Carole White, co-founder of London-based modelling agency Premier Model Management, has told the Evening Standard that top designers continue to seek models with “unrealistic” physiques. It seems that despite calls to reform the industry, and new laws which would monitor the weight and health of models, the industry itself hasn’t changed.
White, whose agency launched the careers of supermodels such as Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, told the newspaper that contracts and legislation to encourage more diverse and realistic models aren’t working. Designers, she says, still want “young, flat-chested girls.” Their measurements are invariably “straight up-and-down,” rendering them “strange beings, almost aliens.”
White also described the in-demand physique as “lanky,” belonging to the kind of school girl who is “hunched over because she’s taller than the boys and embarrassed.”
She pointed to the recent move of fashion label Rose & Willard to implement contracts which force models to eat during a day of shooting, in order to discourage eating disorders, as an example of a reform which “achieves nothing.” She maintains that the vast majority of models she has worked with are healthy and simply young and naturally very thin.
Designers, she said, “want their clothes to fall as they designed them. Which is unrealistic when most women have boobs. I can’t change that. It’s just how it is.”
“If you look through the history of fashion, designers have always wanted girls who are flat-chested, not developed, which is a young girl,” White stated. “Someone 16 to 19 who hasn’t changed into a woman’s body. That’s why models start young. Scouts go to schools to seek the lanky girl who does the scoring in netball.”
White’s comments are, on the face of it, disappointing. In saying that designers simply want one specific type of figure, and that nothing can be done to change that, she shuts down any notion of industry responsibility towards achieving diverse representations which appreciate bodies of all types.
But White’s comments are also instructive. She is experienced in working with the top models and designers within the fashion industry and her comments free us from the hope that change might come from within it.
Designers cite a number of reasons why they prefer skinny models. They say that a skinnier body provides a blank canvas for their designs to be better realised. They say that smaller models provide an air of imagination and aspiration for consumers to be drawn to the brand. They say that smaller clothes sizes on the catwalks are easier to deal with because it makes for fewer last-minute, stressful alterations. They say that fashion editors and consumers prefer looking at thinner people.
But when Ashley Mears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, wrote about her studies on this issue in 2010 she concluded that underlying all these reasons is a deeper one: “they do it because that’s ‘the way things are done.'”
For an industry that sees itself on the rebellious cutting-edge of art and ideas top players are surprisingly very conservative and afraid of change. Mears brings up the example of Melissa Richardson, co-founder of London’s now-defunct Take 2 Models, who, as a mother of a teenager, felt uncomfortable recruiting 14-year-old girls to the industry. But she did it anyway, “because other people do, and if I don’t, I lose out on it.”
Likewise when Mears asked designers why the measurements of sample-size clothes were what they were they just said that it was convention. Mears writes, “we end up with a certain working order of things because over time conventions get locked-in, and it becomes easier to not change them, even if we don’t like them.”
Women are right to look at the world around them and want better representation and greater acceptance of different body shapes, colours and sizes. But the modelling industry, as White’s comments and Richardson’s research shows, isn’t the place we should look in order to find it. It is simply not a good place for finding the body validation many of us are looking for.
Instead we need alternatives. New ways of looking at art and clothes and the body. Many individuals are making such body-positive statements through Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and other social media platforms. Aside from being refreshing forms of authentic expression, they also take some of the power out of the conventional ways things have always been done in the fashion industry.