Up on the Catwalk

by Rob Horning

7 December 2006


Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a story about Italy’s attempts to ban too-thin models from Milan’s fashion events:

“We believe we can favor models with a sunny, Mediterranean image, not fragile young women,” Mr. Boselli [the head of the National Chamber for Italian Fashion, an industry group] said in an interview. “Optimistic-looking models are in line with Italian fashion.”

This group has no actual authority and is reacting preemptively to the recent death of model Ana Carolina Reston from anorexia, so some cynicism as to what difference this will make in the long run may be warranted—industry groups don’t exactly have much incentive to enforce their voluntary guidelines; usually these announcements are meant to generate news stories (like this one) and disseminate the vague idea that the industry cares and is in the process of changing for the better. Whether or not anything actually changes will probably be determined by whether or not the sort of people who buy expensive clothes and send fashion ideas trickling down the trend chain hold them accountable. The article concludes with some taste-makers from American fashion magazines saying reasonable things.

If the movement does gather momentum, it could change the ways fashion houses design the clothes and looks that define their image world-wide. Some experts say it would actually bring looks more in line with what women associate with real, glamorous lifestyles. “I don’t think that the public at large takes that many cues these days from the world of high fashion,” says Sally Singer, fashion news and features editor at Vogue. “They’re looking at celebrities and Hollywood—what’s cool for the public is filtered more through the celebrity lens these days. People buy fashion off the backs of famous people wearing them, not what a 14-year-old Eastern European model is wearing.” Tom Julian, senior vice president and director of trends at McCann Erickson, says it does “add fuel to the fire” that Italy is drafting this charter. “If discussion of this topic continues in a global sense, it will challenge the American marketplace to rethink this—we could see a visual shift from perfect models and aspirational lifestyles to more reality-based imaging,” he says.

That would be nice, but let’s face it, fashion is not about “reality-based” anything. And if you remove aspiration from the fashion industry, nothing would be left—the whole industry revolves around manufacturing aspiration and distinction. Otherwise we’d all be wearing sensible shoes and comfortable, loose-fitting garments. Fashion is primarily a vehicle for vicarious fantasy, for aspirational daydreams about leisure, impracticality, luxury, and indulgence. It’s about impossibility, and right now thin models connote that (at the ultimate price of their own health) the way fat models probably connoted an impossible plentitude to Rubens’s patrons. The discussion going on is likely a distraction, while business in fashionland will go on as usual. It seems that post-production techniques can be used on photos to make them evoke the impossible without anyone having to starve themselves; but using women with actually impossible physiques is where the industry embraces an ethos of authenticity to underwrite the frivolity of the rest of the enterprise. The models suffer to provide that germ of reality upon which the rest of us can build the fantasies.



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