perspective. In 2010, it’s plain STRANGE that while designs are forward thinking and progressive, the messaging surrounding such fragile and unsustainable bodies is regressive and retrograde. Of course models need to be tall, streamlined and elegant. But Cindy, Naomi, Linda and sisters, were womanly and vigorous too, executing the role of Runway Diva to the satisfaction of onlookers far beyond the front rows of the fashion pack. Those of us, who read fashion and its accompanying subtext, back Alexandra Schulman’s call for bigger sample sizes. This writer also invites the industry yet again, to examine its attraction to a dysfunctional representation of womanhood. You see bodies do talk and those outside the industry are receiving us loud and clear, in fact the demand for us to explain ourselves has reached a crescendo. At a Liberal Democrat initiated debate I attended recently, the power the fashion industry has to influence the way women feel about their bodies, and it’s inability to recognize this, was high on the agenda. Hmmm, we may be at the vanguard of creative clothing production, but we are last in line to understand the impact upon the psyche of women everywhere whose landscape: real and virtual is now teaming with fashion imagery. Rocket science it ain’t. “Things have changed since the days of smuggling out a roll of film from a catwalk show where only buyers and press were privy,” points out Debra Bourne former PR Director at Lynne Franks. Modern technology promotes the look of the season and with it numerous implicit pointers about the look of the body. Along with hard copy, new media and social networking are an important part of a brand’s media arsenal. “We are continually updating ourselves to become part of what is fresh and contemporary. Initially we may find the new fashions unwelcoming…and we may feel dismay, even a certain revulsion, but as similarly styled images pour out, they fill our visual field,” observes Susie Orbach in her current book Bodies. She alludes to the fact that; Fashion Forward, however oblique, soon becomes Fashion Now and commercial. The bodies – tall, overly thin and mostly Caucasian, are perceived as instructive from an industry that is The Authority On The Way Clothes Look Best. “Enjoy the cuts, the prints, be inspired by the styling, the hair the make-up, but ignore the body that wears them,” says our industry by way of a collective press release, as though that should suffice. Well here’s the thing… The fashion consumer ranging from intelligent and accomplished woman to awkward and enthusiastic pre-teen cannot make a separation. THE CLOTHES ARE ON THE BODY and all women receive fashion imagery into their lives on the very basis that it is a prescriptive ideal for the body too. Anyone who learns that 8 out of 10 women are dissatisfied with their reflection, and more than half may even see a distorted image and that young women now see more images of outstandingly beautiful women in one day than older generations saw throughout their entire adolescence cannot fail to make the connection that fashion imagery speaks volumes to women about bodies…unless of course they are several vol-au-vents short of a champagne reception. Interestingly Caucasian women suffer lower levels of body image self-esteem than darker skinned women underlining the power of image-maintenance industries to influence opinion around appearance and concurring with Orbach’s observations… the more repetition there is, the louder the message. The number of catwalk and advertising images of Black models in the media is one of the areas for discussion at The British Fashion Council’s ‘No Barriers,’ forum chaired by Professor Louise Wilson. “The forum is an opportunity for parties to share views with the aim of bringing about collaborations to expand upon Black and Ethnic Minority representation within the industry, not just in modelling but design and image making fields too,” say’s Caroline Rush chief executive of the BFC. Whilst they and London Fashion Week audiences welcome progress, there are surprising obstacles. “There was subtle discouragement,” say’s one emerging designer who asked not to be named, “when I was casting for my show.”  Dark skinned models, with weaves, tight curls and short hair, did not offer the same photographic or showcasing opportunities for the sponsor’s hair care products. For them it was only about long, straight European hair. I needed the sponsor to make my show happen so I felt under pressure to pick models they approved of.” But designers further up the runway ladder have enormous power to override the status quo. At William Tempest, a refreshing proportion of the women wearing his immaculately structured dresses for Autumn/Winter 2010 were non-Caucasian. “Diversity is something I have been thinking about recently,” he said post show, after putting curvy model Hayley Morley in his previous line up, “there is more to it than size. I think my hairdresser would have preferred it if I had made his life easier but that’s not the way I work.” Diversity would mean a range of bodies of different ages too. Sexagenarian Vivienne Westwood insists feminism or any assessment of how women feel about fashion messaging does not interest her, but even without an agenda, she is effortlessly non-conformist. By staring in her own advertising campaign, shot by gritty realist Juergen Teller, Westwood offers a refreshing reality for us all: At last, an authentic individual who hasn’t had the living daylights airbrushed out of her skin. A recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for airbrushed images to be ‘kitemarked’, after scientific evidence backed up claims that airbrushing and digital manipulation really does damage mental health amongst young women, resulting in eating disorders, depression, extreme exercising and cosmetic surgery. Our need to see women who bear some resemblance to real women, just to say sane, has put the manipulation of bodies and faces on the political