Harriet Walker: Normal people need not apply

There's little conscience in the way that fashion is presented

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Whether it's race, disability, weight or (only whisper it) sheer brazen-faced ugliness, the fashion industry has never had any qualms about turning up its pretty little nose. We've come to expect that ad campaigns and catwalk shows contain little or no vestiges of normal humanity, but two cases this week are particularly shocking because they involve not models or film stars but people who simply work in shops.

Riam Dean, a 22-year-old law student, is suing American clothing retailers Abercrombie and Fitch for hiding her away in a stockroom because she wears a prosthetic arm. Having asked her to remove her cardigan on the grounds that it wasn't company uniform, a tribunal was told, the shop then suggested that she worked out the summer behind the scenes until the (presumably long-sleeved) winter uniforms arrived.

Then there was the ruling by French courts against the Garnier wing of beauty industry giant L'Oréal, which found senior employees guilty of racial discrimination in the recruitment of saleswomen for a new product. "BBR", the brief stated – meaning "bleu, blanc et rouge", the colours of the French flag and far-right shorthand for white French people.

The fact is that there's so little conscience involved in the way fashion is presented and marketed that it doesn't take much to scratch the veneer and bring the whole thing down like a model falling off a high-heeled shoe. The arbitrary appointment of those deemed arbiters of taste is just that – but we all still buy into it so why be scandalised when, after the whole rickety business is put under legal scrutiny, it's publicly denounced as unfair, immoral and sinister?

Fashion can't really win. Whenever it does try to be inclusive or universal, it smacks of tokenism. Singer Beth Ditto has just launched a range of clothes for plus-size store Evans, but what expertise in clothing design does she have? What is it that makes her so suitable for the job? Hint: she hasn't done a night-course in pattern-cutting, that's for sure.

Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, recently sent a letter to a number of designers, asking them to make their sample sizes bigger. Her magazine, she said, wanted to feature ordinary-sized models but they often were unable to fit into the clothes sent for shoots. Her message is to be applauded, but it sits uneasily with the amount of re-touching that goes on behind the scenes, to the point where, on more than a few occasions, the cover stars become almost unrecognisable.

In 1998, Alexander McQueen guest-edited an issue of fashion magazine Dazed & Confused, which contained a shoot featuring eight disabled subjects. Shot by photographer Nick Knight (who was also behind a Levi's campaign featuring models in their seventies), the piece was both lauded for focusing on inner beauty and outer diversity, and decried for presenting the subjects like stars of a Victorian freakshow. It's an indictment of how conditioned we are to the bland faces of fashion that looking at anything "other" is seen as ghoulish.

"There's not a lot of dignity in high fashion," said McQueen after the shoot. "I think they're all really beautiful." An idealistic sentiment, for sure, but there's little point in applying ideals or notions of political correctness to an industry that simply doesn't care about recognising what reality is in the first place.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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