Vogue magazine's recent Health Initiative, while not yet revolutionising the representation of women in its pages, does seem to be promoting greater diversity as evidenced in its September issues from around the globe.
Checking up on Vogue's pledge to monitor weight and age of models
Open up the latest issue of your nearest Vogue magazine and one thing you should not expect to see is a bevy of voluptuous models. The 19 international editions of Vogue might, in May, have set out their new Health Initiative, launched in the June magazines, promising to "not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder", but that doesn't mean they are suddenly going to gleefully embrace physical diversity. Several months on, in the big-bucks September issues (traditionally offering the biggest advertising sales of the year as the editorial team lay out their picks of the new collections), things don't look all that different.
Designers, stylists and photographers might live unorthodox lives and create spectacular, taboo-breaking visual fantasies in magazines, on catwalks and across the web, but fashion, by its nature, is an industry that promotes conformity. If fashion trend-makers want the shock factor, they don't need to swear, go naked or cross-dress - those are old hat nowadays. No: real notoriety among readers and commentators can still be found by putting Beth Ditto on the catwalk and the plus-sized model Candice Huffine on the cover of a magazine. Women, according to many glossies, are uniformly just shy of six feet tall, with 23-inch waists, concave upper thighs and hollow clavicles.
That is not to say, though, that this initiative is likely to be ineffective, worthless or short-lived. Indeed, the power of the Vogue brand, even in an age of new media, remains such that it could hold the industry to ransom.
When, in June 2009, the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, stuck her neck out to plead with fashion designers to increase the size of samples sent in for shoots, there were lots of approving noises. Shulman pointed out, in a letter, that her team had been forced to airbrush models to make them look bigger, because only the most emaciated would fit the tiny samples made by the major fashion houses.
If British Vogue alone had not featured the collections of a major designer because the samples were too small, the magazine would have missed out; it wouldn't be doing its very simple job of presenting the most important and relevant fashions of the season. If all 19 editions do not feature those collections, however, the balance of power shifts entirely: being ignored by every Vogue in the world would be a catastrophe for even the most powerful designer.
And what happens in Vogue has far-reaching effects, says Debra Bourne. She is a co-founder along with the fashion journalist Caryn Franklin and the supermodel Erin O'Connor, of All Walks, an initiative that aims to promote image diversity in fashion - and that launched just a month before Shulman's letter was revealed in The Times.
"I think it sends out a huge signal to the rest of the industry," says Bourne. "Vogue as a publication still holds an authoritative voice on appearance … If titles like these come out and say, 'Actually we need to make a shift here', I think it sends a reverberation through the industry. From a credibility viewpoint, other people look to Vogue and would possibly take a step they wouldn't have taken if Vogue hadn't done it first."
Perhaps one of the reasons there is little difference to be found in the latest issues is that these changes were already happening, albeit without the fanfare. The preoccupation with street fashion, which has gone from a guerrilla blog genre to the inspiration for many a fashion shoot; the growth of celebrities as sources of fashion inspiration (meaning sample sizes have to fit non-model shapes); the return to the catwalk of the great supermodels of the 1980s and 1990s; and, over the last few months, the growing obsession with the Olympic ideal and the sporty body shape: all these wider trends mean that the emaciated look is simply not as fashionable as it was. "Pre-empting the Olympics was probably a good move," comments Bourne.
Indeed, the official Health Initiative issue of American Vogue in June had as its cover three members of the US Olympic team, glowing with health as they ran down a beach. Vogue India's June issue featured the athletic body of the actress Deepika Padukone - albeit next to a cover line offering "the ultimate diet". And though there were some extremely slender figures on the Russian and Spanish editions, Vogue Italia - always the biggest risk-taker - put the eternally elegant 60-year-old actress Isabella Rossellini on its cover, a joyful image a million miles from the leggy models, and controversial as a result.
The September issues that are out now or in the next few days are packed with those supermodels who are famous enough, strong enough or old enough to wield the power of their own body image. No one is going to tell Naomi Campbell, 42, or Kate Moss, 38, who star in British Vogue's Olympics story The Midas Touch, to diet (although given Moss's own doctrine - "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" - they probably don't need to). That story, the precursor to the models' appearance at the Olympics closing ceremony, also features some of the younger girls, including Lily Donaldson, 25, and Jourdan Dunn, 22, but no one younger than the 20-year-old Georgia May Jagger.
"They're healthy," agrees Bourne. "All models are always going to be a particular shape, aren't they, but they have shown diversity of skin tone, and two of the models have darker skin. I would say they all look well. It's great, actually."
The curvy (by fashion standards) model Lara Stone takes one of the major shoots in British Vogue, with the fleshy figures of the Pre-Raphaelites an inspiration, while she is one of Paris Vogue's three cover girls, together with Moss and Daria Werbowy. US Vogue's cover girl is Lady Gaga, in a cartoonishly curvy Marc Jacobs dress, and inside the US issue, 33-year-old Karen Elson stars in Steven Klein's shoot Space Odyssey, wearing the boxy, structured, covered-up shapes for autumn/winter 2012: no need for coltish legs or spidery arms here.
Is it a giant leap for fashion? Not yet. But it's a high-heeled totter in the right direction, believes Bourne.
"It's not that far off," she says. "The trajectory doesn't need to be changed by a huge amount. Of course, ideally you would like to see it even more, older women and a wider range of diversity, and body shape pushed, maybe. But one step at a time."
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