agenda too. Jo Swinson and Lynn Featherstone of the Liberal Democrats launched their Real Women campaign. “We encouraged people to send complaints about airbrushing to the ASA,” says Featherstone. “This resulted in almost 1000 people asking the ASA and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) to force advertisers to come clean when using airbrushed images and to ban airbrushing in adverts aimed at children.” Nice one, after all without the small imperfections that make one body look different from another we have repetition of the same unachievable thing over and over and while we become more disoriented and miserable, the large corporate benefits. Repetition of perfection is what grooms a responsive consumer to rectify a Hopelessly Imperfect Existence, with unnecessary purchases. The dialogue for a capitalist practice can’t be blamed on Planet Fashion at least, but we could agree to listen to research that shows how undermined women feel by current fashion imagery and still run a successful business. “I found that women are more likely to purchase a fashion product when they see a model who resembles them – their size, age, and ethnicity – in the advertisement,” says PhD student Ben Barry of Cambridge University who is the first to study female consumer response to fashion product cross-culturally and has interviewed 3000 women between the ages of 14 and 65 in Canada, the US, and UK. “This provides empirical evidence to show that the success of Dove, Mark Fast, and other brands that have included size and age diversity in their advertising are not anomalies.” Hard and fast research which supports growth in profits when a realistic representation of femininity is offered must challenge a default setting which has every brand automatically reaching for an underweight teenager to advance profits. Challenging the motivations of those who see women as flesh to be stylistically manipulated for an arthouse wank is equally necessary. Who exactly is getting off on the rash of beauty and fashion porn where nubile pre-orgasmic women posture inappropriately? ‘Top shelf,’ magazines don’t accesorise naked women with expensive handbags, fashion publications that do, condone an internalised misogyny that is routinely dressed up as artistic and edgy expression. Lack of imagination crops up in writing too…should we really be asking a world famous model what she hates about her body? Perhaps institutionalised body dysmorphia is a default setting for all of us, and only to be expected in an industry where breasts in particular are all but ignored by an aesthetic that that aspires to pubescent waifdom. On that note…should one also assume that the skill set of some catwalk designers is limited? “Pattern cutting is a craft in itself,” explains Kathryn Sargent Head Cutter at Gieves and Hawkes who is originally Art School trained. “The bespoke skills I now have as a result of being on Saville Row for 14 years allow me to deal with each body as an individual set of measurements. Pattern cutting for a production line, and a Ready to Wear range, is a different skill.” Understanding that Ready-to-Wear bodies need to be identical to slot into the idea-sample-runway-process like a non variable component is one thing, but the attraction to underweight teenager, when a sleek and healthy adult woman works just as well, surely reflects an industry struggling with its own arrested development. In recent months there has been plenty of fashion debate about bodies, but to prevent any enlightened thinking being relegated to ‘trend’ by an industry that craves the next big story, we have to act. Blue Sky thinking begs the question…What if the entire fashion industry approached things differently this time, to lead the way in acknowledging what a powerful force it is in communicating to women about their bodies, more powerful than music, sport, art and film put together and Actually Did Something About It? Better still, what if student designers upon entering Art School had the chance to see the body as a shape that has infinite design possibilities? What if there was a whole range of tailors dummies in different sizes to work on giving students of design the opportunity to be creative with bodies too? Gosh darn it; what if there was excitement around Individuality? Difference? Otherness? The very thing that makes London what it is? “This is the debate that education can influence,” agrees Adrien Parry Roberts course leader fashion U.C.A Epsom. “I was asked by a school leaver looking to begin her fashion training with us, how my teaching staff approached diversity. It was an excellent question and as we, like many other colleges only have a UK size 8 tailors dummy for students to train on I realized we needed to act on her question. We have to find the recourses to expand upon what we offer to designers.” Now we’re cooking with gas. So while we are at it, let’s recruit other trainee fashionistas: the image makers, the stylists, the show producers, the photographers, the writers and the fashion editors to question the concepts and the culture underpinning today’s thinking around bodies, faces diversity and difference. After all Every Body Counts. It’s what All Walks Beyond the Catwalk (a campaign devoted to broadening the range of professional models at London Fashion Week in age, size and race) will discuss with 61 course leaders at Graduate Fashion Week in June. Because if today’s students: tomorrow’s big industry names, truly understand the power and the reach of contemporary fashion imagery… then perhaps, just perhaps we are talking about an industry with something new to say. Caryn Franklin Photography Captions All Walks beyond the Catwalk presented ‘Every Body Counts,’ a live photographic exhibition at London Fashion Week Feb 2010 from Vauxhall Fashion Scout, to canvass opinion about diversity. 168 people responded…read more on www.allwalks.org Photographers Credit: Alice Hale, Matt Ritson and Matt Craig NB. We may also have a film…