Freaks or Barbie : Who among us belongs in Fashion?
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
Published in Hashtag Magazine, 2018
The toys that we spent time with in childhood we remember forever. If anyone is pressed they will be able to recall the animals and dolls we talked to and embarked on magical adventures with that had a level of creativity only a child could conjure.
Like lots of middle class American girls raised in the 90’s, I had a nicely sized collection of Barbies. I remember being fascinated by their anatomy, their grown up outfits, their perfect, dainty features and glossy smiles. There was one Barbie in particular I was very taken with; she had a lavender ball gown with rainbow coloured butterflies made out of plastic stitched onto her taffeta skirt; when you lightly tapped the butterflies with a wand, the wings would flutter. As a child, I thought that’s the type of woman I want to be when it’s my turn to grow up: someone that was so beautiful even her gown could create a bit of magic. As an adult, I am simultaneously touched and troubled by this impact.
I realised that changing my Barbies into different outfits, brushing their long hair and curiously examining their bodies was my first real interaction with the world of fashion. Or more precisely, my first interaction with the values that are imbued in the culture of fashion. It would take so much time and pain to look like Barbie and you may not even qualify in the first place. The same is true for anyone who wants to be a model. As a child you would inevitably grow tired of the outfit Barbie came with, and would ask your mom for another one. Girls go through the same cycle with trending styles every season; once a few months have passed you want to go shopping again to give your wardrobe something new and fresh. The parallels only get weirder.
Barbie in the 90’s was a size 2. She had perfectly proportioned breasts, a flat stomach and a small but shapely bum. She had immaculately applied make up and shiny hair. And poor thing, she was so dedicated to the pain of wearing heels that her feet were in a permanent arch. Out of the five or six Barbies I had only one of them was black. All of them strictly adhered to the binary and all of them were able bodied.
This sounds bizarrely akin to the habits of representation in the fashion industry. And why wouldn't it? These societal expectations, qualifications and restrictions, while broadly systemic, still have a very nice home in every sector of fashion, all the way from design to advertising.
The reality is we grow up into women who are different colors, different abilities, different sizes and all with different wallets. But as things stand, the industry doesn't care about this fact because it's interests do not lie in including everyone; in fact, quite the opposite. It is a global, multi trillion dollar industry whose hierarchical structure is founded on three things: what is now, what is innovative and what is exclusive.
To be truly fashionable, the industry needs to set itself apart from normal people. This is achieved by making clothes that regular people won't be able to afford, won't be able to fit into and may even be actively discouraged from buying (Shout out to brands like Tommy Hilfiger who racially profile prospective buyers).
This all begs the question - can the fashion world ever be seen as a place of acceptance while also being a place of rejection? On one hand, the industry spouses creative freedom, housing some of the most daring provocateurs of the 21’st century. To say the freak flag doesn’t fly within the confines of fashion would be a lie.
Rebellion against the norm and embracing the innate weirdness that lies within raw creativity is a value dear to the industry. Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel: these designers were renegades. They were creating something odd, radical, subversive. True artists. Whether it’s Gaga’s meat dress, Isabella Blow’s ornate bird hats or the filtering of butterflies on Barbie’s taffeta dress, the fashion industry is a way to experiment with aesthetics, to be freakish, bold, outrageous, magical.... free.
You go to a fashion show and people are not dressed ordinarily. Rather, people are dressed radically, with purpose and freakish sensibility. You'll see a plush orange poncho styled with red silk culottes and studded pixie boots. Or a navy velvet cocktail dress coupled with lime green sling back pumps and a yellow sun hat. Bright, daring colors, controversial pairings, loud clashes.
As a curvy girl who had always loved fashion, I felt that I could never work within it because of how I looked. It turns out that there are a diverse group of people all different shapes and sizes and cultures working behind the scenes of the industry. Ashley Graham, while still not being able to work for most high fashion brands, has managed to carve a name for herself in the industry regardless.
Because of the current turnover rate between couture, runway fashion and mass, high street fashion the public are now able to shop the latest runway trends at ASOS, New Look and Primark without having to shell out three grand for a black beret. Hari Nef, a trans model has been signed with GUCCI and has been given an amazing platform as an activist and writer. The industry has devoted extensive coverage to the #metoo and Times Up movement, interviewing women in film and fashion about what needs to change. And in last month's British Vogue there was an 8 page editorial on successful businesswomen and the struggles of being a high achiever with a family – as little as five years ago, this would have been a piece more likely to be found in Vanity Fair.
So to say fashion isn't a creative, inclusive and artistically free environment is misled. Rather, it bears the same problems with exclusiveness that every other industry wrestles with as well. And it seems in recent years that there is a shift of certain values going on. The fashion industry has all the tools it needs to become a more accepting place. For now it would seem that acceptance in fashion lives in a grey area. In terms of creativity, innovation and radical aesthetics it is undoubtedly a place that welcomes oddballs and forward thinkers. The shift that needs to take place is within how the industry believes it is better than the public. We need to create an environment that is interested in including all of us. After all, the public are the ones who fund the progress of fashion- it makes more sense for all of us to be accepted within its walls.