Even if you don’t prowl the fashion pages of the web, you probably saw the fracas over Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones’ difficulty in finding a designer to dress her for the film premiere. If you were outside at the time, here is her tweet:
The putative reason why designers were not stepping up is that Leslie Jones is not a size 2 or 4, and many designers have samples available only in those sizes. However, this week on PBS News Hour (and last month in the Washington Post), fashion guru Tim Gunn called out the fashion industry for not serving most American women, which he says are on average between a size 16 and 18. Why? He fills us in below:
I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, “I’m not interested in her.” Why? “I don’t want her wearing my clothes.” Why? “She won’t look the way that I want her to look.” They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt. “No one wants to see curvy women” on the runway, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer of Chanel, said in 2009. Plenty of mass retailers are no more enlightened: Under the tenure of chief executive Mike Jeffries, Abercrombie & Fitch sold nothing larger than a size 10, with Jeffries explaining that “we go after the attractive, all-American kid.”
The fact that designers make clothing based on the ideal of a long, thin body (which doesn’t reflect the anatomy of almost any actual woman, including fashion models) is no news to anyone who has ever shopped. And it’s certainly no news here on the blog.
Why I writing about this here and now, though, is because of what Gunn goes on to say, in service of size advocacy:
This is a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women. The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape. Designs need to be reconceived, not just sized up; it’s a matter of adjusting proportions. The textile changes, every seam changes. Done right, our clothing can create an optical illusion that helps us look taller and slimmer. Done wrong, and we look worse than if we were naked.
Now did Gunn go wrong here? Simply put, he’s not challenging the designer ideal at all. He still signs on to the view that looking taller and slimmer is an appropriate goal for all women (including tall and slim women). And he admits that this is an optical illusion– that none of us actually look the way that fashion dictates we should look. With bad design, we are also in danger of looking “worse than if we were naked”.
Let me understand this. The look of the naked woman (all naked women? size 6 and up women?) is bad and to be avoided by appropriate fabric draping?
Okay, enough quoting and sniping here. But seriously, Gunn is presenting himself as an ally for non-model-sized women. And he is making good points (and getting good press) for calling out the fashion industry for ignoring the fashion and design needs of most women.
But to be a real ally for size acceptance, he needs to do something he probably doesn’t want to do: let go of the tall, thin, and able body as an ideal for women’s appearance. Saying that all of us should have access to this ideal via fashion designs that create an illusion of thinness is not serving goals of body positivity. What I wish he had said was something like this:
Women (and men) come in all shapes, and there is beauty in their wondrous variety. Designers should design for the diverse bodies we have, showing some imagination in emphasizing all sorts of silhouettes. It will make fashion not only more accessible, but also more interesting. I will end here with evidence for my claim, which is the group shot of the Ghostbusters stars. Who looks the most fabulous here? Honestly, my vote is for Melissa McCarthy, but there’s enough fabulousness out there for all of us.