Imran Amed, an editor at the Business of Fashion, my go-to source for fashion news and criticism, published an op-ed yesterday on the skinny standards of the fashion industry. The piece was thoughtful but also safe and repetitious. Amed evaded engaging in any real criticism by quoting common lines of questioning from the mouths of fashion outsiders: first, from a taxi driver curious at the “flying” skinny legs in fashion adverts (“What woman wants to see those?”), and second, from Amed’s sister, a paediatric endocrinologist specializing in childhood obesity, who insisted that none of the models on the runways could be menstruating (“They all look so unhealthy”).
Amed’s goal was not to offer answers, but to open a dialogue: “Is idealised imagery a necessary part of communicating the dream of fashion? Or should brands project a more realistic image of women?” The comments thread that followed the post was, for internet standards, brilliant, capturing the varying vantage points of the debate (it’s about aspirational advertising and selling stuff; it’s about industry efficiency and showing off the clothes; it should be about body diversity and health, not thinness; blah blah blah).
The incredible shrinking model discussion has been rehearsed so many times over the last couple decades, it can feel like it’s over. But it’s not—despite all our talk, nothing has changed. (Yes, I saw that one issue of Vogue Italia.)
At this point, the why of fashion model BMI doesn’t interest me, it’s the why not question of more diversity that does. Why does the industry perpetuate a micro standard? Imran Amed admits that he has no answer. There is no one answer to that question except that it’s complicated (see the comments field of Amed’s op-ed for just how complicated). And because it’s complicated, because it’s industry wide, no one has to be responsible to it. Why not present something different seems to me a more powerful question because it can be aimed directly at producers of the fashion image. We cannot fruitfully attack a whole industry, but we can challenge an individual or company.
Last week in London, I met with Nazareno Crea, because I wanted to discuss his project Alpha Beauties with him. Alpha Beauties (pictured above) is a series of 45 portraits of women from the Western art canon that have been retouched to contemporary beauty standards. Familiar faces, like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque, have been Photoshopped by Crea to model market standards: their eyes get wider and upturned, their cheeks higher, their chins sharper. The museum nude is smoothed and stretched: bottom trimmed, breasts lifted, tummy tucked, legs lengthened.
I asked Crea if his project was designed as a critique of the contemporary fashion body. He was wary of this proposition. Alpha Beauties, he offered, was more of a “reflection” of what’s going on. Crea said he was interested in the Photoshop process, the behind-the-screens motions that result in the images we see. He explained to me how there are standards of photo retouching. A retoucher doesn’t go in looking to make a model “better,” to accentuate something he or she finds interesting in the model, but is really “going through the motions”: every portrait photograph receives the same standardized adjustments, like this upturning of the eyes. That is the retoucher’s job, Crea explained. These painterly motions, done at such a remove, is what interested him.
What’s interesting to me about Alpha Beauties is that the originals are so much more beautiful than Crea’s creations. The personality and aching emotion of these old portraits is lost in the uniformity of our current ideals. This is the same way I feel about most fashion imagery. Fashion means something to me for its connection to individuality, performance, and memory: how people present themselves at different moments in time, for different ends, and by different means, how we narrate our lives through what we wear. This storytelling involves idealism and a pursuit of beauty, but it’s the “flaws”—like the rip at the zip of a dress from when it was torn off or the curve of a wide ass beneath boyfriend jeans—that make me love what I call fashion. In its pursuit of one ideal, the fashion industry mises out on this beauty of meaning.
I understand Crea’s wanting to avoid calling his project a critique. I understand Amed’s proposing questions, instead of taking a critical stance. I don’t want to call out the fashion industry for its unrealistic body ideals. That’s boring. That’s whiny deconstruction. And we’ve heard it all already. What I’ll suggest, though, is that fashion makers think about how much more interesting their work could be with a little diversity. Diversity of models is why I love the work of Juergen Teller and Jamie Hawkesworth so much. The rest of the industry would do well to follow their lead. Why not challenge yourselves by dressing not-model bods? Why not not retouch? If fashion is about anything, it’s about the new, and nothing is more tired in fashion than the protruding ribs of a white European teenager.