Plus-size designs by . . . Galliano

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Posted by HSG on May 18, 2005 at 17:37:30:

If there is one, single designer from among the haute-couture elite who might actually make a contribution to the aesthetic restoration, it is John Galliano.

True, Galliano may be just as devoted to androgyny and outdated 20th-century modernism as the next designer.

But he also flirts with the aesthetic restoration--especially when he designs for the house of Christian Dior, in Paris.

The Dior couture shows, unique among those of the Parisian design houses, have often exhibited influences that predate 20th-century artifice. For S/S 2004, for example, Galliano created an Egyptian fantasy, complete with Tutankhamun headpieces:

(Note the armlets.)

For S/S 2005, he invoked the empire-waist styles of Napoleonic France:

And, as we discussed several months ago, in an essay titled "Aristocratic Chic," the Winter 2004 Dior show featured models packed with padding of every sort, in order to fill out the regal gowns that Galliano had designed for the occasion, and to give them a semblance of shape.

True, the fact that Galliano did not therefore enlist the services of actual plus-size models to fill his needs for that show, and chose instead to pad up some waifs, can be considered a missed opportunity of the first rank.

But we are not prepared to write off Mr. Galliano just yet. After all, most designers wouldn't have permitted any padding in the first place, and would have resisted anything that gave their designs even a hint of a feminine shape. Galliano's experiment with faux-womanliness might indicate that he at least finds himself . . . tempted by the allure of the plus aesthetic.

But a better argument for his possible interest in full-figured beauty comes in the form of his contributions to a fascinating project organized by Nick Knight's online ShowStudio, titled "Outsize?"

Nick Knight, you may remember, was the groundbreaking British photographer who, in 1997, shot latter-day "British Blondes" Sophie Dahl and Sara Morrison (both plus-size models at the time) for major fashion magazines--the latter, in fact, for British Vogue.

And Nick Knight demonstrated even further support for full-figured femininity with this "Outsize?" endeavour. According to ShowStudio, the 2002 project

challenge[d] fashion's finest to create the industry's Holy Grail: inspiring womenswear designs for sizes 16 and over.

Interesting, no?

Apparently, twelve "leading designers" took up this challenge. Sad to say, most of their designs were rather disappointing. What's worse, some of them were positively off-colour, which prevents us from being able to discuss the complete results.

However, one designer whose contributions to this project were not only successful, but well-nigh perfect (indeed, inspired) was . . . John Galliano.

But before we discuss his specific designs, let's read the relevant portion of an essay that accompanied this project (emphasis added, throughout):

There is always a difference between the ideal and the real, but in the case of larger bodies, it is quite great. As I see it, the brief given to designers to design for the 16+ woman was not merely a call for clothes for that fit the 'fuller figure'; there are outsize shops to cater for this, although many larger women bemoan the lack-lustre designs found in them. Instead, I think the challenge of this project is far greater than that: to not to merely dress the larger body, but generate a different view of beauty, a different ideal, an aesthetic which celebrates size. It is both extraordinary and exciting that the major fashion designers showing their work here have risen to this challenge: the thin body is so entrenched within the fashion industry and yet fashion has the power, if it so wishes, to make larger bodies beautiful. The designers showing their work have succeeded in producing images of the female body that are a real aesthetic alternative to the conventional one of fashion.

Looking at these designs, I am struck by the way in which the bodies in the illustrations take up space. The typical body of fashion, the one found on the runway or inside a fashion magazine, is like a two-dimensional illustration. Thin fashion models remind one of line-drawings; their long thin frames present an almost abstract outline upon which clothes simply hang. The justification of the constant use of extremely thin bodies has some designers and fashion editors using the analogy of the coat-hanger: beautiful clothes, they claim, look better on a flat, straight body, just as they do on a coat-hanger. This argument has never been convincing: bodies, not coat-hangers are, after all, the ultimate destination of clothes, so clothes that only look good on the hangers deserve to remain there. If these designs do anything they definitely challenge this coat-hanger idea. With bosoms and bottoms that protrude, these designs give the impression of three dimensions; in other words, like the flesh and blood bodies of many women. However, what makes them unique is that they are definitely not 'outsize'. Unlike much outsize clothing on the high-street, which serve to obscure the body, make it appear smaller, these designs do not apologise but celebrate the curves, exaggerating them even. They make a positive virtue out of flesh rather than bone. Indeed, they make one question why it is that the bony body of the fashion model is also the sexy body that so incessantly promoted: the qualities of flesh are infinitely more erotic than those of bone.

Outsize? will hopefully help to extend the definitions of the body beautiful. If couture designers have the imagination to generate new ideas of how we see the 16+ body, then fashion, and perhaps our collective fantasy of the ideal body, can be radically re-envisaged.

This is one of those texts that everyone who works in the field of plus-size fashion at any level, from designer to model to photographer to stylist to marketing manager, should copy, print, and post above their desks.

The key issue is this:

[T]he challenge of this project is . . . not to merely dress the larger body, but generate a different view of beauty, a different ideal, an aesthetic which celebrates size

As long as efforts at advancing the cause of full-figured femininity try to establish plus-size fashion as an expression of homely "reality," in contrast to the "ideal" of high-street fashion, it will fail, and remain forever in the margins, unwanted and unloved by everyone, except by those who put politics over aesthetics.

We cannot repeat this point often enough (and we are encouraged when others echo this sentiment): plus-size beauty must be viewed as a distinct ideal, an ideal of its own, for a real aesthetic restoration to take place.

Now, with that in mind, let's examine Galliano's plus-size designs.

The first drawing is interesting enough--a grown-up Red Riding Hood, headcover and all. With red being the colour of . . . transgression, one might almost think of this design as the metaphysical opposite of convent attire. What we see in this design is, in a manner of speaking, the anti-nun, the high-priestess of the powers of passion, Venus luring Tannhäuser away from a straight-size Elizabeth. The fit is very figure-embracing, and the design is, naturally, sleeveless. This design shows how fashion can tailor its more whimsical side to the look of plus-size beauty:

But Galliano's second design is far more exciting, and it is also truly wearable. He has obviously invoked the "body-as-fashion-accessory" principle that suits plus-size beauty so well, whereby the gown functions as a frame for the intrinsic allure of the fuller female figure. And note with what relish Galliano has drawn the fullness of this figure, showing off her shapely legs and unapologetically full thighs. Again, he has designed a dress with a dramatically body-embracing fit, one which lingers over the curves of the wearer's figure. Galliano has even clearly indicated the roundness of her abdomen, by the manner in which it catches the light, and presented that as an essential part of the beauty of both the dress, and the wearer.

Note also that he has given his sketch model very long hair (a detail that invariably enhances the allure of plus-size beauty). In fact, she is the spitting image of Charlotte Coyle--right down to the colour of her dress, which matches the colours in which Torrid chose to dress Charlotte, on many of her Torrid covers.

* * *

When the reformers finally stop thinking politically, and start thinking aesthetically, and when designers finally discover the essential aesthetic appeal of the timeless ideal of full-figured femininity--then, and only then, will plus-size beauty be visible on the world's catwalks, perfume ads, magazines, and in every other expression of popular culture.

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