The rise of the plus-size model raises many questions

Fashion models have somehow become the focus for the moral outrage that has surrounded weight issues in the past two decades.

The rise of the plus-size model raises many questions

What a difference a century makes. In 1911, after a foray into pregnancy clothing, a dressmaker called Lena Bryant decided to tackle fashion for the "stout woman". Lane Bryant, as the business was eventually called, cornered the market in clothes that, to quote a 1930 advert, "make the stout figure fashionably slender".

"Stout": could ever a word carry more dreadful connotations of middle-aged spread and comical matronly solidity? Yet millions of Americans responded, making the business a huge success, because Lane Bryant offered what most women desire, whether they admit it or not: clothes that flatter, and by "flatter" I mean, to quote another Lane Bryant advert, "slenderise".

Today, in contrast, we are in the midst of what has been termed, with much positive-thinking bombast, "the curvy revolution" - and, according to one plus-size model, Marquita Pring, a US 12-14, some shoots are actually demanding extra foam padding beneath the clothes. Another such model, the US size-8 Saffi Karina, is currently having a "fat suit" made for such shoots.

Cue protest from all quarters: those who argue that plus-size models are pandering to an unhealthy ideal (ie obesity) are disgusted that stylists should be trying to make models look even larger; those who argue for body diversity within modelling are angry that yet another "standard" size is being forced onto women.

Fashion models have somehow become the focus for the moral outrage that has surrounded weight issues in the past two decades, whether the obesity epidemic or the increase in incidences of anorexia among children and teenagers.

What started off in the early 1990s as a sense of unease at the "waif" look espoused by the teenaged model Kate Moss (a look that seems positively chunky in comparison with some of today's models, on catwalks where every rib counts - and can be counted) has grown into a full-blown blog-driven rebellion, with a small number of so-called plus-size models as famous as their skinny counterparts.

And the more commentators and politicians rail against this modern scourge of healthy womanhood, the more entrenched in their positions the designers who choose to continue using thin models become.

The weight-loss/weight-gain confessional has become a modelling meme, with tales of innocent young girls exploited by ruthless model agents, eating disorders, cruel designers and airbrush-happy magazine designers offering all the painful thrills and chills of a Gothic novel. The 25-year-old Crystal Renn's autobiography Hungry offers just this plotline: a 14-year-old is ordered to starve herself into anorexia and bulimia in order to be successful, recovers from these diseases and finds international success as a plus-size model.

(The story does not cover her recent controversial weight loss; she is, apparently, now a healthy-sounding US 8, or British 12.)

Things are certainly happening in the plus-size world. The Ford modelling agency has launched a new division called Ford+; the cover of Vogue Italia's June issue shows three plus-size models - Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine and Robyn Lawley - in a black-and-white shot that evokes Sophia Loren or Elizabeth Taylor, with a 10-page spread inside, also featuring Pring, shot by Steven Meisel; and in April even that bastion of bones US Vogue ran a "Shape" issue, with the glorious (and in no way plus-size) Rihanna on the cover.

But, as with the other great controversy of modelling - the lack of racial diversity on the catwalk - plus-size model shots in magazine shoots and on the catwalk still feel somewhat tokenistic, because every other model in the industry is still expected to have those protruding clavicles and hip bones. There is, it seems, as yet little demand for a model who - like most women - sits somewhere between the walking skeleton and the extravagantly voluptuous.

There are organisations, such as All Walks Beyond The Catwalk, founded by the model Erin O'Connor, the PR supremo Debra Bourne and the fashion journalist Caryn Franklin, campaigning hard to achieve diversity in fashion.

But ultimately what will change things is the commercial imperative. The huge success of Dove's "real beauty" campaigns, from 2006 onwards, illustrates this, while Pring's advert for Levis beautifully promoted the idea of jeans designed for a curvy figure - curvy here in its true sense, rather than as the euphemism it has become. As long as women have curves, why would fashion brands not want to plunder this market?

And if we really want to redirect our collective moral compass, we should ask ourselves not whether the fashion industry is to blame for leading us astray (the fashion industry, like all other industries, will do whatever it thinks will make money) but a bigger, more perturbing question: why on earth we are looking to 16-year-old girls and dressmakers as our role models in the first place?

Published: August 7, 2011 04:00 AM


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