Ragged Claws

Friday, June 05, 2009

Walking clothes hangers

This week on The Fashion Show (aka Project Runway, with the silky unctuousness of Tim Gunn replaced by the exquisite cattiness of Isaac Mizrahi), designers were required to create clothes for “normal” women. (What “normal” meant in this context was clients who were not professional models, but who were still conventionally attractive, and generally slender to boot.) This sort of challenge was a staple on Project Runway as well, and while most of the designers are able to take it in stride, there are always some who seem genuinely confounded and indignant at being asked to design for bodies that can’t be described as “walking clothes hangers.” (One PR contestant even claimed that he wouldn’t mind being sent home during a similar challenge, because there was quite simply no way he could have prepared for it. Bear in mind that PR has also asked designers to create clothes out of items purchased at a grocery store, or garbage, which to the uninitiated might seem like a bigger stretch than “create an outfit for which a substantial customer base might exist.”) And although The Fashion Show is explicitly oriented around commercial appeal (eliminations are formalized with the phrase “We’re not buying it”), some of the contestants nevertheless found this week’s challenge to be an affront to their artistic sensibilities. The most vocal was probably James-Paul, who commented, “I’ve never believed that a person’s movement in fashion should be led by some…entity outside, and I sort of lost my voice as a designer” and “I don’t do normal – I’ve shunned it in my life.”

I think that this is a defensible position in some ways – there’s nothing wrong with wanting to create art in the medium of fabric and thread. If that’s the point, though, I don’t understand why living models are necessary at all. Why limit your creative expression to what can fit on a human form? Why not really push the boundaries with a dress meant for a creature with four arms, or an icosahedral torso? Or, if the goal is to allow clothes to hang as freely as possible, why not use a conveyor belt to whir actual hangers around the runway, dry cleaner style? That such options are rarely selected seems to indicate a baseline understanding that the fashion designer’s art requires fitting garments to actually existing human bodies, just as a poet writing a sonnet must develop his ideas within a specific structure. In that sense, I think comments like those above actually betray a lack of creative vision, an attempt to evade rather than embrace the challenges of a particular artistic form. There’s no reason why all poets should write sonnets, but if one chooses to make a career of doing so it’s silly to then complain about having to produce 14 lines, rather than 11 or 12.

That said, the episode also revealed some of the basic structural obstacles to designing for non-models. One of the most striking was that the contestants had to modify their dress forms by hand, adding batting or padding material in order to reproduce the body shapes of their clients. The fact that there is no easy or natural way to modify dress forms up to a size 10 or 12 speaks volumes about the basic assumptions of the fashion industry. Additionally, one contestant commented that another designer “just got out of school, so she hasn’t had much experience designing for real women.” (The school in question was the London College of Fashion.) While it’s common for graduate programs in many areas to emphasize theory over practice, it’s still more than a little baffling that advanced education in fashion would fail to provide students with the tools necessary to sell to a diverse client base. (Actually, maybe this is reminiscent of Ph.D. programs that assume all graduates will end up tenure-track at an R1, so teaching skills are irrelevant…but that’s not a model that should be emulated.) Although the just-out-of-school contestant ultimately won the week’s challenge, that seems to have been more a testament to her talent than to her training. I’m glad that high profile fashion TV shows occasionally acknowledge that people with BMIs over 18 might like to wear attractive clothes, but it also seems clear that not just individual but systemic change is necessary to make designers enthusiastic about serving those prospective clients.

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