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Does ‘Fashion Maketh Woman’? Nichi Hodgson, having attended the Intelligence Squared debate, has her doubts

Social Affairs Text

“To quote Jean Cocteau, ‘Art often starts out as ugly, but becomes beautiful’. With fashion, it’s the other way round.” So began Stephen Bayley as he rallied against the motion, ‘Fashion Maketh Woman’, at Intelligence Squared’s final summer series debate in Westminster last month.

Chaired by former Harpers and Queen flaneur, Peter York, each of the six panel members employed their own elegant encomium as they attempted to woo the overwhelmingly female audience. For the motion was Paula Reed, Style Director of Grazia magazine, business woman and designer Britt Lintner, and Madelaine Levy, Editor in Chief of analytical fashion magazine Bon International. Uniting with Bayley against it were artist Grayson Perry and psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach.

While the ‘Fors’ celebrated the glamour, cheer and escapist verve the effect a new-season frock can have on a lady’s spirits, the ‘Againsts’ were quick to levy at fashion a plethora of more serious charges: of body fascism and excess narcissism, of depleting the earth’s resources, not to mention our bank accounts, and of perpetuating, as Bayley put it, ‘a cycle of utter folly’ by the sheer lunacy of its seasonal dictates. It left Reed’s suggestion that ‘Fashion says more about you than your personality’ about as gauzy as the Oscar de la Renta number she confessed it had taken her a full week to settle on wearing.

Not that there is anything wrong with caring about your appearance, argued the opposition, who were only too eager to celebrate the undeniable allure of aesthetics, the importance of self-presentation and the sheer delight of dressing. While Bayley railed against fashion’s affront to good design, both Perry and Orbach condemned its didacticism and complete disregard for an individual’s personal tastes, with Perry or rather ‘Claire’ (his transvestite alter ego) making a point of naming the young designer who had fashioned his fabulously lurid schoolgirl smock.  Rather than merely allowing ‘the industrialisation of cool’, Perry wagered, fashion should be celebrating creativity, craft, and home-grown designer talent.

And yet the fashion industry is now the UK’s second largest employer, crucial to our economy, GDP, and relative status in the international market, all points flagged up by Britt Lintner in fashion’s defence.  Frustrated by the lack of a working wardrobe that reflects ‘the fashionable feminine female’, Lintner told the audience of how she had decided to create her own, explaining that the clothes she designs, sartorial signifiers of female authority, enable the wearer to penetrate traditionally masculine arenas of professional power, confidence boosted by the cut and swagger of their costume. Not only is fashion’s economic benefit felt by the market at large then, she asserted, but by women’s individual economic empowerment and professional success, conjurable by an exacting skirt pleat. Lintner deserves praise for trying to tackle the gender pay gap, but it’s a damning statement on equality if invoking Valkyrie style (she pronounced Margaret Thatcher the ultimate power dresser) is the only way to get ahead at work.

The real challenge for the ‘Fors’ was always going to be defending fashion’s promotion of fantasyland, prepubescent physiques. Paula Reed valiantly tried in her opening address, citing recent catwalk crackdowns on models with unhealthy BMIs as proof the industry is re-evaluating its attitude to emaciation. Meanwhile, Madelaine Levy took an alternate line of defence, suggesting that fashion could be our friend in the face of contemporary culture’s obsession with physical perfection. Fashion, she claimed, helped her to feel good by concealing her vices with flatter dressing: “I like good food and want to work long hours in a job I love,” she reasoned, apparently failing to see the irony in the fact that the bony-fingered hand that feeds her mind’s eye with images of twig limbs is the same one cooing and cajoling her into ‘making the best of what she’s got’. In a bid to address the issue of women’s ‘overreaction’ to images of thinness, Levy drew the following intelligent if ultimately fallacious analogy: why did reading Einstein not give her a sense of mental inferiority, where poring over the latest copy of Vogue prompted a pique of physical angst? (She stopped short of considering that if every advert, film, magazine or vestige of culture promoted cerebral genius with the same fervour, we’d probably be suffering from a pandemic of anaretardorexia instead.)

Grayson Perry made the valid point that, by choosing not to use thin models, designers can unwittingly find themselves making a body politicised statement. But while clothing as art might require anthropomorphic coathangers to best showcase its genius, surely clothing as, well, clothing – i.e. the garments that Everywoman wears – should aim to fit and flatter, rather than demoralise and enfetter those that just have to get dressed each morning.  Certainly Susie Orbach, who finished arguing against the motion by quoting Mary Wollstonecraft, reminded us of the strictures routine objectification has on the female psyche: ‘Taught from infancy that beauty is women’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming rounds its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison’.

It supported something I’d been considering throughout the whole debate: if fashion is so empowering, why doesn’t your average white Western heterosexual man invoke its ‘power’ quite so readily? When it comes to women harnessing their privilege as agents of display, I’m the first to flag up the potency of the Active Object. But film stars and footballers aside, it’s no coincidence that fashion is still mainly the preserve of women and gay men, both traditionally subordinate to straight male dictates.

At an Intelligence Squared event, the audience votes on the motion both before and after the debate.  By the end of the debate, the number of those in support of the motion had dropped from 335 to 293, while the number of those previously against it - 318 – had risen to 468. The consensus, then, was that women should revel in the democracy of dressing, rather than the fickle stricture of fashion.  Or, as Stephen Bayley flourished: ’Be a victor, not a victim’.

On the tube home, I thought about the last audience member to brave the microphone, a flustered, lovely, twenty-something struggling to precisely articulate her discontent.  Despite Reed’s casuistry, she just didn’t buy the idea that the fashion world’s attitudes to extreme thinness really is withering. Perusing the lurid-covered issue of Grazia thrust into my hands as I’d left the debate, I noted adverts offering ‘full-bodied protection (Pantene’s latest shampoo ad), or gingerly suggesting, in timid font, that, ‘Long doesn’t have to be skinny’ (Maybelline‘s latest mascara). I thought again about Reed’s assertion that there was a ‘real woman’ backlash on the way. Were these adverts the start? Or the kind of disingenuous tokenism that aims to creep into the collective female consciousness, soothing our reassurance-craving egos that fuller is fine, yet stopping far short of our actual bodies?

The trouble is, we’re tired of hearing about women’s battle against body fascism. Equalities Minister Lynn Featherstone has just announced government plans to hold a ‘body confidence’ summit this autumn. She is also proposing attaching a ‘this image has been airbrushed’ warning label to duplicitous digitally enhanced images in advertising and media. While well-intentioned, personally, I think Featherstone’s proposals are pretty featherweight. But you only have to read the reaction of Harper’s Bazaar creative director Sophia Neophitou, denouncing the hazard warnings as “a waste of tax payer’s money”, to see the fashion industry’s resistance to representing ‘real’ bodies.

While campaigns against domestic violence, infibulation or global female poverty need only a fresh PR spin to renew their potency, we’re all too accustomed to just accepting it is the privileged woman’s luxury to worry unduly about her figure. It becomes less of an irony and more a mere statement of fact that the sequinned mini dresses that provide female Bangladeshi textile workers with a livelihood scratch away at the morale of the Western women who squeeze into them. That both sets of women live on the same number of calories a day may seem an even more perverse disjuncture, the one electing self-starvation, the other stitching relentlessly to nourish itself.   Yet in the global quest for gender equality, fashion has the power to weave together these seemingly disparate strands of feminist cause.  Make it a body-positive, ethical brand of fashion, capable of nurturing a positive female identity and economic independence, and it may be time to judge it on more than appearances.