A current exhibit at the Museum at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] is the source of new and necessary conversations. The exhibit, “The Body: Fashion and Physique,” leaves visitors to ponder how the fashion world is redefining the ideal body. Or, perhaps, the question is: how it is not! The exhibition remains up until 5 May 2018. If you get to New York, this is an important fashion exhibition to check out. But, if you cannot make it, consider this post as part of an ongoing conversation about redefining the ideal body. It’s a topic we could talk about for a long time to come. And, perhaps, we ought to do that.
Fortunately, being bicoastal is opening up doors and opportunities to be in the right place at the right time. As it turns out, there was a full-day symposium at FIT on 23 February about “Fashion and Physique.” I made sure to attend. My goal was to sharpen my knowledge about how the fashion industry intends to dress women in sizes beyond 12.
In terms of redefining the ideal body, size is just one consideration. Other crucial elements deal with race and ethnicity, gender non-conformity, and losing long held beliefs about masculinity and fashion. As far as fashion reflects the body politic, it has a long way to go. The buying public is a vast society, comprised of an amazing kaleidoscope of humanity. It’s time to throw out the long-held sense that there is one ideal look. Those days are over, and they should have been a long time ago. Here, fashion is behind the times, and needs to make up for it.
Here’s one of the biggest problems with redefining the ideal body. Some fashion designers cannot move past their own biases. They don’t want women over a certain size or age to wear their garments. They don’t want certain women representing their brand by wearing their clothes. It literally makes me wince to write this because it’s painful. On the other hand, I’d not support designers who have made public proclamations about ageism, size and fat-shaming.
Another of the biggest problems with redefining the ideal body in fashion is that there are mechanical limitations in production. I believe these limitations exist because machine makers had no intention of making clothing for a size range beyond 12. Again, I know it sounds like bullshit. And, I’m not here to defend the old guard. I just think it’s important to say what the problems are so we can figure out the way forward. Truly, a garment in size 20 is a different kind of garment than the exact same facsimile in size 6. So, production limitations typically require plus sized garments originate from a different pattern.
Among all of the learnings from the symposium, I realized a critical third issue affecting redefining the ideal body. Even today, schools like FIT offer no specific coursework that educates fashion design students to design for plus sized women. This terrible problem creates a huge wave of related issues. As designers leave their posts, for whatever reason, the old guard designers’ voices lessen. But, new guard designers are essentially picking up where the old guard leaves off. So, until fashion design schools teach what the public needs, redefining the ideal body can’t happen so fast.
That’s not to say that accommodating plus sized clients is impossible. Take “Project Runway” season 4 winner, American fashion designer Christian Siriano. A brilliant designer, he makes clothes for women without regard to size, and holds all women in high regard. He figured out a way to do this and to “make it work,” taking a Tim Gunn phrase to heart. Though I’m not a fashion designer, I stand with Christian on this principle. He and I agree that redefining the ideal body means that your body is perfect as it is. Yes, your body! In addition, if your body isn’t your personal ideal, you have every right to work toward making it so.
We must consider the importance of this, especially knowing that 70% of American woman are at least a size 16. When designers see that all women deserve to be their most beautiful, they need to design everyone fabulous clothes. Designers must get over their egos and innovate new and flattering designs for a larger range of people. I don’t know a single plus-sized woman who will wear clothing that looks like plastic trash bags or cardboard boxes. They want beautiful clothes that drape, that show their curves, that honor their spirits and gives them confidence. If Christin Siriano can do it, surely others can, too.
Stores must insist on better designs and then order those clothes beyond size 12 in support of that market segment. Nordstrom serves as an example taking a cautious buying approach. But, it stands out among retailers as being one company to take a progressive stance that supports plus-sized women.
It is exciting to see innovations in fashion design that also consider the needs of people with disabilities. People without arms and legs, for example, have fashion options today that never existed before. A lot of this is thanks in large part to technological advances in fashion design. Still, the selections remain limited. But, there is progress, and we ought to recognize and celebrate those advances.