The fashion industry has long been renowned for having had a dangerously narrow-minded and restrictive conception of beauty, or at least representations of beauty ideals on the catwalk and in the glossy pages of fashion magazines. Was this standardised size-zero, tall, white-girl model an attempt at defining beauty, or a tactical decision to aid practical uniformity when it came to designing and making clothes for the catwalk (a one-size-to-fit-all-models idea)?
It doesn’t matter. Whatever the reason, there isn’t one valid enough not to represent all body types, shapes and sizes. This size-zero, stick figure came to be the standard as designers and stylists would work with models they called the ‘fit’ model, explained by Kirstie Clements (former editor of Australian Vogue) as the model “who is used in the top designer ateliers, or workrooms, and is the body around which the clothes are designed”. Any body type different, be it smaller in height and/or curvier in shape, didn’t feature on the catwalks or in photoshoots because the clothes themselves weren’t designed to suit anything other than the ‘fit’ model body type; “The ‘fit’ model begins the fashion process: designer outfits are created around a live, in-house skeleton. Few designers have a curvy or petite ‘fit’ model. These collections are then sent to the runway, worn by tall, pin-thin models because that’s the way the designer wants to see the clothes fall.” Why? The pathetic excuse of practicality, but also the far more disappointing and damaging truth that, for a time at least, stylists and designers actually preferred the emaciated, “young, coltish, 6ft tall and built like a prepubescent boy” look.
Slowly, but surely, the industry is beginning to demonstrate, facilitate and welcome a diversifying change. On the 6th September 2016, designer Eden Miller made history as the first designer to feature an entire collection for plus-sized women, modelled by plus-sized women, at New York Fashion Week. However, although this created a major story and received a lot of positive press at the time, it made no huge impact– nothing really changed for models in the industry until much later.
It was only last year, for his Fall 2017 collection, that Michael Korrs featured a plus sized model, Ashley Graham, in his show. In the same year, New York Fashion Week featured a record-breaking number of plus-sized models. In August 2017, Project Runway very proudly announced that the show would be featuring models “of ALL sizes”, ranging up to size 22, in its sixteenth season. However, it was revealed by Heidi Klum, host and judge of Project Runway, that a lot of the stylists “weren’t too happy about it”. Klum responded powerfully; “You have to dress real people, and real people come in different sizes: short, tall, more voluptuous, skinny. A real designer needs to know how to do that.”
Size, however, is not the only difference between people. With all this talk of shape and size, we must not forget that the fashion industry and society seems to also be failing to adequately, if even at all, represent the women and men of the word with visual facial and bodily differences. Some very influential people in the fashion industry noticed this, and decided to work together to do something about it. Out of this collaboration came the Portrait Positive campaign. Portrait Positive is revolutionary in its challenging of the conceptions of beauty in the industry, and in society in general. In association with Changing Faces, a charity representing over 1.3 million people in the U.K. who have a medical condition, mark or scar that makes them look different, fashion designer Steven Tai and photographer Rankin aim to highlight the lack of representation of people with visible differences in the fashion industry and media through this Portrait Positive campaign.
Portrait Positive; Changing the Way You See – Series 01 is a book that features sixteen extraordinary women with visible differences, photographed by Rankin wearing the designs of Steven Tai. Three of these woman also walked in Steven Tai’s catwalk presentation at London Fashion Week in September. The idea, conceived by event co-ordinator Stephen Bell, aims not only to challenge the conception of beauty, but “to change the perception of beauty”. All of the proceeds of the book will go to the charity Changing Faces. You can buy the book online at portraitpositive.com, where you have the freedom to choose from one of the sixteen covers, each featuring a different woman as the cover model.
The only way to challenge and change the representation and perception of beauty in the fashion industry and the world in general is to “talk about it and face it head on”, explains Rankin when speaking about the campaign; “Our amazing subjects are dealing with these issues with grace, dignity and strength. It was an absolute honour to work with them and try to create a discussion around what it is to be beautiful.”