(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, August 17, 2004.)
Have you heard this one? It is yet another excuse that fashion insiders use to "justify" the suppression of plus-size beauty in their industry:
"The reason why designers don't use plus-size models is that they would distract from the clothing."
As a fashion myth, it is almost too silly to address--except that some people actually believe it.* * *
But the real reason why it warrants a moment's consideration here is because the statement points to a fundamental problem within the fashion industry--and specifically, with the people who dominate it. Because anyone who could even formulate such an idea clearly has the wrong idea of what fashion should be all about.
Ask yourself: what does it tell you about a designer's priorities if he finds natural, womanly curves a "distraction" from his creations?
It tells you that he is not interested in human beings, but in inanimate fabric.
It tells you that he thinks clothing is more important than people.
It tells you that his priority is not how his designs look on human bodies, but how they look on a sketch pad--or hanging on a wire hanger.
It tells you that he regards the female figure as a hindrance to the only thing that he actually does find interesting--i.e., his own warped vision.
It tells you that he sees fashion in terms of a conflict between the clothing and the bodies that wear it, and that he prefers to see his clothing displayed on flat surfaces--i.e., on walking wire hangers--so that his creations win that conflict.
Well, anyone who believes that fashions look best on flat surfaces should be making wallpaper, not women's clothing.
Sadly, this approach to artistic creation--in which artists concentrate solely on their own inhospitable visions, and attempt to remove the human being from the artistic equation--is not confined to the art of fashion.
In the 20th century, this approach infested every art form. This is how we ended up with a culture in which artists paint freakish canvasses that no one wishes to view, and poets assemble chaotic texts that no one can bear to read, and musicians arrange atonal compositions that no one can stand to hear.
But it wasn't always this way.
In another day and age, "high art" was also beloved by the general public. Shakespeare's plays were the motion-picture blockbusters of their day. In the 18th century, on the streets of Prague, one could hear ordinary citizens whistling tunes from Mozart's operas. On the first day that it hit the booksellers' shops in London, Byron's narrative poem, The Corsair, sold 10,000 copies.
But during the 20th century--and particularly, over the last sixty years--an all-but-impermeable wall has arisen between "high art" and the majority of humanity. Today, artists create inaccessible works that are deliberately designed to alienate the public. Many of these artists regard the degree to which their works confound the masses as proof of their artistic merit. The only people who champion these impenetrable creations are the tiny coterie who consider themselves the art "establishment," and have appointed themselves the arbiters of artistic taste.
This process--of severing the link between human beings and works of art--has been especially detrimental to the art of fashion, because, by its very nature, fashion depends on a relationship with the human body.
After all, fashion is not meant to be a pencil sketch in a notepad, or an artifact mounted on a wall. It is meant to be worn. An item of apparel is only an unsung note until it actually clothes a living form.
Just as a great symphony is nothing but marks on a page
until it is brought to life in a performance by a symphony orchestra
so is a fashion design incomplete until it enfolds a human body.* * *
For a designer to say that a womanly figure is a "distraction" from his designs would be like an architect saying that he finds the necessity of accommodating human needs a "distraction" in planning his buildings, and that he would prefer to design structures in which no one would live.
And yet, despite the innately symbiotic relationship between clothing and the human body, the fashion elites have attempted to factor the human being out of their art form--not just figuratively (by creating designs that most people find ugly), but physically, by tailoring their designs to a skeletal shape that is all but inhuman.
In fact, the diminishing size of the fashion model over the past several decades perfectly symbolizes how humanity, and the interests of human beings, have decreased in importance to artists throughout the 20th century. The human element has dwindled--it has been starved out--and the artist's ego has become the be-all, end-all, of the artistic process.
But all is not lost. Our society has had its fill of dissonance, and discord. The freshest and newest talents are rediscovering the harmonious principles that guided artists throughout Western history.
The rise of the "New Femininty" suggests that the conflictual approach to fashion has run its course. Rather than thinking of fashion as a struggle between the figure and the clothing, more progressive designers are seeking to revive the clothing styles of the past, which worked in harmony with womanly contours.
Instead of concocting outlandish attire for walking wire hangers, the most forward-thinking creators favour clothing that depends on a naturally curvaceous figure to give it its proper shape.
In our styling discussions, we have singled out numerous examples of this approach to fashion. Here is another instance: a pair of test images featuring Anna Shillinglaw from Wilhlemina. The styling is simply masterful:
The model's curves are not a "distraction" from the outfit. Rather, they complete it. The clothing embraces the model's figure, and her bare arms and shoulders are part of the overall "look" of the ensemble:
The body and the clothing exist in relation to one another--in harmony--each complimenting the other.
No wonder this kind of styling suits plus-size models best, since it combines timeless and contemporary elements in just the same manner that plus-size models themselves exemplify Classical beauty brought to life in the modern age.
But observe what happens when a designer showcases a feminine style on an inhumanly thin model:
This is a genuine distraction. Who can possibly concentrate on the dress, when the model's rib cage is so frighteningly visible? Who can focus on the outfit, rather than being overcome by feelings of pity for this poor, starving girl? This image will not prompt viewers to think, "I would look good in that style," but rather, "Someone, please hook up a intravenous drip to that model's arm, and take her to a hospital."* * *
Curves are no distraction--but malnutrition certainly is.
The fashion world is still in a state of flux. There is an ongoing conflict between the "old guard" of haute couture, who still think in 20th-century terms, and a host of fresher, newer elements that are looking to re-establish a continuity with the past, and are successfully updating timeless feminine designs for the modern age.
And when the forces of restoration win the day (as they surely will), they will conclude that, far from being a "distraction," womanly curves are the most essential elements in the art of fashion.
Instead of trying to reshape the human body to fit their clothing, they will shape their designs to fit the body. And when this happens, the return of the Classical ideal of fashion and feminine beauty will ensue.