Vol. I: September–December, 2001.
A Eulogy for MODE
We still remember the day that we first heard of MODE magazine. In was early in 1997, and a CNN anchor was interviewing one of MODE’s publishers, who was explaining the unique aims of her soon-to-debut mainstream fashion glossy that would be targeting the plus-size consumer market.
We couldn’t believe our ears.
We quickly jotted down the name of the magazine, and began scanning the newsstands, day after day, looking for its appearance.
When the Spring ’97 issue finally debuted, the cover was a bit of a disappointment, but oh, there was the new Kate Dillon, looking beautiful and blonde and full—like an angel in a Rubens painting. MODE may not have been everything that we had hoped for, but it was pretty close.
The only sad part was that we had to wait three months before the next issue came out.
We promptly tore one of the subscription cards out of that premier issue, and eagerly mailed it in, signing up for two years (which, at the time, meant eight issues).
Two years. Are you kidding? We would have subscribed for ten years, if it had been possible.
And for a long time afterwards, nothing in our lives was more eagerly anticipated than our monthly MODE “hit.” The subscription service to Canada was slow, so new MODEs often showed up on newsstands a full week before they appeared in our mailbox. We never had the patience to wait that extra week for the subscribers’ editions, so we often purchased the first copies that we saw, and ended up with duplicates of every MODE from 1997 and 1998.
Those were the “golden years” of curvaceous fashion, a time when plus-size beauty finally entered the cultural mainstream. Nick Knight famously shot size-16 British bombshell Sara Morrison for British Vogue (which, alas, turned out to be a one-time-only affair). Sophie Dahl—then a solid size 14—was causing a firestorm of controversy in U.K. fashion circles. Alicia Machado gained forty pounds while wearing the Miss Universe crown, and shocked everyone by how much better she appeared at her new weight, instead of the “concentration-camp chic” look that originally won her the crown. Lane Bryant had reoriented itself to target a younger demographic, and had gone from matronly to modern, overnight.
And MODE was in the capable editorial hands of Veronique Vienne and A.G. Britton, who had somehow, magically, found the perfect tone and look for their magazine.
Few people remember this today, but MODE did have a progenitor. It was patterned closely after a British publication called Yes! magazine, which offered the same mix of fashion, beauty, and light articles, and used models in the same 14–18 size range. MODE also followed Yes! in focussing on upmarket designs, emphasizing fashion in middle- and upper-range prices, and in imitating the “slick,” polished presentation of Vogue, Elle, et al.
The most remarkable thing about Yes! and MODE was how different they were, in look and tone, from the U.S. publication BBW—which had always had a slightly amateurish feel, and which, by targeting consumers in a lower economic range, and by attempting to appeal to women of every size past 14, had alienated much of its target audience. MODE’s ads looked like Vogue ads; MODE’s spreads looked like Elle spreads.
The only difference was that MODE used plus-size models.
What really distinguished MODE from every other “plus” magazine that preceded it was that it emphasized aesthetics, rather than politics. Whereas BBW and Radiance always had an “activist” feel, and lectured their readers about the “issues” associated with being fuller-figured, MODE (so it seemed) just wanted to help plus-size women look good.
And that message was much more appealing.
BBW always reminded its readers that they were on the margins of fashion. MODE showed its readers that they were part of the mainstream, that their tastes need not differ from those of their underweight friends and co-workers. MODE’s slick, commercial presentation gave it a feeling of popular legitimacy that BBW and other publications targeting plus-size consumers sorely lacked.
MODE did not tell its readers that they were “big.” It showed them that they were beautiful.
MODE made its readers feel normal, by normalizing plus-size beauty. It found its target audience (“Style is sizes 12, 14, 16…”), and stuck with it.
For a while.
But just as MODE’s success was due to aesthetics, its failure was due to politics. The writing was on the wall when MODE’s long-anticipated junior publication called Girl debuted. Unlike MODE, Girl wanted to be everything for everyone. The editors prioritized their political dream of a hyper-democratic magazine “for every body” over the desires of their readers. Girl featured models “in all sizes” (which actually meant than an occasional size-10 teen would appear in the bottom-left corner of a promwear spread, surrounded by straight-size models).
But a magazine “for every body” is really “for no body.” When you attempt to speak to everyone, you speak to no one. Plus-size teens found themselves marginalized in a magazine that ostensibly had been created for them. They could better relate to MODE itself than to this new, unfocussed publication, and Girl soon dropped all pretense of serving the plus-size teen market.
