Tanya Sweeney: When it comes to fashion, one size doesn't fit all
With an increasing number of body positive campaigns making their way to government buildings, our reporter asks is the fashion world finally taking note of all sizes?
Dublin Fashion Festival is in full swing, meaning that a coterie of beautiful young Irish women are rushing hither and thither from one fitting to the next: Littlewoods today, Helen McAlinden tomorrow. The pace is hectic at this time of year, and requires a preternatural stamina. Luckily, the Irish modelling industry is kinder to its charges than others across the world, even on weeks as frantic as this.
In many of Dublin's agencies, the average size of the models on the books is 8-10; size 6 girls often work steadily, too. Plus-size divisions are also expanding. And where size 0-2 might be a prerequisite for working on the couture catwalks of London, Milan, Paris and New York, it's not a body type that chimes with Irish clients.
"If you want to walk for the world's top designers, there is a requirement to being exceedingly thin," observes designer Sonya Lennon. "But being a local model anywhere in the world is so different to being a catwalk model. A few years ago, there was a very thin, beautiful girl out there, and there was a real reticence in clients using her. It wasn't because the girl wasn't eating or had an eating disorder, she was just naturally thin."
Certainly in Ireland, the client is king, driving demand for certain body shapes. Just as they always have done, they prefer wholesome, approachable, supple. The couture scene is minimal in Ireland, the sample sizes don't run at size zero or 2 as they do in other fashion capitals, and the models that can flit with ease from commercial to fashion house are the scene's high rollers. There have been notable exceptions: Faye Dinsmore and Loran Foran have enjoyed success on the couture catwalks, but their preternatural thinness has often been credited to a natural body shape, as opposed to anything more untoward.
"There are some girls that are naturally very slim, and don't have to work hard to keep their shape," says Rebecca Morgan, owner of Morgan The Agency.
Several Irish models have dreams of following Dinsmore and Foran to the upper echelons of the fashion industry, although it's not a move necessarily encouraged by their agency bosses.
"If some want to go about sensibly changing their weight, so long as they're healthy, I'm more than happy for them to be whatever size they wish."
It all flies in the face of the reputation of the global modelling industry; one marked with nicotine-stained glamour and a sort of dangerous, heady beauty. By most accounts, its young denizens are lithe, lost and vulnerable to all sorts of seamy influences, from drugs to prowling photographers. And despite calls for diversity, its influence has yet to truly wane.
In an alarming turn of events, the original size zero, which came to prominence a decade ago, is a British size 4. More recently, retailers in the UK like J Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch (who have a Dublin store) have launched triple zero clothes (which fit a 23-inch waist).
This move is partly attributed to the vanity sizing phenomenon (where shops re-number normal dress sizes to boost a buyer's self-esteem), but there's no doubting that there is a demand for such garments.
Australian model Rosie Nelson moved to the UK and was told by a number of agencies that she was too big to work as a model. She embarked on a punishing regime, slimmed her hips to 35 inches, and returned to the agency.
"They said, just lose more weight - get down to the bone," Nelson is quoted as saying. "They pressed on my hips and I just sat there thinking, 'no, I can't. I can't physically lose more weight'. I was in shock. I didn't know what to say."
The episode prompted the model to join Sophie Walker, leader of the Women's Equality Party, and Jada Sezer, a plus-size model on the verge of launching her own clothing range, to talk about WEP's forthcoming campaign, which will operate on social media under the hashtag #NoSizeFitsAll.
In addition, WEP is calling for legislation that will require all models hired or rehired by agencies to have a minimum body mass index (BMI) of 18.5; any lower, and they will have to see a doctor from a list of accredited medical experts to be signed off as healthy. This, says Walker, would bring the UK into line with law in France, Spain and Italy.
"I have been everything from a size eight to a size 18, and I can tell you at every point in my life which size I've been and when," Walker has noted. "We live with this. And I am 45-years-old. I have been living with it for 30 years and I'm tired of it. I'm seeing it happen to my children, I'm seeing my daughters - my seven-year-old and my 14-year-old - under the same pressures."
