Part of: Outsize?

Essay: 16+ Fashions

by Joanne Entwistle on 18 February 2002

Fashion academic Joanne Entwistle examines the idea of 'outsize' fashions and questions the promotion of our 'narrow' idea of beauty.

Fashion academic Joanne Entwistle examines the idea of 'outsize' fashions and questions the promotion of our 'narrow' idea of beauty.

Design by Roland Mouret

Fashionable dress defines and delineates the body aesthetics of our time. Where once fine art or sculpture promoted the body beautiful, fashion now stands as the most prominent and potent arena for our expressions and fantasies of the ideal body. No surprise that the body promoted by fashion is so often extreme, to the point of being outrageous, odd or quirky, as in the case of today's unusually thin and long-limbed fashion model. The ideal body is, by definition, rare: it is the body of dreams rather than reality and, when found, its value is generated from its preciousness.

Anthropological literature would seem to suggest that the desire to transform and refine the body to make it more aesthetically pleasing is something common to human culture. This will inevitably involve generating unreal ideals which exclude those bodies that do not conform: at other times, in other places, when the ideal body of fashion has been large, as it was throughout the 18th century and the 1950s, the thin body was the one that did not shape up. To call on fashion to be closer to 'real bodies', as many politicians and journalists have requested in a frenzy of moral panic about the extreme aesthetics of fashion, is futile: fashion cannot be anything other than it is, a collective fantasy of the body. This is not to say that the ideal body is not also a tyranny, especially when, in a modern consumer culture, it is promoted as the key to our happiness. When we are told to burn fat, eat less, or buy this or that dress to feel good; when celebrity culture tells us about stars' diets and link it to their success, then the ideal body becomes something it should not, the body we are all supposed to acquire rather than simply admire.

These designs do not apologise but celebrate the curves, exaggerating them even. They make a positive virtue out of flesh rather than bone.

There is always a difference between the ideal and the real, but in the case of larger bodies, it is quite great. As I see it, the brief given to designers to design for the 16+ woman was not merely a call for clothes for that fit the 'fuller figure'; there are outsize shops to cater for this, although many larger women bemoan the lack-lustre designs found in them. Instead, I think the challenge of this project is far greater than that: to not to merely dress the larger body, but generate a different view of beauty, a different ideal, an aesthetic which celebrates size. It is both extraordinary and exciting that the major fashion designers showing their work here have risen to this challenge: the thin body is so entrenched within the fashion industry and yet fashion has the power, if it so wishes, to make larger bodies beautiful. The designers showing their work have succeeded in producing images of the female body that are a real aesthetic alternative to the conventional one of fashion.

Looking at these designs, I am struck by the way in which the bodies in the illustrations take up space. The typical body of fashion, the one found on the runway or inside a fashion magazine, is like a two-dimensional illustration. Thin fashion models remind one of line-drawings; their long thin frames present an almost abstract outline upon which clothes simply hang. The justification of the constant use of extremely thin bodies has some designers and fashion editors using the analogy of the coat-hanger: beautiful clothes, they claim, look better on a flat, straight body, just as they do on a coat-hanger. This argument has never been convincing: bodies, not coat-hangers are, after all, the ultimate destination of clothes, so clothes that only look good on the hangers deserve to remain there. If these designs do anything they definitely challenge this coat-hanger idea. With bosoms and bottoms that protrude, these designs give the impression of three dimensions; in other words, like the flesh and blood bodies of many women. However, what makes them unique is that they are definitely not 'outsize'. Unlike much outsize clothing on the high-street, which serve to obscure the body, make it appear smaller, these designs do not apologise but celebrate the curves, exaggerating them even. They make a positive virtue out of flesh rather than bone. Indeed, they make one question why it is that the bony body of the fashion model is also the sexy body that is so incessantly promoted: the qualities of flesh are infinitely more erotic than those of bone.

Outsize? will hopefully help to extend the definitions of the body beautiful. If couture designers have the imagination to generate new ideas of how we see the 16+ body, then fashion, and perhaps our collective fantasy of the ideal body, can be radically re-envisaged.



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