I enjoy fashion as much as the next gal, albeit I refuse to be a financial victim and go into debt for it, wear anything that hurts too much and loath looking like a Rockette sporting the latest fads. I like to look nice but prefer to put my own spin on what I wear and how I wear it regardless of what trendsetters dictate. I am lucid enough to know that all trends do not flatter me and some are best passed on. I will glance fashion magazines on news kiosks while awaiting a flight at the airport but am often hard pressed to buy a copy to carry. I suppose the main reason is that I made a decision long ago not to support things that don’t support me, and don’t believe that most magazines support me. I flip though them and I do not see the possibility of myself. Rarely is there a brown face, and the women – (nay I should say barely post pubescent model/children) look nothing like me in body type. Furthermore where I love the concept of the clothes, when I look at the details and see that the shorts are $2000.00 the blouse $1500.00 and the shoes $900.00 I start to wonder why do I even care to know? Instead of giving you ideas of how to dress better, you get the idea that both physically and financially you will almost always be inadequate, so I personally don’t subscribe. It’s healthier for me that way; I try not to partake in things that make me feel bad.
There are times when I can’t avoid it, and for these two weeks in September and another in April when New York Fashion Week(s) takes place it’s almost impossible. Though New York City is a fashion Mecca year round, Fashion week is like pouring honey around a picnic blanket the city literally crawls with every element of the fashion industry, designers, models, stylists, photographers, make-up artist, buyers, critics, writers, celebrities, their agents, and entourages and their entourage’s entourages. It’s madness, but possible to avoid if you chose to. When the bulk of the shows were held in Bryant Park (34th street midtown) it was easy for me to circumvent. In the evenings after the shows the hotspots for the fabulosity are primarily located downtown in areas like SoHo and Tribeca. There you are sure to find all the most glamorous dining at the hottest restaurants en mass at times, all dewy skinned and glossy, and thinner then you would image. However this year the tents have moved to Lincoln Center 66th street, which has thwarted my ability to hedge the chaos. I work on 55th and 9th and the 59th Street Columbus Circle station is my subway stop when work bound. Several times this week I have been taken aback by the visions of skeletal framed Amazons in denim cut off shorts and ankle boots passing through the station. These apparitions are out of place so far uptown it takes me a few seconds to register, “oh right it’s Fashion Week.”
Nothing quite prepares you for a face-to-face encounter with these creators.
While traversing the city it is not uncommon to encounter “Models” they are often in the subways with their books in hand or tuck away in a hobo bags. Their uniform is quite similar to what you see on Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model: Skinny Jeans, blousy tops or tanks, they favor flats on the form of ballet slippers, beat up boots, or Converse All-Stars. They are cool and hip sometimes they were the various styles of chapeaus that are the rage, (I suppose that’s the edgy look that Banks is always referring to) oddly it is not always their beauty that is eye catching. Frankly living in New York the diversity of beauty is literally around every corner in all shapes and sizes; rather it is their other-worldliness of their elongated gauntness (to call it willowy or sylphlike romanticizes the aesthetic which is in no way “romantic”). There are those who are undeniably beautiful with enviable bone structure, high cheekbones, full lips, and luminous skin, often their features are either quite plain, like a blank canvas with the potential to be transformed with make-up and hair albeit of late the look of choice is that of oddity, the questionable beauty with slightly distorted features that the camera loves. However it is the universality of their height and the slightness of their frame that is disturbing. They are always painfully (unnaturally) thin.
As a dancer I have seen a lot of bodies and I have a keen eye when it comes to the ability to discern the difference between naturally thin and the effortfully skinny, and you can tell the difference. There are several different types of slender there: is the naturally petite small boned, the “Barbie” tall and lanky that does come with breasts, the Gamine, the lean and strong “I work out 6 times a week”, and then there is the “I will do whatever possible to be a sample size” svelte. Most of these Models look like naturally thin post adolescents who have decided to “watch their weight” which has rendered them emaciated, with jutting hipbones and clavicles. Even on subways and stomping the concrete jungle they do their jobs in making you take pause and look at them, if only to wonder “How does one get THAT thin?”
In print the gaunt cheekbones and hollowed eyes can be hauntingly ethereal, alluring and even seductive but in person it often tells a different story. There is something lack luster about the skin, and hair, there is something missing in the eyes. To me they tend to look a bit despondent even sullen, yet it’s this same look that is captured so hauntingly in a great deal of fashion photography and sold as beauty, and glamour. I look at these young- young girls and they look vacant. Something in me wants to rescue them, give them a warm bowl of soup and start an IV drip, perhaps it is because the figure reminds me so much of sickness or oppression like concentration camp victims or the malnourished of impoverished war torn countries. It saddens me but it seems to be exactly what the industry loves, hangers- hangers, don’t have hearts, spirits, or souls.
