I’ve been reading a lot about how fashion has to represent “real women.” But what does this mean and who are these “real women”?
Caroline, by email
Excellent question, Caroline! I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since the publication of the latest issue of Vogue, which proudly proclaims itself to be a “model-free zone”, in which clothes are photographed – as editor Alexandra Shulman explains – “through a more real filter”. We’ll return to those claims later, but the point here is that this clarifies the real/non-real divide in fashion: “Non-real women” are models and “real women” are not models. I’ve been pondering long and hard over who this dichotomy insults more: the models with the insinuation that they’re fake women, or the non-models with the overt suggestion that they’re barely evolved peasants rolling in the mud at the foothills of the models’ golden palaces. And after much consideration, I’ve settled on the latter. Oh, pity us potato-faced proles, living alongside the perfect superhumans that are the models! The only way we can cope is if we are repeatedly insulted by condescension.
But look, I’m not getting at Vogue about this. I’m really not. I honestly take my hat off to Shulman because, let’s face it, she at least makes more of an effort to deal with fashion’s, shall we say, problematic body issues than any other editor I can think of. She also, quite frankly, can’t win. Some of the funniest moments in her upcoming book, A Diary of My Hundredth Year, about editing Vogue during its centenary year, are not to do with the Duchess of Cambridge, Philip Green, Naomi Campbell or any of the other gossipy bits that have already been filleted by the Daily Mail. Rather, they’re to do with a certain rightwing tabloid’s female columnists, who barely even look at the magazine before knocking out another 1,500 words on their editor’s orders about how Vogue is so evil because it causes eating disorders and it makes these columnists feel so very unhappy about themselves and can we run some pretty pictures of models to brighten up the column and me me me and here’s an invoice for a grand thank you very much (I’m paraphrasing a tad, but you get the point.) So on the one hand, there’s the connection between models and mental illness being made by a tabloid that, on a daily basis, reduces women to their physical appearances; and on the other, there are designers who simply do not make sample size clothes any bigger than a size 10.
Thus we end up with the current result we see in the new Vogue, in which “real women” are represented by the impossibly beautiful 55-year-old Spanish-Vietnamese-American actor (and, ahem, model) Anh Duong and the ridiculously sexy 30-year-old playwright Polly Stenham. Well, all I can say is, if these are “real women” then I must be a troglodyte. Models have never made me feel bad about myself because I understand that they are not supposed to represent me. But to be told that a real woman who lives in the “real filter” looks like the gorgeous artist Phoebe Collings-James (one of notably few “real women” of colour, incidentally) is a little jarring. Which filter am I in? I hope it’s Valencia.
Yes, it’s Vogue, so of course you’re only going to see gorgeous people. But what’s the point in substituting professionally beautiful women for ones who are just as beautiful but happen to do something else for a living? Is it the fact that models don’t have a second job that makes them objectionable? And, in any case, this issue of Vogue is clearly not a “model-free” zone, given that all its adverts, which make about a third of its pages, feature nothing but models, or, as I guess we’re supposed to call them now, “non-real women”. And ’twas always going to be thus. After all, Shulman might be able to get in some attractive artists to wear Gucci and Burberry, but she can’t reinvent the wheel.
But let’s look a little more at this idea of “real women”. Who are they? Where do they live? What do they do for work? I’m sure there’s a chap who works in advertising – presumably for a certain soap brand – who has a checklist that answers all of those questions. The only answer I can give with any certainty, speaking as a fellow real woman (I think?), is that she is not a model, as we have already established that this is what shifts a woman from the realm of the real to the non-real. (Hilariously, Vogue includes an interview with a 25-year-old solicitor who, until two years ago, was a model. Welcome to the world of “real women”, ma’am! I hope your transition was not too bumpy!)
Look, you don’t need to be as annoyingly obtuse as me to find this “real women” versus “non-real women” schtick annoying. Yes, models present a very limited perspective of female beauty, and I get that what Vogue and various advertising campaigns are trying to do is provide a broader perspective. But to suggest that models are otherworldly creatures who the rest of us can never equal is just another way of deifying them and patronising the rest of us. So instead of this “real” versus “non-real” nonsense, how about just referring to them as “models” and “non-models”, and not insinuating that the latter represent ALL non-models. Because, as frustrating as this must be to market researchers, advertisers, fashion magazine and tabloid columnists, the female world is not divided into models and the rest of us: it is just a lot of diverse women, doing their thing. And the only thing I’m pretty sure you can say for certain about all of us is that we’re all real.
Post your questions to Hadley Freeman, Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.