Nadine Rubin Nathan celebrates the coming of age of real women in fashion.
About a month ago, I went to an Emilia Wickstead trunk show held by her mother Angela Wickstead. (Emilia is the New Zealand-born, London-based fashion designer excelling in the kind of elegant, ladylike femininity that turns the heads of the Duchess of Cambridge, Samantha Cameron and numerous other royals and celebs.) I walked in to the beautiful Remuera villa where Angela had set up shop with my friend S who is about 5’ 11”. Women aged between 35 and 70 sipped champagne and fingered the stunning fabrics that Emilia works with while a model in her early 20s walked among us wearing a high-neck, sleeveless, midnight blue dress with cutaway sides and an ankle-grazing A-line hemline in a weighty fabric. You needed to be about 5’11” to pull it off, but when I suggested S try it on, she immediately declared her shoulders too wide. The model disappeared and returned wearing a second dress, this one with billowing organza sleeves cinched at the wrists. When she lifted her arms the cuffs skidded up to her elbows. When I tried it on, I couldn’t lift my arms past 45-degrees and I immediately declared my forearms over-sized. I wondered, later on, if S and I would have been so critical of our own bodies had the model not been there.
Ever since fashion magazines first appeared in England in the 1870s one of their most controversial aspects has been the singular idealised body ideal that they insist on. One study in 2012 found that just three minutes spent looking at a fashion magazine caused 70% of women to feel depressed, guilty and shameful. That’s a hard truth to swallow for someone like me who spent the nineties and the noughties working as an editor for fashion magazines like Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. For many of those years, though, whenever we asked women in focus groups if they wanted to see real women instead of models in the clothes, the answer was always a resounding ‘no’. But times, I’m happy to report, they are a-changin’.
Before I moved to Auckland from New York, I witnessed my downstairs neighbour Nicolette Mason build a massive audience as a plus-size blogger that eventually saw her get her own column in US Marie Claire. When I arrived in Auckland in 2014, I was thrilled to see plus-size models at the first New Zealand Fashion Week that I attended. As Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, in particular, have grown in popularity, the ‘sexy selfie’ has ushered in a greater acceptance of real bodies. I think of it as the silver lining of our digital narcissism.
In April this year AdWeek reported that, thanks to Instagram, “women who have for so long felt ignored by mainstream fashion are finally able to have a voice. They’re sharing body-positive selfies and hashtags, following plus-size bloggers like Nicolette Mason and GabiFresh… and letting brands know exactly what they think.”
And certain fashion brands have seen a real spike in their profit margins when they’ve used real women to front their advertising campaigns (and let’s be honest, these days fashion advertising is as powerful as fashion editorials). AdWeek used Iskra Lawrence, the 25-year-old British model best known for appearing in Aerie’s famously unretouched #AerieReal campaign, who commands an Instagram audience of over 1.7 million as an example. And now Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke are doing the same for New Zealand lingerie label Lonely, fronting their latest add without a hint of photoshop. Along with posting body confident selfies, Iskra, Lena, Jemima use their social media accounts to encourage self-acceptance and fight back against body-shamers. Now that’s something worth celebrating.