What Robin Givhan Gets Wrong About Thin Models

What Women Really Think
Oct. 21 2009 5:32 PM

What Robin Givhan Gets Wrong About Thin Models

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In response to the public outcry over Polo’s dismissal and photoshopping of model Filippa Hamilton, the Washington Post ’s Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic, Robin Givhan, claims that fashion is never supposed to be easy or average, and because people today are so obese, the models must be unattainably thin. She also writes that "the fashion industry’s preference for models has shifted from Mayflower society ladies to girl-next-door blondes to Brazilians to Eastern Europeans to jolie laide -often for no clearer reason than the zeitgeist."

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I agree with the general idea that fashion entails evidence of a struggle, or a cost-or the absence of a struggle or cost. There is something else at play in the skinny model controversy, however, and it has little to do with BMIs.

Recall that while America was pigging out, fashion was democratized. Once-exclusive brands began courting the hoi polloi and opening shops over the globe during the boom years. Magazines and brands invited us to the party. The Internet and the celebrity-fashion matrix turned the garment trade into entertainment. With Sex and the City , any Jane Doe believed she could slip into Manolos-and did not feel intimidated to walk into the Bergdorf shoe department to try some on. And even though the vast majority of women would never make a purchase in the couture ateliers of the Rue Saint-Honoré or high-end designer boutiques, they had designers collaborations from Target and H&M. Target and H&M gave women style at heretofore impossibly cheap prices, and-crucially-no designer was afraid to go "low" or "mass," as they had been previously, after the licensing fiascos of the 1980s.

I wonder: Is it possible that fashion lags behind the times? Why else would women be vocalizing ire now, after decades of Photoshopping and superthin models?

Givhan’s analysis would be stronger if she considered the possibility that there may not be a single zeitgeist blowing around in this fine land, but two: one zeitgeist for the rich, another zeitgeist for the hoi polloi. (And probably another for the entirely hopeless or helpless; they also get dressed each morning, but that’s for a different post.) The major dichotomy at play is not, as Givhan’s observes, a tension between the aesthetics of common obesity/unattainable emaciation but, rather, the voicing of outrage over the failure of fashion to follow through on its promise to women, which was to acknowledge the needs of the average woman. And now that we are realizing that we can’t really afford the costs of high fashion, we’d like for fashion to make amends.

It would be more correct to say that because fashion has been democratized, regular women want to stay in the club. And right now we are craving insightful, honest media outlets that share our concerns and package them in an intelligent-which is not to say tasteless or uncultivated or unartful-way. And because the economy is tanking, women are easily pissed off at blatant falseness, manifestly clear in the photoshopped image of Filippa Hamilton. We are asking loudly and publicly: Is fashion for us, or is it not for us?

The major takeaway from the skinny/photoshopped model controversy is that fashion has been caught with its pants down as it straddled two very different worlds-the high fashion masquerade and the pragmatic/functional. Women are angry-we crave authenticity-and we are venting our ire at the obvious hypocrisies.

Perhaps fashion will catch up. Last night at the New York Public Library, Grace Coddington,  creative director of Vogue , expressed her dismay over the use of skinny models and excessive Photoshopping. Lucky for us regular dames, fashion is reliably capricious and fickle. Perhaps sometime soon it'll bend to the desires of the average woman. (As for you and your anti-average antics, Mr. Lagerfeld, who do you think buys all that Chanel No. 5?)

Photo of a model showcasing an outfit by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images.