I hear myself and I cringe for fear of sounding like those people who rail against the system and has everyone turning away from them whispering, “Oh get over it.” I also feel a bit guilty because the assault on the aesthetic is being directed at the girls who are at the mercy of the industry. Yes it is a choice to participate but at as a young girl presented with the opportunity to have one’s beauty validated by not only the industry but the world, to be coveted for it, to make a boatload of money before they are legal and to live the “glamorous” life who’s thinking about the consequence? It is the adults who run the industry and who are to be held accountable as well in part we the consumers (supply and demand- supply and demand).
Something has gone horribly wrong in the last 20 years.
Naomi Campbell just celebrated her 25th year in the industry and has just broken 40. She looks very much like she did the day she as a 14 year old took the industry by storm. Her body long lean, and strong she (arguably) had the best walk in the business and her curves made any garment from bathing suit to couture gown sing. It takes my mind back to the 80’s and the original $10,000 a day girls (an infamous quote uttered by Linda Evangelista to journalist Jonathan van Meter for Vogue interview in 1990). The brat pack of original supermodels: Cindy (Crawford), Christy (Turlington), Naomi (Campbell), Linda (Evangelista), and Claudia (Schiffer), they (pre Kate Moss) were the reign of the Amazons not only fuller-bodied than their present day counterparts but they had breasts and booty and personality, a sparkle in the eye, a mischievous glint. They would serve a little smirk or smile at the end of a runway and we loved it. Some were just gorgeous and lovable like the astoundingly hot girl next door (Cindy and Claudia) some were just so utterly, unapologetically themselves (Campbell) and then there were the chameleons (Turlington and Evangelista) with hair and make- up they could be anything, or anyone, like still photo actresses. It was that sort of thing that sparked the advent of the “Spokesmodel” there came a time when we actually wanted to know what these femme fatales had to say, what did they sound like? We wanted more- we didn’t even care if they were trying to sell us something. Today’s reigning runway body Gisele Bundchen does not possess that sort of mercurial mystic. Amazing she is but she is always herself.
The young girls walking today lack that sort of intrigue. Perhaps it was backlash from the arrogance of the Brat pack who in the 1990 fashion season held the industry hostage with their fee demands. The “Girls” of the industry since then have never been as interesting. Along with the extra weight went the personality the energy and soul. Never again did we see public model solidarity promoted and marketed, the last pair of friends that were somewhat acknowledged by the industry were Amber Valetta and Shalom Harlow. Giselle stands alone, as do the other newer names in the modeling industry. Their power in numbers was in a sense eradicated, their voices taken away and put in the proverbial closet.
We all know that there is something terribly wrong with the industry, even the folks in it know but the reality is, there is far too much money on the line to rock the boat. Models are getting thinner, and to get them that thin, they have to be younger, 12 and 13 now. We have underdeveloped girls (mentally and physically) in environments that have been proven to be detrimental to full grown, mature adults; drugs, alcohol, sexually charged situations both on set and off, it is a minefield to navigate. I just wonder who is looking out for these young ladies? Like my mother said it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Where are these girls parents?
How is it that these young girls end up in this industry left in the hands of agencies and bookers? The idea of sending a child abroad to live and work un-chaperoned seems negligent and irresponsible. Often they end up living with other teens in “model” apartments owned by agencies. This is not the Sylvia Plath’s Babizon Hotel with housemothers, curfews and rules; it’s a flop for models passing through- alone [if I’m wrong please set my mind and heart straight]. Parents foster their children’s care out to people for whom they amount to a comp card that is as disposable as the paper it’s printed on is insane. You have to give credit to Carolyn Banks the mother of Supermodel and mogul Tyra Banks for making her child’s safety the priority. It is well known that after sending her abroad she soon joined her daughter when the hazards of the industry encroached. For years she traveled with her to protect/mother her as she rose to fame as a model. Hence Banks as not only avoided many of the pitfalls that often befall other models but has gone on to become a juggernaut in the modeling, and television industry. While others floundered in the excess and indulgence and either fought their way out, and back, or faded into oblivion she had staying power. Think what you will of Ms. Banks she has emerged from the eye of the storm of fame unscathed and seemingly centered as a woman.
Is it the lure of fame, money and luxury that allows parents to turn a blind-eye? To borrow a term from the urban vernacular parents are now pimping their children out to either share in the riches, the glory or both. One of the most tragic stories in the headlines today is that of Lindsey Lohan, and her mother’s constant denial of her alcohol and drug problems while the checks roll in. Then there is the bootilicious Kardashian clan, managed by mother Kris, who after Kim’s sextape imbroglio booked her to appear in Playboy. I think the title of mother of the year is still up for grabs. The age range for parents using their children for meal tickets has dropped considerably. Kate and Jon Gosselin signed on for TLC channels reality show Jon and Kate plus eight featuring their sextuplets and twins. When their divorce got messy and public questions arose as to whether shooting should cease for the sake of the children and Kate’s stock answer was “How else am I going to feed my family? This is my work” really there are other ways to earn money without exposing your children. I come from a family of nine and my parents managed without a television show (however it would have made for some interesting television, trust).
