In the age of the #metoo and countless other pro-women campaigns worldwide, is there a full, diverse representation of the average female body shapes by the global fashion industry?
They are known as ‘plus women’, curvy or outsize. Plus women account for a large share, possibly more than 50%, of the ladieswear market and have considerable purchasing power. Yet, they don’t have an easy life.
Ever since I can remember, my plus-size mother has complained about not finding anything “nice” to wear or the right size for her body shape. Even when she was relatively young, she had to resort reluctantly to formal, dull, ‘granny’ clothes of quite expensive boutiques, as high street names couldn’t cater for her needs (something that the British pop star Jamelia defended as perfectly acceptable.) Granted: those were certainly more frustrating circumstances from the present digital age, where you can just google stuff, and have it delivered from China to your doorstep. Yet, as fashion has segmented in myriad niches, whether to create a new trend, reflect a music taste or identify with a specific group, the fact that it’s still plagued by this issue and that body diversity is still so overtly ignored is quite upsetting.
In the wake of the 2018 Fall/Winter Fashion Week, the statistics of the New York shows alone are somewhat puzzling. According to The Fashion Spot, only 27 plus-size models walked the shows accounting for just 1.1% of castings (down from the 34 in Spring 2018), mostly for Christian Siriano, with other well-known designers like Michael Kors only selecting the fabulous Ashley Graham. Faced with this data – and considering that the average American woman wears a misses size 16-18 (UK size 18-20) and about half of women globally needs a plus size – fashion labels seem to keep refusing stubbornly to reflect our real-world body diversity by putting under the spotlight size 6 models that are not even remotely representative of our struggles or of the often irreversible changes a female body may undergo, e.g. after a pregnancy (like for my mother and million other women in the world.)
What happened in the USA was echoed by protests in Europe at the London Fashion Week 2018 venues, where a group of curvy models led by mannequin and activist Hayley Hasselhoff campaigned for more inclusivity in fashion. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour also had her say: “The English designers still seem to very much in love with the idea that to be cool, you have to be thin. We’re taking such big steps print wise, commercial wise, and editorially, but it’s just like fashion shows are so behind still. It’s really frustrating.” Although glacially slow, fashion has certainly demonstrated doing significant strides as more retailers have started to diversify their offering, extend sizes and showcase plus-size women, thus becoming beacons of body positivity in the industry. For instance Evans has historically provided targeted ready-to-wear ladieswear, and even launched the successful #stylehasnosizecampaign in 2014 to raise awareness on the matter and celebrate women of all sizes.
Asos is undeniably another worldwide champion of inclusivity in fashion. The online retailer launched a curve section 5 years ago and just a few days ago saw a surge in appreciation on Twitter for publishing a plus-size model, Vivian Eyo-Ephraim, looking stunning in a yellow bikini, praised for delivering a real image lots of women could relate to.
— LaLa Love (@OmgLaLaLove) 28 March 2018
As the shift slowly happens, social media influencers have had an immensely positive impact. They are serving as decision-makers and vigilantes against brands that propose ‘alien’ models who are hard to connect with; faced with demands of transparency and hashtags (e.g. #ThighsForJeaux), labels are forced to tackle the problem head on (e.g. Target’s campaign Photoshop-free campaign) to avoid public shaming. It’s consumers who dictate what happens. However, it is just not happening that fast and there are still plenty of shortcomings in casting plus-size models which sometimes seem very much like a ‘pat on the shoulder’ to be considered inclusive and politically correct. According to plus-size model Brianna Marquez: “A campaign will have 10 straight-size models and only one curvy model, and it’s obvious they included her to be inclusive because it’s a thing now—it doesn’t feel genuine. Another thing that gets under my skin is when a brand adds a curvy or plus woman to a campaign, but the brand doesn’t actually carry curve sizes.” Bottom line, it is not uncommon (see Natural Models), but it is still not the norm.
My mother’s challenge represented well the core of the issue: what she had to wear wasn’t reflecting her personality, her age, her femininity. Recently, I have been quite intrigued by an interview of Donatella Versace, who has come to the defence of Jennifer Lawrence wearing a ‘revealing’ dress out in the cold London weather, a dress that was so gorgeous she said she “could have stood even in the snow with”. The Italian fashion designer also claimed that her brand aims to make women feel empowered and strong, that we should challenge ourselves and take risks to be the women we want to be. Noble mission. Do we all secretly dream to wear that unique dress that makes us feel like the only pretty girl in the room? Yes. Can we all afford to look stunning in that Versace dress? Absolutely not, some women have unhealthy lifestyles (and this article is not aiming at encouraging that); others just have to accept the fact they will never look like Jennifer Lawrence, no matter how healthy their habits are. That is not the point.
What Women Want is brands that flatter women of all sizes, that allow all of us to be contemporary and revel in our allure. We want to find clothes that inspire us and instil the confidence to express our true personality whether we are skinny, full-figured, overweight, sporty, hippy, sophisticated, hipster – everyone. Because our personality is par excellence so wonderfully multifaceted and dynamic, and there’s never going to be only one way to ‘wear’ it.
We want to see more conscious designers, bold enough to translate into tangible actions that noble mission Donatella Versace claims to have. We want to celebrate our sensuality in a nonchalant way every day as well as sensationally, with stunning evening wear.
We want to walk into a shop and be spoilt for choice, not just dream about how a dress would (never) fit us. We don’t want to be pampered with specialist ghettoized shops, we want to see how real and universal fashion can be. And yes, we also want to see more plus-size models landing international magazine covers and walking runways gloriously, because that means we will finally have someone we can relate to, someone who truly represents our real beauty and not an impossible ideal to achieve. (Watch this funny video on the stereotypes plus-size models are sick of hearing.)
In the #metoo era, where women from all walks of life are speaking up for equal, harassment-free opportunities, What Women Want is this to become your number one priority, designers, because you are the purveyors of our culture and the mirror of our reality and you have the power to fight the bigotry and challenge the status quo.