I’m a month into my fashion design degree and I want to start off by saying that I’m really enjoying it so far! I am learning more than I even knew existed, my classmates are great and my teachers are generally fantastic. One unexpected thing I feel like I’m learning, however, is how the conflict between fashion and body diversity starts early in the design process, way back in illustration. I certainly don’t know everything (or even most things) about fashion illustration– but I’d like to give my perspective from the beginning as I straddle the line between insider and outsider.
In my fashion illustration class, we’re learning how to create the classic fashion figure. My fashion illustration teacher is a really nice woman. When she offers critiques, she honestly is trying to help us makes portfolios that will be more appealing to future employers. But I can’t help but feel disconcerted when she described my drawing as “chunky.” I looked at her quizzically. “It’s fashion!” was her succinct explanation. She came around the next week and described the arm of my drawing as “emaciated.” If we’re going to be honest, I still can’t really tell the difference. (She also tells me to make my shapes ‘more feminine’– that’s a whole ‘nother issue).
One important thing that we’re learning about in all our classes is training our eyes; training them to see what is falling straight, training them to see good proportions and training them to see what the ‘right’ fashion form is. It’s the last one that’s the most difficult and I think poses a problem for (non-model) women who want clothes that will suit and flatter them. There is method to the way fashion figures are done. Their legs are always disproportionately long; they are always skinny, with certain bust/hip/waist proportions and waist height.
Not all designers work alike: some prefer to sketch, others prefer to drape and I’m sure some do things I haven’t even thought of get. For this scenario, let’s imagine you like to sketch our designs first. You are the designer. You’ve drawn a vision of loveliness that you are just hoping will be executed even better than you have sketched it. The woman wearing it is a long-haired goddess who would be 8-feet tall and a size 0 if she actually existed. Now imagine that you made this gown for a 5″4′ size 18. Wouldn’t you find your vision compromised?
I’m also taking a required life drawing class at the same time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: both life drawing and fashion are supposed to be teaching us to render anatomy, but in different ways. Life drawing is the class least connected to fashion in my curriculum and is not taught by a fashion teacher. I’ve taken life drawing before and I find it to be an extremely enjoyable class, and one that can be very helpful for anyone looking to get a better understanding of the human body. To me, the comparison causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance.
In both fashion and life drawing, creating a convincing figure is key and both inform the other: when I am in life drawing, sometimes it is helpful to simplify the figure down to its pose to make sure I’m getting the weight distribution right, while in fashion drawing, a knowledge of real bodies definitely helps with proportion and musculature. That’s really where the similarity stops, however. When you spend some time with a nude model in a life drawing class getting into different poses, you see just how fat and muscles move and fold. All of the models that I’ve had so far have been quite thin, definitely no larger than I am and yet the curves of their bodies and folds of their skin are key to the way I draw them. Yes, my fashion figures do have some curves, but we simplify by making everything more angular, thinner. The rules about size and shape of body parts in my life drawing parts are guidelines, drawn from life– the rules in my fashion drawing class are strict, divorced from the variation of actual bodies. What I am supposed to do is look at my life drawing and think, “normal,” while in my fashion drawing class I should think, “Too fat and too short.” Maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to find these two standards confusing.
What this says to me is that if the designers of the future are trained with a one-size-fits all philosophy when it comes to what a fashion figure is, then it’s no wonder that stylish clothes seem nigh impossible to find in larger sizes. If the rules that dictate what a fashion figure is dictate that it is extremely skinny, is it any wonder that fashion and fatness seem impossible to imagine in the same context.
For any marginalized group, there is a problem of imagination that helps reinforce the status quo. That’s one reason that the overwhelming whiteness of the models of fashion week is a problem– if people of color are left out of fashion’s collective imagination, they will continue to be the ‘other’ and the outsiders. Sometimes we have to train our brains to be inclusive.
That’s why it concerns me that fashion only imagines one body. There is room for visions that don’t fit into the traditional ‘model’ mode– but how can that vision come to pass if we aren’t even being taught to sketch it. Honestly, it’s no wonder that designers want a particular body type on the runway if that is the body type they imagine their designs on! There are a lot of industry reasons why designers use the types of models they do, but I think that I also understand how a designer would truly believe.that their designs ought to be shown on a woman 5′ 11″ with 34″ hips.
I really don’t know if I will end up designing for plus sizes, although if I pursue designing full bust bras it certainly seems like a possibility. But even if it’s not me, someone will need to be. 50% of the women in America are a size 14+ and they want clothes. Doesn’t it seem odd that the fashion illustrations that line the walls of one of the top design schools in the country are ALL the same shape? If I (and the wannabe fashion designers like me) are being taught to see and produce to one specific ideal and one physical shape, it doesn’t surprise me that this is the first year there has been a plus size line at NYFW. Although there are plenty of physical challenges that stand in the way of designing for any body shape, I don’t think failure of the imagination should be one of them.