Alexander McQueen’s shows were always my favourite. Apart from the clothes never being less than beautiful, he championed diversity long before it became the buzzword that it is now. As well as using black and Asian models more regularly than most designers did throughout the nineties and 2000’s, he cast paraplegic athlete Aimee Mullins in his spring/summer 1999 show, wearing a prosthetic leg carved from elm and whittled with flowers. For his spring/summer 2001 show, he sat a naked model in a glass box, one whose pulchritudinous form dared to veer from the standard size zero. “My body’s going to be so at odds with the fashion sparrows and bony old crow-people in the audience,” the model, Michelle Olley, wrote in her diary at the time. “I am what most of them fear most – fat.”
In the light of this history, nobody should be surprised by the casting of the latest McQueen show, aired in Paris earlier this week. Vogue.com described it thus: “Alexander McQueen Just Put Two Stunning Curve Models On The Runway”. Which made me lol, because to my eyes, they weren’t so much “curve models” as simply “models who aren’t skinny”. But then, for me, that was precisely what made them so significant.
Women like to see clothes modelled by women who look like them just as much as they like to see them modelled by six foot tall giraffes
When talking about diversity of body shape in the fashion industry, the narrative tends to be polarised. On the one hand, there’s the “size zeros”, an infinite number of models both famous (Kaia Gerber) and less so, and on the other there’s “plus size”, the most well-known of whom are women such as Ashley Graham, Tess Holliday and Tara Lynn. Normally, when I write about plus-size models, I receive comments from women on Twitter saying things like “great there are more plus-size models, but what about seeing some short ones? I’m only 5 foot 1.” There are also women out there who want to see models with big boobs, big butts, ginger hair and whatever other attributes they themselves possess. In short, women like to see clothes modelled by women who look like them just as much as they like to see them modelled by six foot tall giraffes.
While I would be flattering myself immensely to say that Eline Lykke and Betsy Teske looked like me – I wish – they certainly looked more like me than most models do. By my estimation, they were standard size 10s, with big boobs. This doesn’t make them plus size. But it certainly doesn’t make them size zeros. Stick them in a nightclub, and they wouldn’t stand out at all. Stick them on a catwalk, and it is a testament to the fashion industry’s unremitting usage of ultra-slim models that Lykke and Teske garnered as much commentary as they did. One Instagram user summed it up perfectly: “Normal girls! Yay!” Not that there is any such thing as normal.
Casting agent Jess Hallett, who has worked with Alexander McQueen for decades (both for Lee himself and for current designer Sarah Burton), said after the show that “the collection was all about sisterhood and celebrating femininity” – which is presumably what led her to cast Lykke, a Norwegian former fisherman, and Teske, a Dutch law student. After all, femininity comes in every shape and size. And while no-one is saying that you can only be “feminine” if you have big boobs, it would surely be equally remiss to cast a show like this with uniformly skinny, small-chested models.
Not that this has stopped an infinite number of designers riffing on “femininity” while casting fork-prongs in the past. The last model I remember seeing on the catwalk with big boobs – by which I mean real ones, as opposed to those surgically enhanced to a perfect, no-bra-required C-cup – was Lara Stone, and before her, Laetitia Casta and Iris Palmer. When designers talk about “big boobs”, they tend to mean a C cup. That the average cup size in the UK is a DD is irrelevant to an industry that deliberately excludes curvier women by choosing not to make clothes in their size, lest they look shit in them. Well done to Sarah Burton and Jess Hallett for trying to counter this. Who knows: next time I try on a dress in the designer section of a department store, maybe the zip will do up over my tits.