I can’t remember a time when a fashion image stopped me in my tracks, least of all one from an advertising campaign in a mainstream glossy magazine. But that’s exactly what happened this weekend, when I spotted a new advert for Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana and stared at it for several minutes in sheer disbelief. On one hand, it bore many of the hallmarks of a classic fashion shot – a beautiful model with flawless skin and unfeasibly shiny hair, standing in an idyllic location and wearing a £2,000 frock. But this was immediately different from every other shot in the preceding pages. The model was a size 16, posing next to a market stall of food and (gasp) looking cheerful about it.
So, why did I find myself feeling so pathetically grateful for what is, in many ways, a pretty generic fashion shot, published with the aim of making money, when more explicitly body-positive fashion initiatives are being announced to greater fanfare? Then I realised it was the advert’s sheer ordinariness that made it so edifying. The campaign isn’t for a plus-size range, but for Dolce & Gabbana’s main line; the elegant black lace frock is neither boob-out hyper glamour, nor sweet, cosy and demure (the two personas “plus-size” models are ordinarily allowed to project). Model Alessandra Garcia Lorido (a UK-average size 16) isn’t being wheeled out in custom-made clothes as the star novelty in a catwalk show in need of headline-chasing shock tactics. The fashion house hasn’t made some solemn pronouncements about the advert, or announced any plans to begin a crusade, or even elaborated on their casting decision. They’ve just run a photograph of an extraordinarily beautiful woman in a bigger-than-sample-size dress, available to anyone rich enough to buy it.
Broader, more newsworthy and ostensibly more important initiatives have been announced in the past month alone, but I can’t help but feel them a cynical substitute for more useful body-positive policies. Fashion conglomerate LVMH-Kering recently announced their new charter and, within it, a pledge to ban the use of size-zero models in their campaigns. Politicians, when looking for a cheap virtue-signalling headline during silly season, are prone to calling anyone over a size 6 “a real woman”, as though thin women are replicants, and more curvaceous women, like Christina Hendricks, are somehow more relatable. Both grab some headlines and appear, at face value, to be on the side of the average woman, but in reality only serve to shift the blame on to the vast number of working models that the fashion industry has, until now, prized to the exclusion of others.
Many women are very thin, many more are not; neither is intrinsically better or worse than the other
Vilifying thin women over the industry that ignores heavier ones is conveniently dressed up as a more inclusive approach when, in fact, it merely amends the prescription for how women should look. Many women are very thin, many more are not; neither is intrinsically better or worse than the other. A bolder, more positive and inclusive move would be for designers and marketeers to widen the perimeters of beauty and glamour, not narrow them from both sides and expect a medal for writing a press release. The Dolce & Gabbana advert – a single shot of one woman looking beautiful in a frock that fits her as standard – has arguably more integrity than a “ban” on any bodies no longer serving a marketeer’s brand values. The latter creates a situation in which all models become a size 8, as though an extra half inch across the industry’s waistline is some great gift to womankind.
The problem is not the depiction of “skinny models” as aspirational, but the constant daily reminders that anything bigger is not. Designers, while perfectly happy to take cash from the women buying their clothes, or the perfumes and lipsticks accessible to those they ignore in their clothing ranges, would prefer not to depict the average body sizes of their customer base as anything one would deem desirable (in 2009, Karl Lagerfeld said that fashion was all to do "with dreams and illusions, and no one wants to see round women”). In casting Garcia Lorido, Dolce & Gabbana has made a small, simple statement that beauty is a broader church than their competitors dare concede.
The only disheartening thing is that it’s nowhere near enough. While the Italian fashion house, not exactly famed for its designers’ flawless politics (they’ve previously found themselves in hot water over their conservative views on same-sex parenting), isn’t the only one making small but significant moves towards diversity in body image, its use of models over a UK 6/8 in its main-line advertising is extremely rare. One would be naive to think one arguably token Dolce & Gabbana advertising shot is going to change the world, or even cause a ripple in the tsunami of homogenised marketing featuring identical size 6 models.
But, in an industry that so rarely makes diversity its business, one should celebrate the minor victories, call for more like it and perhaps feel encouraged that, one day, an average-size woman may not be categorised as a “plus-size” model; that more fashion houses may not regard large swathes of paying customers as a dirty secret undeserving of front-of-house exposure; that, gradually, familiarity will breed such a degree of self-acceptance and even indifference to the point where a woman can glance at a happy, healthy-looking beauty and not spit out her tea in shock.