It was intended to be a series of photographs of a range of affordable lingerie, worn by this year's top model. But we were given pictures of a pubescent child wearing the semi-see-thru sexy underwear of a knowing adult; images of a little Lolita dressed up in the private clothes of a woman. Many readers found the pictures unpleasant, calling them 'disgusting', 'dreadful' 'upsetting' and 'ugly'. Vogue has gone beyond the pale.
The magazine has sanctioned images that resonate with the sexualisation of children. That is irresponsible. Sexual abuse of the young is a harrowing truth of our times and Vogue is a magazine with influence that extends far beyond its readership. It is the bible of British style. By choosing a photographer, a model, a look, it gives its sanction, an esteemed seal of approval. And Vogue makes waves; it is a source book, used by lesser magazines, by advertisers, by television commercial- makers who wish to emulate its opinion on where fashion, not just in clothes but in photography and in faces, stands at any given time. Vogue is also a social document that records the changing aspirations of the British.
In 10 years' time, people will look back on a series of pictures titled 'Under-Exposure' and wonder what on earth we thought we were up to. The pictures invite the reader to stare at the crotch and breasts of a child. It does not matter that the child in the pictures is in fact a woman. It does not matter that she is 19 years old, wealthy and independent. What matters is that she looks 13 and that she looks back at the camera with the passivity of a victim.
She is Kate Moss, the 'hottest' star in modelling, who was discovered aged 15 and shot to stardom. The gentleness and sensitivity of her face and her waif-like form were a stark contrast to the so-called supermodels, who are leggy, bosomy, grown-up, in control. They are so impossibly Amazonian in their beauty that they have provoked a desire to bring fashion closer to reality.
Superwaif Moss has already racked up a fortune in the wake of the women tediously, but often truthfully, tagged 'the dollars 10,000-a-day girls'. Moss has a contract with the billion-dollar American designer Calvin Klein. She is in demand for editorial and lucrative advertising work. She appears on this month's cover of American Cosmopolitan, the biggest-selling woman's magazine in the West, and in many pictures she looks fresh and appealing - a happy contrast to the supermodels, whose high-gloss perfection made many women feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied with themselves. Most of the time, Moss appears nowhere near 'perfect'; this is the source of her popular appeal. She is the epicentre of the reaction against glamour that is now defining fashion.
Vogue wanted to take this freshness and make use of it in a lingerie shoot. Lingerie manufacturers advertise with the magazine, and every so often, lingerie is featured as part of the editorial. Commendably, the editor, Alexandra Shulman, wanted to break the mould of, as she puts it, 'man photographs woman wearing black lace lingerie at hotel dressing table' - the kind of imagery that so often displays women as highly-sexual predators and at which Helmut Newton excels.
The crucial difference here is that Newton's models, like the models in other lingerie shoots, have the bodies of women, and thus, one could infer, the minds too. Moss might be a smart young businesswoman in control of her destiny, her earnings and her relationship, but that is not what the pictures show. Instead, they add to the invidious process of robbing children of their innocence.
It is just as dangerous for a woman to play a child as it is for children, who do not know what they are doing, to play roles too adult for their years. Last year, Marks & Spencer introduced a range of children's underwear that child psychologists suggested was too adult in style for its target market. The store took note and removed the range. The Moss pictures show the reverse of this process. Shulman, who commissioned them, should have refused them.
Of course, Moss is not the first girl model. More than 20 years before the modelling sensation dubbed 'the Croydon waif' came 'the Cockney waif', Leslie Hornby, who came from Neasden. Twiggy was as skinny as Moss and as childlike as Moss. Her boyfriend, mentor and manager, Justin de Villeneuve, who was 10 years her senior, was presumably well aware of her potency. But we didn't see Twiggy in see-thru knickers, and in any case, the sexual abuse of children was not then central to public debate.
Fashion can be accused of lots of things. Its insistence on the images of thin women may or may not lead young girls on to the downward spirals of anorexia and bulimia. Its frequent worship at the altar of youth may or may not make ageing more traumatic. It should therefore avoid the accusations rightly levelled at Vogue this month that it also has a cavalier attitude towards innocence. For there is no way a 19-year-old woman, a female photographer and the editor of Vogue can claim that images of a girl-woman's tiny buttocks seen through black lace panties or teenage breasts peeking out under stretch lace are innocent today.
Moss's agent, Sarah Doukas, reports that the model is 'faintly amused at all the fuss'. Moss, the photographer Corinne Day and Shulman are adults and should instead be disturbed by the implications of the iconography that they have created.
Shulman defends the charge thus: 'My personal opinion is these are not images of a passive child ripe for abuse. To me, they are images of a 19-year-old seen in a fashion magazine, which is different from seeing them in the context of a book of social documentary photographs. There is nothing come-hither about her. In fact, she looks rather detached.'
Moss was unavailable for comment, but her agent too was unrepentant, stating: 'The stark, unglamorous location and the mood have no pornographic connotations whatever. It's just a fresh, new way of looking at fashion.'
I disagree. To see a woman cast as a girl playing a woman some 25 years after the dawn of modern feminism and too many years into our awareness that child abuse is not rare is not fresh at all.
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