Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Posted by Bethan Holt, Fashion Junior at Large

Fashion has long been the haven of some of society's most diverse and original figures. Its reputation for welcoming the weird, the wonderful and the avant-garde goes way back. It's how fashion stays new. So in many ways it's strange that we even need All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, the initiative run by Caryn Franklin, Debra Bourne and Erin O'Connor. But the reality is now that fashion mostly demands models who are very tall, very young, very thin and very white- a narrow ideal of beauty which is just one of the many troubling issues our society as a whole has with body image.

This morning, I went along to All Walks' forum at Graduate Fashion Week where tutors from fashion schools across the country gathered together to tell each other how they're engaging their students in looking at bodies and beauty in a different way. Mal Burkinshaw from Edinburgh College of Art told us about his project 'Body Talk 2012' where he explored the kind of words his students used to describe different bodies represented in art. At Ravensbourne, students have created a site where anyone can upload unretouched images of themselves which they love while in Bournemouth, glamorous older model Valerie Pain has been used in a photo shoot and in the catwalk show of some of the design graduates.

Valerie Pain wearing a design by Johanna Wulf from the Arts College, University of Bournemouth (
This is all fantastic-if sometimes a bit tokenistic- and at least it is positive to see design schools engaging with the concept that the current favourite catwalk model ideal might not be the only option. All Walks is also expanding on the work already done by tutors by launching a competition called Diversity NOW which will enlist students to create campaigns for a wider range of body and beauty ideals. However, for students who need to get a job out of university it's not very practical for them to use a model who's not the norm to show their pieces because they simply won't get a job- if they show their final collection on a size 16 model then they are effectively only applying for a job at Evans. Nobody else will take them seriously. And I'm not making this up- the course leaders at this morning's forum all agreed on that point.

What I'm finding hard to get my head round is apparent gap between the academic research on this subject and what's actually happening. After the forum, I spoke to Dr Phillippa Diedrichs who contributed to the recent government report on body image. She says that an increase in diversity does make commercial sense. "When W magazine did a plus size issue, it sold out immediately" she pointed out. Much has been made of research by Ben Barry whose survey of 3,000 women found that they "significantly increase purchase intentions when they see a model that reflects their age, size and race". A quick google search shows that Barry is the founder of a Canadian modelling agency which represents "diverse" models. He's also written a bestselling book on the subject so has considerable commercial interest himself in making these claims.  Nevertheless, the research makes a strong case for the financial rewards of using models of different ages, sizes and races.

Post-baby Kate Moss shot by Mert and Marcus in 2003 (image from www.i-donline.com)
So, is it just too soon for the big changes to have filtered through? In high fashion, the rise of the Asian model has coincided with growing importance of Asian economies as consumers of designer clothes. The brilliant Tricia Jones, publisher of i-D magazine, told this morning's forum that we need to demand realistic images- she cited an exclusive which i-D had of Kate Moss' first shoot after giving birth. She looked amazing- obviously- but was still retouched to erase the evidence of her recent pregnancy, much to Jones' annoyance. "We need real pictures and not the crap they (magazines, ads) are trying to feed us"she argued. I guess the million dollar question is, do we WANT to buy a magazine with a shoot where Kate Moss looks anything less than utterly, unrealistically perfect? I wouldn't mind actually and it'd bridge the gap between retouched shoots and horrid paparazzi caught-looking-a-bit-fat-or-spotty pictures.

We know that plenty of students out there are reading and would love to know if you've had to address body image and diversity in your course and what you think about it being taught.


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