It brings to mind the controversial movie that made Brooke Shields a star. In Pretty Baby Shields (then only 12 years old) portrays a child prostitute in a New Orleans brothel. Not so salacious now but in 1978 fueled by the images of her bathing nude it was scandalous. References to Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita and child pornography swirled around the film and Shields. It brought up questions of how young it too young even in the realm of art. How could her manager and mother Teri allow her daughter to be exposed that way? Then two short years later Shields stirred up yet another controversy with her Calvin Klein Jeans ad asking the world “You know what comes between me and my Calvin’s, nothing” it started again. Why was a 14 year old telling us that she doesn’t where underpants? It seems like hyperbole by today’s standards but it does beg the question – why have we stopped questioning?
Pedophilia is a hot topic and seems be an epidemic, young girls and boys being sexually abused by parents, teachers and priests alike everyone is outraged about the Catholic Church’s lackadaisical attitude towards taking action against it but somehow it is ok for us to flip through a fashion magazine and see a teenaged girl half dressed in provocative sexual situations selling us everything from clothing to handbags. If we were to check the ages of some of the models in these sexually provocative ads we might find many to be “Barely legal” putting the ads in question skirting the ethical parameters of child pornography. This sounds extreme but when and where our conscious awakens is interesting, considering what might have to go on to get a 14 year old girl to strike a seductive pose when she might well have never been kissed. Where is our outrage or at least our inquiry?
I was flying recently and came across an interesting in-flight documentary about model Sara Ziff- Picture Me; it is a wonderfully honest look at the industry. At first I thought it was going to be a self-indulgent portrayal of a beautiful blonde girl who loves to be in front of a camera and hear herself talk. However what it turned out to be was a very balanced representation of the industry. Over the five-year span we meet four of her model pals and follow them on their journey through the intrepid world of fashion. Kiff is an”it” girl who shows us checks she has received for 80 and $100,000.00 for an ad campaign. By 19 she is out earning her father a NYU professor and has purchased her own loft. Conversely in a model apartment in Paris we meet another young hopeful who has not had such luck and is in debt to her agency for thousands of dollars. Her hopes of cashing in quick on her beauty and retiring early are now reduced to making enough to get her out of debt with her agency and breaking even. It sounded like the stories of the immigrants who pay someone to smuggle them into the country only to find themselves indentured servants owing for unmentioned fees for the likes of food, shelter and air!
They do live the high life, jetting from New York, to Paris and Milan for fashion weeks but the stress and enervation of the hectic schedule take their toll both physically and mentally and when Ziff exhausted and having an emotional breakdown from the schedule called her booker in tears wanting to cancel a shoot, he talks her into going under the guise of she doesn’t want to earn a reputation for being unreliable. He was in those moments was not working for her, but for the client. She was inconsequential. They talk about the pressure to be the thinnest, one remarks about it being the only thing you can control, you can’t always be the prettiest but you can be the thinnest. There is talk about how to get that way and match the hectic schedule- and drugs come up. There is talk about casting couches and older photographers sexually harassing them and thinking it’s fine. One model recounts a story where a much older photographer is nude in a Jacuzzi with her and tries to kiss her. He incredulously he asks, “Did I get the wrong idea?” she tells the camera “I’m 16!!! Yes you got the wrong idea.” As we watch their progression the question of aging out of the game inevitable comes up and they start to realize that at 21 and 23 they are the old girls at the shows that are now populated by the new wave of faces that are 12 and 13 and the question of what next arises. Can you hear the crickets? With a closet full of designer clothes the booking few and far between and no education what type of future lies ahead? Ziff decides to go to Columbia University – but you are not surprised as she comes from a stable academically inclined household and she will no doubt come out on top but what of the thousands of others?
It’s easy enough during this time of year to sit and place my ruminations on paper, easy to point fingers and criticize and place blame. I don’t know if there is a way to halt the wheels of such a great and powerful machine but I do know that personally at times I feel assault and insulted. I know that people can only do to you what you let them and in a large sense we are all in our way are culpable; we buy the clothes, the magazines and strive to emulate the very things that we innately sense are inherently twisted. We try to be as thin, wear the clothes, make-up and hair regardless of if it suits us physically or our wallets financially. And that in an of it’s self is not a problem until it takes us out of and away from ourselves and into believing that if we do not subscribe we do not exist, that we will be rendered invisible to the very society that we all want so very much to be accepted by. It’s all so High School; there are the cool kids, the geeks, the freaks and a sea of other people that populate the background of yearbook book photos. All I know is that we should never stop questioning and we should be discussing it. We should question not only others but also ourselves, and the relationship we have to these images and concepts of beauty that we subscribe to. We should strive to create our own definition of beauty that includes us in it, one that does not have to negate the possibilities of another’s. We have another week of Fashion mayhem left and as I embark on my journey to midtown were I am certain to encounter all that I have written about above I encourage you to -in the word of the MTA- “If you See Something Say Something.”