Models of various ages and sizes have become increasingly common among top fashion magazines and runways over the past few seasons. The topic captured worldwide attention when Mark Fast featured several size 12 and 14 models in his London Fashion Week show in October 2009. Coupled with rumors that Fast’s stylist quit 48 hours before the debut as a result of the casting, the curvy models made headlines for a week following the outing.
Magazines and other designers have also made changes to the models they hire. German Brigitte and British Essentials, for instance, have each announced that they would use “real women” of all sizes and ages instead of traditional models following a resounding survey among readers. High fashion glossy V and French Elle (which featured a size 16 model on its cover) also devoted issues to size diversity, while Italian Vogue created a section of its website specifically for curvy girls. And for American Elle‘s special 25th anniversary October issue, it featured Gabourey Sidibe, the black full-figured star of “Precious,” as a cover girl.
Taking cues from this shifting media emphasis, luxury fashion brands have also followed the same course. Prada and Louis Vuitton celebrated curvaceous and mature women last season by casting models whose age and size make them a runway rarity, including Christy Turlington, Laetitia Casta and Elle MacPherson. Tom Ford unveiled his highly anticipated women’s collection during the most recent New York Fashion Week on a diverse group of celebrities ranging from Beyonce Knowles to Lauren Hutton, while Giles Deacon featured a 71-year-old Veruschka on his s/s ’11 catwalk during London this past Fashion Week. And among the up-and-comers, Project Runway Canada winner Sunny Fong included a few size 14 models—including one gray-haired 55-year-old discovered on Craigslist—in his Toronto Fashion Week show last March.
“If you see something, and you can reach what you see, then you do not have to make an effort any more,” Karl Lagerfeld once said, effectively summarizing fashion’s unattainability ethos. Given this outlook, models who resemble consumers (i.e. anyone over size two and 25 years old) fail to convince buyers to “make an effort” and therefore shop for that new dress. And yet, even Largerfeld—who also famously claimed that only “fat mothers” found curvy models attractive—cast size 12 supermodel Crystal Renn in Chanel’s recent resort collection and American ad campaign.
This shifting attitude in the industry’s definition of beauty is largely the result of changing attitudes among increasingly savvy female consumers. Following Fast’s infamous show, a reporter for The Guardian mused: “The curvy models genuinely altered my appraisal of the clothes in the show, making me consider how I would look in these designs.” Modern women live two steps beyond those original marketing manipulation tactics—cookie-cutter models have become monotonous, mainstream criticisms of airbrushed ads abound and the recession has replaced a desire for fantasy with a hunger for authenticity. These days, many women seek fashion inspiration from the plethora of street style blogs that showcase clothes on people of all ages, sizes and backgrounds, celebrating everyday fashionistas on the merit of style alone.
This altered attitude is also reflected in the way consumers are purchasing items. A recent study of over 3,000 women between the ages of 14 and 65 by researchers at Cambridge University found that more than 85% of women in Canada and the US increased their intentions to buy a fashion product when the ad featured a model that resembled their size, age and ethnicity. Women want to see models of a variety of sizes and ages that have the same glamour, artistry and poise as conventional fashion models, but no longer reflect the archaic images of impossible aspiration. From an anecdotal angle, this outlook was nicely summarized in New York Magazine analysis of Ford’s daring show: “It was kind of thrilling to see very expensive clothing on women who might actually buy these clothes.”
In a world where fashion cues come from “the worst bikini bodies” in tabloids or photoshopped images of perfection in fashion magazines, it’s no wonder consumers are drawn to the one group they can still believe in: real people. Fast, Ford and the others who have embraced diversity remind us that fashion was never intended to live on a one-size-fits-all silhouette, but instead to move and take shape on the beautiful diversity of our human bodies.