Despite this warning, MODE was already moving in the same misguided direction. If there is a person at whose doorstep we can lay most of the blame for the magazine's demise, it is Corynne Corbett, who took over as editor-in-chief of MODE at the end of 1998 and held that position until 2001. Under Corbett‘s direction, MODE dropped its “12, 14, 16…” banner, and started using smaller and smaller models—first 10s, then, insultingly, even 8s. Long-time models who had been popular with MODE’s readers vanished, and the few who remained—except for Barbara Brickner—were pressured into losing weight. (Rumours that Corbett started working for a weight-loss magazine after leaving MODE do not surprise this writer one bit.)
In a misguided effort to become more “marketable,” MODE lost its market.
In an effort to become more ordinary, MODE eschewed the qualities that had made it unique.
And what members of the “size acceptance” movement (to whom MODE was “a bit of fluff,” or “Cosmo with twenty more pounds,”) often fail to realize, is that an aesthetic approach is a political approach. Aesthetics have a political effect. By showing curvaceous models wearing expensive, high-fashion designs, MODE broke the stereotype that plus-size women exclusively come from lower-class backgrounds. By featuring voluptuous models whose beauty arrested the eye of even the most size-antagonistic members of the general public, MODE defied the media‘s synonymous use of “full-figured” and “unattractive” as terms to describe a woman’s appearance.
Now that MODE is gone, will the plus-size fashion world revert to its pre-MODE days? We hope not. We hope, rather, that enterprising individuals will recall the aesthetic vision that made MODE so successful, and someday attempt to revive it.
September 29, 2001
It may be considered “bad form” to re-post something here that originally appeared on another Web site, but the following statement was written by Nancy Lewinter herself, one of MODE magazine’s two original publishers (or at least authorized by her), and was posted on the “Mode Matters” forum on Wednesday.
We consider this declaration especially significant because it confirms, one and for all, what the true intent of the magazine was, from its inception. It is the same intent that this Web site (The Judgment of Paris) always claimed it was:
MODE was more than a magazine, it was a philosophy and a belief…that it was time to change the world's perception of full-figured women from Big, Large, Fat and Queen to simply and descriptively Full-Figured…that it was time to expand the singular definition of beauty to one that included all sizes, all shapes, and all ethnicities…that full-figured women deserve the best in fashion, beauty and lifestyle information…that MODE would be a publication both directive to, and reflective of, the 62 million fabulous women in this country who wear sizes 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24 and above. We worked to improve the fashion out there by encouraging designers to enter our market. We urged retailers to move our departments out of the basement and from behind the maternity departments. We fought to get advertisers to view us as a mainstream fashion and beauty publication with mainstream readers, not second-class citizens. [ellipses are Ms. Lewinter’s]
While these stated goals are laudable, especially the notion of pushing full-figured women out of the margins of fashion and into the mainstream, the declaration also reveals a troubling contradiction that was present in the founders’ vision; one that was never resolved during the life of the magazine. On the one hand, Lewinter states that the magazine targeted readers size 12 and above, and wanted to alter the world’s perception of them. On the other hand, she claims that MODE’s intent was to expand the definition of beauty to include “all sizes, all shapes, and all ethnicities.”
These goals are not identical; in fact, as it turned out, a heightened emphasis on the latter goal increasingly sabotaged an effective realization of the former, especially during MODE’s final two years.
There is a difference between saying that “full-figured women are beautiful,” and saying that “everyone and everything is beautiful.” One method employs beauty as a tool for spreading one’s message. The other method sabotages the very notion of beauty itself.
One cannot define the concept “high” by saying that “everything is high.” One has to indicate that it is “not low,” and that some things therefore are low. One cannot define “greatness” without acknowledging that there also exists mediocrity in the world. And one cannot define “beauty” by saying that “everything is beautiful.” Beauty exists by defining itself against that which is not beautiful.
When MODE began, it posited that women who wear sizes 12 and up are just as beautiful (indeed, more beautiful) than women who wear single-digit dress sizes—and if we didn’t think so, well, there was Barbara Brickner in a form-fitting knit dress to prove it. But of late, MODE was more likely to show us fashions worn by Brighid Sheehan or Donna Simchowitz, whom no one would identify as “plus” if they were in a publication other than MODE. Featuring models such as these may have helped to satisfy the goal of presenting the magazine as a publication for “all shapes, all sizes,” but it also sidelined MODE’s core readership, who found themselves occupying a diminishing share of a magazine that, originally, had declared that is was for them.
It is highly significant that of all the criticisms levelled at MODE (many of them unjust or unfair), the one legitimate complaint that readers brought up on various forums, time and again, was never addressed: “Why did MODE change? Why did it use smaller and smaller models, and eliminate the qualities that had made it unique?” We still wish that someone at the magazine would address this issue. The answer would be most illuminating.
