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The Wild Coverage of Thinness on the Runways
Many have highlighted a regression in progress when it comes to including models above a size 4 on the runways. Only there wasn't ever real progress to begin with.
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Journalists have made valiant efforts in recent weeks to draw attention to and make sense of the preponderance of thin models in the fall 2023 ready-to-wear shows.
It started with a poorly received tweet by New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman, who called out how slender the models were in Jason Wu’s show. Business of Fashion then did a story about how the plus-size models were vanishing from the New York Fashion Week runways; since the season wasn’t over yet and the data hadn’t come in, the story was based on perception:
After a half decade where plus-size models, typically defined as size 14 and above, were an increasingly common sight on the runway, their relative absence in New York this past week was a source of conversation on the sidelines of shows and on social media.
The shows continued, allowing for more of this kind of reporting. The Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong, for instance, cited “worryingly thin models” at the Gucci show. Then when the show season was over, the New York Times asked, “Why Did Ultrathin Models Make a Comeback at Fashion Week?” The Cut posed a similar question: “What Happened to the Plus-Size Models?” And British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful recently said on Instagram, in a post about a new cover that featured three plus-size models, “Show after show dominated by one body type, so many limited versions of womanhood, it felt like we were slipping back.”
Slipping back from… what? A glorious time when the average American woman (size 16) was as present on the runways as she is in everyday life? A time when fashion ads cast as many “plus-size” and “mid-size” women as “straight-size” women? A time when fashion magazines featured plus- and mid-size women with such regularity that it was entirely unremarkable when they appeared?
What many in the media were endeavoring to point out — and I do believe these writers and editors are well-intentioned — was that fashion had simply slipped ever so slightly from the previous runway season. Once the shows wrapped, fashion data compilers could get to work and really prove this. One of them called Tagwalk reported that runway shows featuring two or more “curvy” models were down 24 percent. NYT explained that “curvy” in this report referred to “mid-size” and “plus-size” models. So we’re talking about anyone bigger than a size 4.
This season, per Tagwalk, 24 percent of 278 shows had one or more model above a size four. The previous season, 36 percent 247 of shows had one or more models above a size four. So it was a small number last year and it’s an even smaller number this year, but hardly the cataclysmic decline in epic progress that one would assume based on many write-ups. Plus, this is a bad way to look at the bigger picture because each show has around 50 looks or more. Contributing another analysis is Vogue Business, which reported that 95.6 percent of all runway looks were shown on models sized 0 to 4. That means less than five percent of all outfits were shown on models bigger than a size 4. I’m not finding a similar study for the previous show season, but The Fashion Spot reported that only 5 percent of spots on the New York runways went to plus-size models for spring 2023. New York is usually one of the more inclusive cities when it comes to casting, so it’s probably fair to assume that the overall figure wasn’t that much different last season.
Producing all of this data about this issue seems like a dressed-up way of demonstrating that the industry thinks showing diverse body sizes is important — so important, in fact, that they will painstakingly compile data and charts to illustrate the problem. No one can argue with this here bar graph!
However no one needed any data to understand that representing a wide array of body shapes and sizes in runway shows or in fashion imagery is not a priority for the industry. Last year, after the Tagwalk report came out, I called fellow Substacker(go subscribe to her newsletter if you haven’t) to get her take on the “progress” the industry was so proud of at the time (again: 90 shows out of 247). “I'm not super impressed,” she told me then. I sent her a note on Friday to get her take on the recent frenzy over the apparent reversal of progress on this issue. Her reaction was unsurprisingly the same as it was in October. “We're never actually making progress,” she wrote back.
Last year, she told me that it doesn’t matter what’s on a runway if a brand isn’t making clothing in bigger sizes and making them readily available to customers in stores. To its credit, Vogue Business did address this issue; their story noted brands like Chanel and Gucci said their fall 2023 collections will go up to a U.S. size 18.
Sole-Smith pointed out, “I wear a 16/18 and I'm extremely skeptical that I could wear THIS 18, because higher end brands always run small on their size charts, so their 18 is probably closer to a 14 at say, The Gap. But more crucially: I am the size of the ‘average’ American woman, which means there are literally millions of women fatter than me who will still not be able to shop these brands. Going from dressing only thin women to dressing only thin and ‘average’ sized women is not inclusion.” She also noted that these brands are unlikely to cast a size 16 or 18 model in their campaigns: “if I were to shop there, I'd still be squinting at skinny ladies wearing their clothes and trying to guess how it would look on me. That doesn't make fat customers feel seen or welcome.”
Vogue Business gives Matchesfashion credit for “working on expanding its size range,” writing, “Currently, 65 percent of ready-to-wear brands at Matchesfashion offer inclusive sizing across the total edit.” “Inclusive sizing” is not defined so who knows what that means to Vogue Business or Matchesfashion? But if you go to the website, click dresses, and then select size “4XL,” you get three options from two brands:
Select “3XL” and you’ll get 576 results, but these include dresses that top out at FR 46, or a U.S. 14.
Also, the irony of this report coming out of Vogue (!) Business is as obvious as a slap across the face with a dead fish. Again, I fully believe these reporters are well-intentioned and probably had nothing to do with the magazine’s long history of promoting a thin beauty ideal, which has been dominant in its pages since Vogue began publishing in the Gilded Age. But will Vogue Business now audit pages across its global editions for plus-size and mid-size representation? How about its Instagram and TikTok feeds? Its websites? Its Met Gala photos? Because the fashion industry isn’t just runway shows — it’s all of these things and much more.
Someone could grab a stack of Vogue magazines from the past year or two and audit the models in its pages, but that would hardly be necessary to know that the women featured are not representative of the broader population’s sizes or that the magazine has not exactly been at the forefront of eradicating the industry’s anti-fat bias. Its Met Gala honoree this year, after all, is Karl Lagerfeld — someone who was repeatedly, openly disdainful of fat people.
The fashion industry can throw around data and bar graphs and platitudes about “size inclusivity on the runways” all day long. But none of that is necessary to prove that this industry has not demonstrated real interest in truly representing or catering to anyone but thin people. I am hardly unique in not needing analyses or special reports or any fashion critic to tell me that. What the industry needs is a brand like Dior or Chanel or Vogue — a recognizable corporate high-fashion entity with huge marketing budgets and culturally significant leaders — to show the world what representative high fashion can look like. And then, ideally, they’ll report back about how much profits increased as a result of their actions.
After all, as Dior says on its famous $920 T-shirt, which only goes up to size large, “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS.” Emphasis, I suppose, on should.
Earlier in Back Row: Fashion's Anti-Fat Bias Is Prevalent as Ever, Says Virginia Sole-Smith