This week, designers sent a fat lad down the catwalk. COLE MORETON - no Jarvis Cocker - spots a cynical stunt
Sunday 28 February 1999
The cameras flashed as he lifted his patchwork sweater to reveal a wobbling gut - the word "unique" scrawled across it in orange lipstick.
"It was a bit of a laugh," said Red or Dead's Wayne Hemingway of the shock tactics used to enliven the label's unremarkable collection - which included two other members of Ultrasound streaking down the catwalk entirely naked.
But who was laughing? Probably not Tiny, in the end - unless he really didn't mind being described as rotund and gargantuan in the press the next day. And certainly not the rest of us big men, who know what designers really think of the so-called oversized.
Couturiers are body fascists, but they're not the only ones. Those who design everyday objects ignore the evidence that Britons are getting bigger with every passing generation - so that increasing numbers of people find it difficult to sit at a restaurant table, drive a car, sleep in a bed or travel anywhere without losing the feeling in both legs.
The blow that Tiny appeared to strike for Big Lib last week missed the target and made me very angry. It's all very well for Wayne Hemingway to say that "Tiny is a style icon and living proof that, like Jarvis Cocker, you don't have to have model proportions to be stylish". But - I'm sorry to say this about a big brother - to me he just looked a fool. What did he wear? A baggy sweater, traditional refuge of those ashamed of their belly. While his body is undeniably unique, did anybody in that diet-obsessed room really wish they had one just like it? If not - and since Red or Dead is not trying to start a new trend for dressing the larger man - the whole thing was no more than a tasteless stunt.
No doubt the publicity will do Ultrasound's record sales some good, but in return Tiny sold himself as a modern Elephant Man, the latest exhibit in the freak show fashion designers always wheel out for the collections when they've run out of inspiration.
We've had superwaifs, ugly models, big women and disabled people - but most of it has been outrageous, offensive tokenism by an industry that continues to worship the young, the beautiful and the able-bodied. They cause a sensation, then disappear.
Even Sophie Dahl, who was the subject of hype more generous than her bosom, slimmed down dramatically after her first season. The truth remains that unless you conform to a particular size, it is impossible to get decent clothes in the high street, where real people shop for things to wear.
Big women have complained about this for years, and things have begun to change. New shops and catalogues have opened, and some of the big chains have got the message that not everyone wants to look like Kate Moss.
Sisters, I rejoice in these victories (in Kate Winslet's curves particularly). But it's also time to recognise the struggle of big men.
In recent years, we have come under the same pressures. Advertisers now like to use naked, sculpted male bodies to sell products. Successful magazines like Men's Health encourage us to go on ludicrous diets and work out harder in search of the perfect six-pack. Pop stars and actors are under constant pressure to keep slim, and some starve themselves like jockeys. Teenage boys are suffering from anorexia.
At the same time, Britons are getting bigger. Both men and women are five inches taller than at the turn of the century. We take less exercise and eat more, so we're also wider. "The average size is going up quite dramatically," says Professor Stephen Gray at the Computer Clothing Research Centre at Nottingham Trent University. "Obesity is a significant issue on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK it's 15 per cent [of the population] and increasing."
Designers have yet to get the message. On trains, for example, the average seat is three inches narrower than it was in 1951, when Britain was still suffering post-War austerity and the population was lean. Many clothes manufacturers still base their sizes on a survey carried out in the same year - and so nearly half a century out of date.
My own waist is a 40, only a few inches beyond the imagination of anybody who makes decent clobber. Friends say I'm not fat (the Independent on Sunday's fashion guru, one Annalisa Barbieri, called me "perfectly proportioned" on these pages, although I don't like to mention it) but I've got a big frame. Wide shoulders, long arms and a 50-inch chest.
As a result I sleep in a super-kingsize bed and shop in what Alexei Sayle calls Mr Big Bastard Boutiques which are rarely worth travelling to. High & Mighty lives up to the name because its prices are astronomical. The only good thing about such places is that they make you feel normal and the sales assistants do understand.
Which is more than can be said of the wasted youths that serve in high- street stores. In the interests of research, I went to Lakeside Shopping Centre, the cultural capital of Essex, to look for a new shirt. First I tried a gentleman's outfitters, where a meticulously polite man with a tape measure around his neck said he was sorry, but could not help. Next door, in a shop called Tribe, a boy shouted at me over the drum 'n' bass, "Yeah?" Clearly he thought I belonged in another world. He was right.
In Next, the saleswoman smirked when I told her my chest size. And, worst of all, in a sports shop, a Saturday lad who heard my request for size 13 trainers - only one size over the end of most ranges, remember - just laughed.
Being a big man does have its compensations. Height and weight combined with a little confidence can add up to authority. People look up to big men, and we have a good view (unlike the people who tut when I take my seat in the cinema in front of them).
When a big man walks into a room, people notice. Film directors used to understand this - remember Robert Mitchum, battle-weary but filling the screen in The Longest Day or John Wayne standing tall in Rio Bravo. Funny how you never saw them banging their knees on tiny restaurant tables or suffering from chronic backache caused by bad office furniture, like real big men do. There are modern heroes - Robbie Coltrane swaggering through Cracker, or Liam Neeson in a kilt as Rob Roy - but they are now rareties. The trend is for women to be bigger and bolder, and that's easier when they're cast opposite medium-sized men.
Still it may be a comfort to Tiny, when the novelty has worn off and all his new fashion friends are nagging him to lose the gut, that there will always be a market for big men. My friend Ceri, who works as a sex counsellor, tells me that many women share her taste for generously proportioned men. And the appeal? "I want a meal," she says, "not a snack."
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