Monday, June 13, 2011

Italian Vogue and the Myth of the Plus Sized Model

I've written before about how tired and sad I find the current incarnation of American Vogue, and about how I think it might be time for Mrs. Wintour to call it a day. American Vogue is mostly white washed (or appallingly racially insensitive), and filled with spread after spread of white girls leaping into the air in front of plain backgrounds. Mrs. Wintour - stop hiding Grace Coddington's light under a bushel!

Not so with Italian Vogue. This is greatly due to the latitude given to photographer Steven Meisel by editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani. Unlike in the American edition, the editors of Vogue Italia have gone to great lengths to feature a much wider variety of beautiful women than their compatriots in America.

Back in 2008 they came out with what they called the "Black Issue", featuring black models exclusively throughout the magazine - except, of course, in the advertisements, the faces in which were nearly all white, making for a telling juxtaposition. This generated a great deal of talk of steps in the right direction and of exceptionalism both. Over all, the issue was extraordinary and really showed up how narrowly beauty is still construed (Mrs. Prada, take note: I blame you for a lot of it). Also of note - the issue was a blockbuster. Particularly in the United States, it sold and sold and sold and back issues on ebay go for about $80. But, contrary to what naysayers predicted, the magazine has continued to be innovative in their art direction and choice of models, and the magazine, as a whole, is far mare integrated than the norm.

The June 2011 cover and feature spread of Vogue Italia feature what are referred to in the industry as "plus sized models". As most people with an even passing interest in the industry are aware, there has been a great deal of worry over rapidly shrinking models. Women such as Coco Rocha have spoken out about how they have been encouraged to "look anorexic". The problem is simple: models should be pretty much the same size as each other so that they can fit into the samples without much in the way of alterations. That's simple practicality. The question that no one seems to be able to answer is: why do the samples have to be so tiny? There has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the effect on young girls and their perceptions of themselves and unattainable standards. Which brings us to the world of plus size models.

Like all models, the plus sized ones are beautiful, tall and pretty much flawless. The average size is an American 10 or 12 for plus size models (but these aren't, as some of you might know, actual plus sizes), and they work mostly modeling larger sized clothes or for print advertisements for various products. Rarely will you see a plus-sized model in a mainstream fashion magazine. But this is slowly changing. Glamour Magazine has started featuring larger sized models in recent years, and a few other magazines have followed suit. And then the most maddening thing of all happened. People started hand-wringing over the fact that plus-sized models might lead young people to believe that unhealthy life-styles are okay.

This made me want to bang my head against my desk until I bled.

If there's one thing (well, one thing among many) I'd like to get through the world's thick, stupid head, it's that aesthetics and fashion are separate from obesity and ill-health. Plus sized models are fit and healthy (unless they have some sort of underlying health problem we don't know anything about as we don't know these people, but that goes for, like, everyone). The only realm in which these women are considered outsized is in the world of very high fashion. Because they cannot, just like all the rest of us, fit into tiny sample sizes. They are not obese, unhealthy, over-weight or anything other than professionally gorgeous. I am completely mystified how anyone could thing that the picture above left could lead any vulnerable young woman down the sad road to obesity and horror (there's much sarcasm here).

But the most upsetting thing is -the skinny women are awful because they encourage women to be anorexic. The larger models are awful because they encourage women to be fat. It's unwinnable and ghastly. Here's the truth people: Ladies, just like gentlemen, come in many shapes and sizes. Some are deemed fashionable, some are not. This is about aesthetics. Health is abut the state of one's insides, something that is unknowable from either a glance or a photograph.

Back to Steven Meisel's editorial. It's one of the sexiest I've ever seen, Meisel is a brilliant and creative photographer and the young women in the spread are gorgeous. It is telling that they are, for the most part, undressed. Katie Grand, when she was still heading up POP, managed to coerce designers into making large sizes for Beth Ditto and others, and teeny sized for marionettes in one of my favorite photo spreads ever. But she might have magic powers and I've never seen anyone else accomplish that feat (though one would think if she had the inclination la Wintour could make that happen, but, as we all know, she lacks the inclination).

Still more images of non-white women, larger sized women or (heavens!) larger sized non-white women is all to the good. Particularly with most designers not casting non-white models because they say they "don't fit in with their aesthetic" as white women are seen as unthreateningly neutral. There are always more frontiers to conquer, and one delightful mini-trend I've noticed - again in Vogue Italia, when researching this piece - is the use of older models. Forty-seven year old Kristen McMenamy graced the cover in May, and forty-one year old Stella Tennant did the same in March. Maybe things are starting to crack!

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