Saturday, March 13, 2010

More thoughts on mannequins: size versus shape

On Thursday night at a literary launch I talked the ears off the team from Arcade Publications about my "What Fat Chicks Used To Wear" project, and today Dale Campisi pointed me to this article that appeared on the front page of yesterday's Age. It's a pretty stock-standard iteration of the "mannequins are getting larger to reflect real women" argument that gets trotted out every so often.

I am emphatically not interested in these repetitive debates over body size/shape in fashion, and it never fails to annoy me that commentary tends to get split between "Yay! Finally retailers are interested in their customers' actual sizes", "It's a good start but it's only a token gesture; they need to go further", and "We're in an obesity crisis so anything that encourages people to normalise fatness is a bad thing".

The thing that annoys me about these responses is that they transform the mannequin, the inert fibreglass form, into a mimetic reproduction of the customer's own body, whereas the actual role of a mannequin is to display the clothes attractively enough to make you want to go into the shop and try them on. It is a visual merchandising tool just like a rack or a showcase, and there are no moral panics suggesting that people feel inadequately green next to a green-painted dummy, or worry about having heads because so many mannequins are headless.

But I am interested in the relationship between the mannequin and the clothes on it, which is about fit, which in turn is about the shape of the body under the clothes. I'm not sure when this happened, but Review has got rid of its iconic petite, wasp-waisted mannequins. Those mannequins used to say to shoppers, "This shop sells an old-fashioned, girlish kind of glamour".

What would be far more interesting than the size of mannequins would be their shapes and proportions. From the little reading I've done on the history of mannequins, their shapes seemed to follow those of the prevailing fashions: slim during the Art Deco era and sturdier during the 1940s. Here's the collection of vintage mannequins in the window at Circa Vintage Clothing.

Image: Circa Vintage

It might be worthwhile to examine if, historically, mannequin makers have produced ones in larger sizes for the older or plumper consumer. But actually, I'm worried that this talk of mannequins is getting off-topic.

Friday, March 05, 2010

On precocity

I just read a post by Minh-ha Pham at Threadbared. It is a source of perennial infuriation to me that this blog does not have comments, so the only way to engage with the bloggers is to respond on my own blog. Except that: a) I don't always have the time to log in here and write an entire post; b) what I want to add to the discussion isn't always long or coherent enough to deserve its own blog post. Sometimes I just want to add another relevant link, or a passing observation.

Anyway. Minh-ha is talking about a topic that does deserve its own post: our attitudes towards the increased incorporation of "fashion bloggers" into the fashion industry apparatus. These include invitations to runway shows, industry events, private views of upcoming collections and magazine shoots. They also include access to PR graft such as free gifts and product giveaways for readers, being allowed to style and curate for major brands and retailers, and being the 'inspiration' or 'muse' of designers.

This is actually a topic I've struggled with myself lately: mostly in my observations of the graft-happy ways of Australian fashion bloggers, feeling alienated by Patty Huntington's insider discourse, and in my annoyance about the way in which Tavi Gevinson is being hailed as a new force in fashion journalism.

Minh-ha identifies three main issues with the snarky way in which the old school of fashion commentators have been defending their turf. She observes a techno-generational divide between older fashion journalists and younger bloggers; she sees the more established commentators bemoaning the "massification" of fashion journalism (and, especially, representating 'the masses' as feminine in their disorderliness); and she identifies a shift in the perceptions of 'democracy' in the creative economy. In this new understanding of 'democracy', blogging becomes a kind of industry apprenticeship – a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder – and bloggers will endure industry exploitation as a show of good faith in meritocratic capitalism.

These are good ways for me to organise my own reservations about the relationship between blogging and "the fashion industry". I'm sure I've written this somewhere before, but the term "fashion blog" elides the complexity of the blogging about clothing that goes on.

I am not a fashion blogger, because I not especially interested in participating in the cyclical machinations of 'collections', 'fashion weeks', 'key seasonal trends' and industry gossip about designers and models. I also do not publish photos of people's outfits on the street, and nor do I presume that my daily clothing choices will interest other people. However, I am a style blogger, because I am interested in the ways that people use clothes, and the more abstract processes behind the circulation of particular clothing motifs.

Many other fashion bloggers want to get involved in the machinery of the industry because they want careers in that industry. Their blogs operate as CVs, demonstrating that they can speak the right language, they know the right people and look the right way to be taken seriously as insiders.

This is the central problem I have with Tavi. I realise this is quite a conservative position to take, but she is a fucking child and the ethics of interpellating her in this industry machinery at such a tender age are appalling. I can't believe Tavi took a week off school in order to attend New York Fashion Week. I have heard terrible rumours that she is being wooed to attend Rosemount Australian Fashion Week – where do they get off, flying a kid across the world just so they can look zeitgeisty?

I feel the same way about her that I feel about 13-year-old Eastern-bloc Olympic gymnasts or classical music prodigies who perform Rachmaninoff like tiny tin toys. I feel it's sinister to welcome children prematurely into the adult world, and I think that attitudes of "we shouldn't patronise the genuinely gifted, they want to do this" are the worst kind of relativism. We view these children as novelties to be exploited for our entertainment, and we take advantage of the plasticity of children's brains to sculpt them in our own images.

The ethics of the industry employing young models have been discussed at tedious length, but because of the 'massification' of bloggers, Tavi gets to elude these discussions because we can pretend that she's just an 'amateur', that she's not at work when she's at fashion shows. Yes she is. She is being invited to these shows for economic reasons, so we're not just talking about techno-generational issues; we're talking about child labour.

When I wrote about 10-year-old bodybuilder Maughan Wellham, I was far more measured in assessing the ways in which we understand childhood and respond to instances in which we perceive it as under threat. I feel I still haven't got to the heart of my discomfort over Tavi Gevinson, but anyway, there you have it.