Fashion and Physique: A Fashion Symposium took place on Friday, February 23, 2018, and explored historic and modern interpretations of what a desirable body is, and how this drives the fashion industry. Discussions ranged from diversity in social media, to designers’ dilemmas and acceptance of bodies considered to be outside the norm, to creating original designs for often ignored segments of the population. This symposium was in conjunction with the Museum at FIT’s current history gallery exhibit, The Body: Fashion and Physique, which is open now through May 5, 2018.
While the exhibit follows a chronological view of the fashionable body from the 18th century to the present day, the symposium is able to dig deeper into the social constructs behind the fashionable images through the ages and further touch upon the disconnect between the fashion industry and body types that are typically omitted from the high fashion scene. Dr. Joyce Brown, president of FIT, Dr. Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT, and Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume at the Museum at FIT and curator of “The Body,” introduced the symposium.
McClendon giving opening remarks (left) and mannequins padded out for the exhibit (right)
McClendon added some interesting background information regarding the exhibit, in that the mannequin forms were needed to be padded out to support the various garments throughout history. This was due to the great variety of fashionable shapes through the ages and because of the actual bodies of the people who wore them. This brought to mind the practicality of the need to adapt the latest styles, regardless of whether or not the wearer actually was the “correct” shape, to the consumer’s body.
Tim Gunn (left) with Valerie Steele (right)
Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame and honorary chair of fashion design at Parson’s School of Design, spoke with Dr. Valerie Steele regarding the fleeting tendency of inclusivity by the fashion industry towards women and men that are older or larger than the perceived norm. Women are often made to feel that their bodies are not good enough, and designers are afraid of a “contamination effect,” in that if they show women larger than a size 4 or older than 30 on the runway, other women will be turned off from their designs. Gunn also noted, in relation to vanity sizing by retailers, that when he purchased new mannequins for the Parson’s design program in 2003, he noticed a 3” increase in the waist of the new mannequins from the same designated size that was purchased in 1981. This lends itself to the idea that women are always striving to be a size smaller than they actually are and that this is encouraged by evolving measurements in relation to the designated number sizes. Even as measurements related to size have grown in inches, with many aiming to achieve or believe they are purchasing a smaller size, plus-size women are still repeatedly left out of the high fashion conversation. Givenchy was given as an example of a high fashion brand that has created garments for plus-size women, “Givenchy en Plus,” but this unfortunately was a brief moment in the brand’s history. The term itself, “plus-size,” was also discussed. Gunn said he felt initially that plus-size was not an accurate way to describe sizes larger than 12, in that they should not be considered to be in their own unique category, but simply another size in within a wide range of sizes. However, he was surprised to learn when speaking to plus-size models that they actually preferred to use that word and wanted to reclaim its use as a term of empowerment.
Christian Siriano (left) Becca McCharren (center) and Kim Jenkins (right) in conversation, and the gown designed by Siriano for Leslie Jones (far right) as seen in the Museum at FIT Exhibit, The Body: Fashion and Physique
Fashion designers, Christian Siriano and Becca McCharren, followed this discussion with part-time lecturer and assistant professor at Parsons and Pratt Institute, Kim Jenkins. Both Siriano and McCharren exemplify designers who have based their brands on an inclusive platform. Siriano recalled how Saturday Night Live comedian, Leslie Jones, reached out to him in need of a gown for the Emmys last year. Due to her larger size, many designers said they simply could not make a gown for her, whereas for Siriano, making a gown for someone he admired was a no-brainer. He is confounded by the reluctance of so many companies to make clothing in larger sizes and to dress women that are older or of a certain waistline. He stated at the symposium, “A fashion designer’s job is to sell clothes.” If a designer is only creating clothing for a woman size 12 or below, they are missing an enormous segment of the population in terms of sales, besides the overlying moral or ethical reasons to do so.
Gary Dakin (left), Lauren Chan (center left), Iskra Lawrence (center right), Sara Ziff (right);recent photos from Iskra Lawrence’s Instagram page @iskra
Iskra Lawrence, plus-size model of Instagram fame, spoke with Lauren Chan, fashion features editor at Glamour, Sara Ziff of Model Alliance, and Gary Dakin, co-founder of size-inclusive JAG Models, about the effects of the industry’s tunnel vision on size when it comes to the models representing the brands. There are many unfortunate stories of models who have feelings of dysmorphia due to a limited vision by the industry. The four have struggled but achieved a level of equality in terms of showing diversity in modeling and have fought against a singular image of the stick-thin model. Dakin, in particular, expressed that stronger regulation is needed when it comes to protecting the health of models and in preventing models that are too young from partaking in the industry until they are of age to work full time.