October 6, 2001
A Big Myth: Fantasy versus Reality
In the wake of the demise of MODE, a spectacular row erupted between the magazine’s devotees and BBW’s supporters. Their points of contention are not relevant to this topic, but it is fitting that some blood was finally spilled between these two camps because, with a few notable exceptions, they do represent two very different notions of plus-size modelling.
In fact, popular thinking about how to promote full-figured fashion has largely become polarized between these two visions, and on various forums, battles frequently break out between the proponents of either one.
One school of thought maintains that plus-size models should look as much like straight-size models as possible. This is the faux-plus FANTASY AESTHETIC approach. Its enemies decry this notion of modelling as one based on the propagation of illusion.
According to this camp, plus-size models should be size 10s or 12s, with boyish, slim figures. Or, if they are (*gasp*) 14s, they must be masculine and muscular.
This is the vision that MODE championed in its final years of existence, and that Lane Bryant has adopted for years. The basic principle is to disguise the fact that plus-size models are plus sized. In addition to size restrictions, photographs are carefully selected based on how effectively they minimize the models' curves, and disguise any hint of actual fullness in their figures.
Although this notion of plus-size modelling does have an aesthetic basis, it is a misguided aesthetic. It is the aesthetic of agents and talent scouts who specialize in straight-size models, and to whom the very notion of a plus-size model is an aberration. Inevitably, they apply the same standards for selecting plus-size models that they do for choosing straight-size talent. Some of their rules are valid (good teeth, clear skin), but many are not.
Advocates of the contrary school of thought are fiercely opposed to this principle. Their doctrine is rooted in politics rather than aesthetics. This is the ORDINARY WOMAN approach. Its supporters do insist that plus-size models should be plus sized, but they also maintain that the models should represent “reality.” How? By looking as plain and average and ordinary as possible. Ironically, the proponents of this school do not dispute the supposed beauty of the faux-plus models. Rather, they direct their efforts at banishing beauty from modelling altogether. “Everyone is beautiful” they claim, in an effort to remove all standards from plus-size modelling apart from sheer size.
Inevitably, this view ties plus-size modelling in with “lifestyle” modelling, which is straight-size modelling using ordinary-looking women, i.e., women who “don’t look like models.”
The enemies of this method say, quite rightly, that this notion of plus-size modelling is severely detrimental to the advancement of size celebration. Its basic flaws are obvious: “Okay, society thinks that plus-size women are unattractive, therefore let’s fight this prejudice by using…unattractive models.” How ludicrous. Such a policy only confirms media stereotypes which maintain that fuller-figured women are ugly. It perpetuates the myth that plus-size consumers are frumpy, dumpy, and unfashionable.
But this anti-aesthetic approach always fails to “work” for the general public because, quite simply, most people don’t feel this way. Most people have an innate love of beauty, and to be shown dreadful-looking “models” and to be told, “See her? She represents you!” is a gross insult, and devastating to a woman's self-image.
Trying to eradicate the notion that plus-size women are ugly by attempting to erase the concept of beauty altogether is like trying to fight poverty by making everyone poor. It is a socialist levelling impulse gone mad.
Although the advocates of both concepts are locked in mortal combat to determine the fate of plus-size modelling, their positions share a great lie between them. Both implicitly accept the notion that Beauty with a capital “B” ends at size 10/12, and that if you are going to have larger models, you must first eliminate the notion of beauty as a factor in modelling.
One group therefore rejects women of size, the other rejects women of beauty.
But there is a third way, of course—one that is neither empty fantasy, nor homely reality. Beyond the artificial and the mundane, there is a vision of the true Ideal. It is the feminine Ideal that painters and poets and sculptors have celebrated in artworks for centuries, and that, for a very short while in its early years, MODE magazine did attempt to revive.
Why not use models who are genuinely full-figured, and beautiful?
Why not use models who wear a dress size 14 and larger, and who are held to uncommonly high standards of attractiveness?
We do not need to eliminate ideals in plus-size modelling. Quite the opposite. We want a better ideal, a natural ideal, a healthy ideal…a timeless ideal.
Yes, fashion should be about “fantasy and aspiration”—as the proponents of the faux-plus and even the straight-size models claim—but it is true plus-size models who should personify the fantasy, and motivate the aspiration.
Glamorous images of a false ideal were the tools used to brainwash the public in the first place, and only equally glamorous images of a better ideal will provide a corrective to this. Only images such as these will deprogram society.
Only an aesthetic assault on the media will shatter stereotypes about plus-size women. Only images of models who are indisputably beautiful on their own terms, and who would be considered goddesses in any century prior to the twentieth—indeed, in any era before the ascendancy of the mass media as arbiter of culture in the Western world—will pierce the veil of illusion that the media has spun about women’s ideal appearance, and restore the natural understanding of femininity that is essential to human consciousness.
November 19, 2001
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