Harriet Walker: Normal people need not apply

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

Related Topics

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.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam