Is calling a piece of clothing “forgiving” unforgivable? 

Trinny and Susannah photo:REX

Since the days of the early noughties makeover show, the language we use around fashion and the people who wear it has changed. Thank God for that, says Laura Craik 

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By Laura Craik on

Yesterday, I was as bloated as a mafioso corpse anchored to the seabed by heavy iron shackles, and so I wore a baggy top. I would call its shape “forgiving”. Maybe you, too, have a “forgiving” top. Maybe you also have “forgiving” jeans, “forgiving” shoes and a “forgiving” jumper. Maybe your whole wardrobe is the sartorial equivalent of Jesus Christ, the Pope and Nelson Mandela, forever blessing you with its boundless and merciful compassion.

As someone with an arsenal of forgiving tops, I was a bit “WTF?” when I spotted someone writing on a US website about how “forgiving” was, in fact, an uncool word. “I’d like to propose that we stop using the word “forgiving” to describe articles of clothing,” she posited. “Because really, what does my body have to apologize for?”

I thought about this as I ate my penne putanesca lunch – the very lunch that makes me bloat that makes me wear forgiving smock tops. Um. I don’t think my body has anything to apologise for. It’s not my body’s fault that eating pasta makes it look seven months pregnant. It would be fairer to “blame” me, its carb-lovin’ owner, for failing to have the discipline to quit eating the stuff that bloats it. Yet during my too-many-years-to-count career as a fashion writer, I’ve used the word “forgiving” a zillion times, and never thought anything of it. Not once did I link the “forgiving” descriptor with the notion that the wearer should therefore be apologetic about her body. Not once did I consider that it “feeds into the culture of body shame that the fashion industry and its limited sizing helped form in the first place.” Was it really an example of what the writer called “passive-aggressive wording so ingrained that it’s second-nature”?

As someone old enough to remember the golden age of the makeover show, I tend less to fret about where we’re at so much as marvel at how far we’ve come. Two words: Trinny and Susannah

It is absolutely right that everyone should question the language they use to describe clothes and the people who wear them, and always strive to be as inoffensive and inclusive as they can. I totally get why “plus size”, “curvy” and “nude” are offensive / misjudged terms, but as someone old enough to remember the golden age of the makeover show, I tend less to fret about where we’re at so much as marvel at how far we’ve come. Two words: Trinny and Susannah. For almost a decade, these two ruled the roost with a host of put-downs so un-PC that it seems almost unbelievable that What Not To Wear only stopped airing in 2006. Short skirts were “pussy pelmets”, trousers were “too clitty” and makeover subjects’ breasts were grabbed all the time. For those who revel in bitchy put-downs at other people’s expense, it made great TV. Unless, of course, you were on the receiving end. In 2009, Gill Fletcher described her experience filming ITV’s Trinny and Susannah Meet Their Match as “a fortnight of utter humiliation and confidence bashing.” She added, “the aim of the show seemed to be to knock the confidence out of us as much as possible.” Similar allegations were made about Gok Wan, whose How To Look Good Naked (C4) purported to increase women’s confidence via a series of makeovers.

Whatever the format of Claudia Winkleman’s new vehicle, The Makeover Show (BBC1, likely transmission date: some time in October), it is unlikely that we will see her telling contestants that “I doubt her husband wants to have sex with her in them” or that “her tits are down to her knees” (both things Trinny and Susannah actually said to real-live women). It’s not, as Michael Gove said, that the world has had enough of experts – more that it has had enough of barely qualified experts dispensing advice tactlessly and at the expense of those they purport to help. As for whether calling an item “forgiving” feeds into the culture of body shame, sorry, but I just don’t feel it. For me, “forgiving” means “accommodating”. And sometimes, everybody needs an accommodating top.


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Trinny and Susannah photo:REX
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Body image

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