Amisha Ghadiali, Natasha Pearlman, Hadley Freeman and June Sarpong at the WOW festival

The banners were out at the South Bank – bright flashes of red and yellow signposting the scale of this year’s Women of the World festival. From the media to mental health, discussions ranged wide. So where better to seek out a synthesis between fashion and feminism on a Saturday afternoon than in a WOW talk on style, beauty and sustainability? Chaired by June Sarpong, with Hadley Freeman (journalist and Guardian columnist), Natasha Pearlman (deputy editor of Elle) and Amisha Ghadiali (ethical advocate) speaking, the session covered topics from commerce to identity and self-creation.

The issue of body image quickly appeared, with Hadley Freeman (who provided much of the commentary on the topic) stating from the outset that she was “not going to defend fashion’s obsession with skinniness” – later noting that she no longer attended shows for a variety of reasons, including discomfort at the models showcasing the creations becoming “skinnier and skinnier” and “younger and younger.” This slender ideal undermines what is, according to Freeman, an essentially pro-women industry that provides enjoyment, creativity and commercial success.

But the typical criticisms leveled at fashion, such as the links between imagery and eating disorders, are too clearly drawn in Freeman’s opinion. She believes that to box the problem away as the consequence of fashion imagery – thus suggesting a defined process of cause and effect – is to diminish women who suffer; Freeman herself had anorexia as a teenager. And yet, as June Sarpong responded, the widespread presence of one type of ideal can, and does, “breed insecurity.”

Will the industry ever change to become more encompassing? My question was met with an interesting response from Freeman in which she discussed the correlation between the statistical UK size of a woman, and expected measurements on the catwalk. The inches are growing further apart; models’ bodies becoming ever smaller as the average dress size grows larger. Although there have always been ideals, the body shapes celebrated today are visibly narrower than those promoted in previous decades. It is an issue that the fashion world is aware of – Freeman noted Alexandra Shulman’s open letter to design houses criticising unrealistic sample sizes – but the different parts of the industry are so “intermeshed” that it’s hard to find a door at which to lay blame. In her opinion, the industry would always favour one ideal above others; a view not necessarily shared by rest of the panel.

It wasn’t just issues of size that were raised. The panel was asked about the lack of black and ethnic minority models. Sarpong commented that there was greater ethnic, as well as size, diversity even in the Nineties, but that the media can’t be used to “define you” and instead “validation” must be found “from within.” Freeman mentioned Jezebel’s continuing commitment to charting the racial diversity of New York Fashion Week each season (with the most recent findings for AW13 showing that white models made up 82.7% of those walking in the NY shows). The general consensus was that the level of racial discrimination could potentially be a legal issue, and that it’s a problem that people need to keep shouting and writing about.

 The final question addressed age, and the perceived lack of clothes, adverts and magazines aimed at older women, despite their spending power. Natasha Pearlman responded with the claim that all magazines have a demographic to target and for ELLE this is typically bracketed between 18 and 45. Such publications tailor their message accordingly. She mentioned the recent Lanvin campaign using models of varying ages including Jacquie Murdock and Tziporah Salamon (inspired by Ari Seth Cohen’s fabulous blog Advanced Style), and the success of the Guardian’s ‘All Ages’ line up in the Saturday magazine – observing that newspapers have the potential to cater for a wider range of ages due to a more varied readership. Though suggestions of alternative magazines were made, none seem to quite fit the bill; perhaps demonstrating that there is still a gap in the market for a magazine that treats fashion in an innovative and creative way, whilst taking full account of all forms of diversity.

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Rosalind Jana is seventeen, currently at Sixth form doing A Levels and has a place at Oxford reading English Literature as of October.  She won the Vogue Talent Contest 2011 at age 16, with a prize-winning piece (a satirical take on an agricultural show written in ‘fashion show’ style) published in the magazine last year. She also gained a month’s paid work experience on the features department of Vogue which she undertook in the summer of 2012.

See Rosalind’s blog Clothes, Cameras & Coffee