For True Body Positivity, Fashion Needs A Structural Overhaul

by: Rosie Dalton | 10 months ago | Features

Image: Ashley Graham for Vogue. Image source.

When Kate Moss was first discovered in 1988 at the tender age of 14, it signified more than just the arrival of one of fashion’s most successful supermodels. Instead Moss ushered in a whole new standard for fashion. Her slender aesthetic was quickly labeled “heroin chic” and, although in stark contrast to the ‘Amazonian’ supers of the time, her look would quickly replace those of Cindy Crawford and Elle McPherson as the new industry norm. Now, almost three decades later, this norm still exists in fashion.

Models are still scouted in their teens, thin is still considered ‘in’ and despite the wave of body positive commentary of late, most modelling agencies continue to call larger models ‘plus size’. In most cases, the definition of ‘plus’ here reflects little more than a standard size 10, which is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Fortunately though, there are now plenty of progressive brands that have taken to street casting or using their ‘real girl’ friends on the runway as a way to sidestep these limiting norms. Which has helped to democratise things to some extent, but hasn’t stopped major fashion houses from continuing to support an incredibly narrow standard of beauty.

Even more disappointing than the big brands perpetuating limiting beauty ideals though, is the fact that many of the brands that do claim to support body positivity in their messaging aren’t really backing this up through their clothes. In Australia, for example, it is shamefully rare to see fashion brands producing clothes beyond a standard size 14 and this is a problem, whichever way you look at it. So herein lies the harsh reality of fashion’s body image problem: that unless the industry receives a major structural overhaul, we will never see true body positivity in this domain.

The reasons for this are two-fold. First of all, the way that modelling agencies structure their books is something that desperately needs to change. Unless we can reject the demarcation of this realm and remove exclusionary titles such as ‘plus size’ in favour of a label-free democracy, then choosing models from particular categories will always feel like a bigger deal than it should. Secondly though, the way that fashion’s sampling system has been structured is deeply problematic and it underscores the conversation around economic barriers to body positivity in the fashion industry. 

As the Fashion Incubator points out, costing clothing is a complex process and it is one based, in part, on fabric use. The industry standard here has become to use a size ‘medium’ as the starting point for costing garments. And the further you deviate from this mid-point, the greater the cost of producing clothes in that size break. The problem here, of course, is that the ‘mid-point’ itself is inherently flawed. Since average sizes vary greatly over time and place, it is vital that the industry starts to rethink the way that it costs garments. Especially considering the fact that it’s the more progressive independent labels that have their hands tied most here. Hamstrung by their cash flow, these brands are often juggling hefty minimums with comparatively modest sales figures — which means that broader size ranges are often the first to be sacrificed.

Of course, none of this is hard and fast though. And as Clementine Ford writes for Daily Life, some brands do tend to exaggerate the economics of the fashion industry here, as a way to justify their own lack of diversity.  “Suffice it to say, old arguments about the cost of providing plus size patterns and material are not as valid as people think they are especially when considered against the production of petite clothing,” Ford argues. Old and flawed as they may be though, these arguments are still being made. They were made when British Vogue Editor Alexandra Shulman asked a number of brands to dress ‘plus size’ model Ashley Graham for the cover. And they will continue to be made until we see real structural change take place in the fashion industry.

Only then will all brands have no choice but to diversify their perspective on female beauty and support true body positivity. It would be nice if this major change could be as simple now as it was when Kate Moss first burst onto the scene in the late eighties, but then again, one can only dream. Either way though, the swift turnaround in fashion’s way of doing things back then only serves as further proof that it shouldn’t be too difficult to implement now either. So what’s the bottom line here, then? That if the sample size is too small to fit Ashley Graham, there’s a problem with the sample size.

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