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

Digital Project Manager/BA

£300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Digital/Ecommerc...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Test Lead (C#, Java, HTML, SQL) Kingston Finance

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Access/Teradata Developer, Banking, Bristol £400pd

£375 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Access / Teradata Developer - Banking - Bristol -...

Day In a Page

Read Next

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home