Elsewhere, there is the All Woman Project, a powerful body positive movement founded by models Clementine Desseaux and Charli Howard. Howard was dropped from her New York agency when she was a size 6. They decided to launch their own short film and campaign starring 10 models who all have strong views on the need for diversity.
Soon, the question looms large: does Instagram culture and the behemoth of the global fashion culture turn the heads of Irish models? Or, for that matter, other young Irish women?
Courtney O'Hara, managing director of Assets Agency, is an industry veteran and hasn't noticed a marked change in recent times.
"It's still about healthy-looking girls," she says. "We've had girls who are a size 8-10 and they might be a little smaller on top and their collarbones are sticking out, and we've had to dress them in a certain way to hide that. You get complaints from clients here about those things. That said, we've had girls who were told to go away and tone up by their London agencies. It really does depend on the agency.
"I think these days, young girls don't want to be skinny," she adds. "They look at fit girls and think, 'I want abs, I want a bum, I want to be womanly'. Don't underestimate the influence of the fitness thing."
Adds Morgan: "I don't think young girls look at models and think, 'I want to be like her specifically'. "I think these days, it's more that young women want to be famous. They also see a lot of fit, strong role models (on social media) and they want to be more like them. They've seen them get that positive attention in recent years."
It could be argued that celebrity and modelling culture has become an interchangeable entity by now. Certainly, there's been the rise of the 'skinny selfie' - celebrities posting airbrushed photos of themselves. Morgan certainly has a point: the 'strong not skinny' faction, who value fitness and vitality over a race to size zero, has gained serious traction on social media.
One of Morgan's charges, Louise O'Reilly, is one of the busiest high-profile models working today. Currently cutting a swathe across New York for Fashion Week, the size 16 beauty has made body positivity her raison d'etre, and Ireland's young fashion followers can't get enough of her.
"Louise is the perfect example because she's as healthy as anyone else, and goes to the gym and keeps in shape," says Rebecca. "Not only is she particularly good at what she does, she's absolutely gorgeous."
And despite featuring on the September cover of 'U Magazine', O'Reilly has in the past noticed a sort of 'otherness' between mainstream and plus-size modelling. Worse still, old prejudices prevail.
"The thing people seem to forget is that, as a curvy model, you are like any other model and you still need to eat right, exercise and lead a balanced lifestyle," she said.
"You don't know where you are going to be, so you have to be fit and able to run around so many shoots a day. I definitely feel that the industry fails to see that."
As Ashley Graham (the first plus-size model on the cover of 'Sports Illustrated''s swimsuit issue) has pointed out, just because you are curvy it doesn't mean you are promoting an unhealthy body image. "It is about uplifting people and making them feel good about themselves."
It's here that O'Reilly has a point: the Irish fashion industry has rarely been so calculated as to trade on women's niggling insecurities to make buyers part with their cash. With its approachable figureheads and fondness for a cutesy photocall, the feel-good factor and body positivity have always been the Irish industry's cornerstones. This means they've been ahead of their New York or London counterparts all along.
Still, the stranglehold of a specific Western feminine ideal - lithe, fat-free, dewy - isn't going to let up anytime soon. With 10 million photos uploaded to Facebook every hour, it's safe to assume that we're more visually oriented than ever. The world, both online and off, is a catwalk.
There is a backlash or sorts afoot in terms of bodyshaming, with those who denigrate others facing an almighty negative reaction. Famously, 'Playboy' model Dani Mathers Snapchatted an unsuspecting naked woman in the gym recently (captioning her post, "If I can't unsee this, you can't either"). The Twitter uproar was one thing; quite another was the news this week of the alleged victim's willingness to testify in court against the model, and willingness of the LAPD to bring a case against her.
Are we heading towards a new world order where all sizes will be equally embraced? Is the modelling industry coming good on its promises to diversify?
"Wallis Simpson said, you can never be too rich or too thin, so this isn't new," surmises Lennon. "Thin has always been about control, and people want to feel in control. That's what it's all about. There's an increasing pressure to post pictures online to present something to the world that you're not. Perhaps the tide is about to turn on that, and that honesty, openness and authenticity will bring rewards."