Aimee Mullins (left on screen), Lucy Jones (left), Grace Jun (center), and Emma McClendon (right); Mullins in sculptural feet for The Order
Aimee Mullins, Olympian, model, and actress (recently in Stranger Things), is certainly another example of someone falling outside the industry norms, and represents another group often ignored by the industry. As a double leg amputee, she has experienced a sense of “other” by people who see her as existing on a completely different plane from themselves. She spoke with McClendon, and designers, Lucy Jones and Grace Jun (of Open Style Lab), about creating universal designs, and specifically for those with disabilities. Mullins described how, where most may see her amputation as an obstacle, others have been able to see it as an opportunity for taking design to extremes that are not possible with other bodies. She asks, “Why do my legs need to represent human form? Why not wearable sculpture?” She mentioned other famous women, like Sarah Bernhardt and Frida Kahlo, who also had prosthetic legs and were at the forefront of style and art. The image of Mullins in the photo on the left shows the prosthetics made for racing, a curved metallic piece, and the photo on the right shows Mullins in a futuristic set of sculptural feet for the film The Order, by Matthew Barney.
Lauren Downing Peters showing a current image from the Lane Bryant website (left) and an Ad for Lane Bryant from the 1920s (right)
Lauren Downing Peters, PhD candidate at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University and editor-in-chief of The Fashion Studies Journal, presented part of her thesis on the history of plus-size fashion. She mentioned the “Headless Fatty Phenomenon” in which our current culture has a habit of taking photos of “fat” people, cropping out their heads, and ridiculing their bodies. This speaks to the fat-shaming of which many are now aware, but stems from a long history of doing so. She also discussed the origins of Lane Bryant, one of the first plus-size womenswear companies. They attempted to advertise their garments by comparing “stout” women to Gothic buildings and seemed to encourage “stout” women to hide their bodies in various ways, like in the ad on the right titled “Stout Women: Dress Fashionably to Look Slender,” rather than celebrate their size.
Reina Lewis (left) and a screenshot from www.styledbyzubaidah.com (right)
Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion, focused on fashion for Muslim women. She mentioned the difficulty of many black Muslim women to fit into the perceived standard because of their hair. Their thicker hair created what some termed “camel hump hijab,” and unfortunately, feelings of exclusion because of the large curve of the hijab over the back of their their hair. She also said Zubaidah was one of few brands creating looks for plus-size Muslim women.
Julia Twigg (left) and a cartoon from Twigg’s presentation depicts the longstanding belief that women are beautiful and relevant for a limited time early in their lives (right)
Women and men who are older are also often ignored by the fashion industry, and Julia Twigg, author of Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life and professor at the University of Kent, talked about the stigmatism of old age in fashion. She said that fashion consistently avoids images of old age, and that older women are encouraged to wear duller colors, sober designs, and engage in a form of self-efficacy. The designs for older women tend to be one-note. Baby Boomers seem to be the catalyst for change, as a large aging segment of the population with discretionary income, but nuanced designs are still few and far between.
Dr. Ben Barry
In conclusion, Dr. Ben Barry, director of the Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change at Ryerson University, discussed the modern transformation of masculinity in fashion. He claimed this was a result of three things: 1. A slim-fit silhouette; 2. An adolescent body; 3. Self documentation. He followed social media accounts of individuals who are challenging the status quo of masculinity and male clothing and gave an example of one Instagrammer, referred to as Trevor, who used irony in his fashion posts. As a larger-size man, Trevor relished wearing crop tops, and in one post, he showed himself wearing a cropped shirt that read “Nothing Tastes as Good as Skinny Feels,” and thus, turned the phrase on its head. As an alternative to more flamboyant methods of challenging traditional male dress, Barry also dissected the suit, and how this is used as means of play for men through pattern or color while maintaining a sense of protection through an item that is iconically masculine.
The wide range of topics covered within the symposium reinforced the notion that the fashion industry still has many miles to go before it has reached a satisfying level of inclusion, accessibility, and diversity. We are on the cusp of great potential, in terms of a re-discovery of many untapped markets: designing stylish clothing for an aging population, creating high-fashion garments for plus-sizes, and finding creative, desirable solutions for people with disabilities. It is encouraging to see designs that have embraced and celebrated these marginalized groups, and hopefully through the scholarly work, body-positive social media, and forward-thinking brands that have emerged, consumers will find a broader range of fashionable options to come!