Sunday, 18 August 2019

Diversity on the Catwalk

I must admit, I've been putting off writing this post for a while because I wasn't sure what to write. I'm still not sure, so have decided to just go with a mainly descriptive post, with a little bit at the end about my problems with it.

Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk is a free exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, which looks at how the fashion industry is attempting to explore more varied ideas of what constitutes beauty. I first came across it in this article, and went to see it when I was in Edinburgh for the Wedding Gown in a Weekend event.

The exhibition poster

The exhibition includes two garments lent by activist Sinéad Burke: a version of the cut-down Burberry trench which she is wearing in the exhibition's publicity materials, and a dress made for her by Christopher Kane.

Clothes lent by Sinéad Burke

The latter is based on a dress from his catwalk collection but altered to keep the proportions (for example, it has fewer buttons on the front) and to fit properly - the skirt is 5cm / 2" longer at the back than the front so that the hem is level. I was fascinated to read in the accompanying notes that it has the zip at one side rather than the centre back because this allows Ms Burke to reach it herself rather than have to rely on help to dress and undress; a detail which was a standard feature of dresses in the 1940s and 1950s but is now largely obsolete.

The rest of the exhibition is split into five sections, looking at disability, race, LGBTQI+, size and age. Each section consists of a display of information and statistics, a large illustration as a backdrop, and clothing related to the section.




As a white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender woman, I really don't feel qualified to comment on representation in any of these categories, but the last two were a different matter.


The large image behind the mannequins is a photograph of model Paloma Elsesser. She is 1.71m / 5' 7½" tall, and a UK size 16 - which is the average size in this country, hence the T shirt in the display with '16' on it. The bustier on the far left was worn by model Denise Bidot when she walked for the Chromat Spring Summer 2015 collection - the first time a plus-size model had opened a straight-size show at New York Fashion Week. According to a video shown alongside this section, she was astonished and thrilled that as a curve model and 'only' 1.8m tall she was selected for such a job. She had good reason to be; according to the accompanying notes for this section, in the Spring 2019 season shows there were only 54 curve models out of the 7,431 castings across the four fashion cities, and this fell to 50 in the Autumn 2019 shows.

Finally, there was the 'Age' section. This managed to make curve models look almost mainstream: less than 1% of the castings in the Autumn 2019 shows, a mere 36, were models aged 50 and above (and we have already established that three of those were Karen Bjornson, Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn in New York). The exhibition freely admitted that age lags behind race, gender and size in terms of catwalk representation.


The image would have almost been funny, if it weren't such a stark illustration of what the fashion industry sees as 'old'. Apparently demonstrating that 'feminine beauty is ageless' it consisted of four supermodels from the 1990s whose ages at the time the photograph was taken were, by my calculations, as follows: Nadja Auermann - 44, Yasmin Le Bon - 51, Stella Tennant - 45 and Eva Herzigova - 42. The accompanying clothes are from brands which were quoted as designing for a range of ages up to 70, albeit while mostly using models at least 20 years younger - with the honourable exception of Simone Rocha; the designer of the black outfit on the right.

I'm well aware that all of this is just restating arguments I've made several times on this blog this year. I'm also aware that I was in a bit of a grumpy mood the day I went round this exhibition, so may not have given it the benefit of the doubt; and of course, none of this is the fault of the exhibition itself. The fact is that the fashion industry is just not in the business of representing reality. But the thing which I found depressing was that 'diversity' seemed to be expressed within such narrow parameters. It was as if you could be disabled so long as you were also thin, a larger size so long as your body shape met certain acceptable proportions, old but not too old etc. I think that for me part of the problem is that the fashion industry is on the whole so far removed from reality that it is easy to accept that the whole thing is artifice. Once a degree of reality in introduced in one area (along with, it must be said, more than a hint of self-congratulation in some cases) then it just serves to magnify how unreal and unattainable the rest of it is. But I would be very interested to hear what other people think.


  1. Amen to everything you have said here. I have been reading your blog for a few years now, please keep it up! I am in the same age group and really relate to what you have to say about most everything you write about. I even bought some of those Maudella patterns you wrote about! Your blogs have encouraged me with my sewing and I really appreciate the advice! Bless your heart, you write a great blog!

    1. Thanks for commenting Susan, and for your kind words about the blog.

  2. What is really sad about this is the missed opportunity. Everyone gets old, including people of color, gay people, and people with disabilities. In fact, aging can bring disabilities and body changes that require different kinds of clothing. To show slim, barely old super models is insulting; worse than that, it's ignorant.

    1. Thank you Lynn, you exactly distilled the disquiet I was struggling to express about the whole thing.