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What Is Beauty?

My definition of how the world perceives beauty in the 21st century

By Sophie Hill 

Within this piece of work I plan to establish a connection between the way we view our runway models and the way women have been viewed for years. I want to explore feminist authors (Helen Chadwick, Nina Felshin and Laura Mulvey) and works by John Berger to give me a further understanding into their subject. I visited The Clothes Show Live 2013 on the 8th December and with research collected there and external research into other catwalk fashion shows I hope to construct a relationship between my two areas of investigation.

According to Clothes Show (2013) this is ‘the biggest fashion and beauty event, its British fashions largest collection featuring cutting edge trends and the latest high street fashion. From vintage and retro to boutique or street, find the style you love. Then delve into a hair and beauty wonderland in the beauty hall to get yourself gorgeous this December’. The catwalk performance is an inspiring exhibition of on trend clothes and future styles. I found the experience very entertaining and being my first year to visit the exhibition it was not what I expected, the show featured models and very talented dancers adding to the spectacle and the curious theme ‘weekend in the country’. The time was filled with brilliantly choreographed scenes depicting different activities, a lot of effort was included to combine the clothes, models, dancers, lights and music to create the incredible atmosphere we witnessed.  

The show was divided into areas of performance that would complement the following collection on display which would all connect to the overall theme.  The outfits were quite diverse and ranged from outwear to swimwear and evening to daywear. Collectively there was a good display of men’s and women’s clothing.

Within the show I noticed a lot of pixelated, monochrome prints mixed with bright, fluorescent Hawaiian patterns. The show has focussed a lot on opposing pieces being teamed together in outfits. (figure 1) This is a photo from the ‘festival’ collection. The models have a very casual, relaxed feel and are wearing an exciting array of fabrics and clothing. Keeping on trend, tartan is featured quite heavily in most sections, appearing on long sleeved bodysuits, capes, kilts and adding subtle detail to garments. I believe the exhibition has been very successful in portraying new and current trends The Clothes Show is the biggest British fashion and beauty event and includes most big high street brands and names.

Online bloggers have had a mixed reaction to the show this year, Elliesfavouritethings (2013) writes ‘wasn’t my kinda thing- under the sea of ‘hot’ men I was trying to find the actual clothes’. I agree, at some points within the performance it wasn’t always clear that it was in fact a catwalk fashion show, but I feel that the performance was a good and interesting way to portray the outfits just how they should be worn in everyday life.

Serenityofbeauty (2013) also wrote of feeling ‘slightly underwhelmed’ and leaving the clothes show ‘slightly disappointed’, I was not disappointed at all by the show I found it very interesting and beneficial for my university course. There is an overall feeling from the online blogs that I have read that this year the whole exhibition emphasised a lot more on hair and beauty even though past years have been heavily fashion orientated. Despite this there are those who have highlighted a brilliant show and had an entertaining day, LydiaRose (2013) expressed ‘I had amazing front row seats for the ALCATEL One Touch Fashion theatre show and loved it’. She also went on to say ‘I find the show to be a lot more about entertainment than fashion, something that everyone can enjoy watching so a lot of people came away disappointed that it wasn’t the big fashion deal they might have expected’. I completely agree with her opinion, the clothes show may not have been the big catwalk show people were expecting, but it was entertaining to a variety of people, regardless of gender and age.  The show wasn’t what I was expecting, but I was pleased to see the dancers and all the extra bits thrown in, it made the clothes more relatable to the audience, and more believable as daily outfits.  

I was interested to see how the models would be presented, whether they would be used to enhance the clothes they were wearing by use of hair, make-up and body language or if they would in fact be moving mannequins [1]. I was surprised to find the models to be just as important to the overall outfits and contributed heavily to the show. I believe the reason for this was because the clothes were from high street stores and designers, aimed at a younger market. It was also a big beauty event so make-up and hair companies (HD brows, THX total hair experts and L’Oreal) were promoting their products, and this did help inspire visitors on how to create an overall look. Clothes Show Live is an exhibition for an array of different people, not just fashion experts and students. It is important to make the show interesting to everyone that visits and I think this has a big influence on how they plan the performance.

I created my initial perception of the show from picturing high end designers catwalk shows where models are rarely part of the outfits they wear. They are kept very low key and set back so all the focus is on the designer’s garments (figure 2). The Clothes Show also featured different walks and extravagant dance routines throughout, a high end designer’s runway show would rarely feature anything like this, and the models would walk very professionally.

 Looking into how models are perceived and viewed led me to read about Laura Mulvey’s theory ‘The Male Gaze’. This expresses thoughts about how men view women and make women view themselves. Although this is written about men viewing women, I think it links nicely to the world viewing models and the way we make models view themselves.

Laura Mulvey observes the objectification of women and concludes that men have changed women’s perceptions of themselves. The pressures on models are similar to this theory, they are expected to look a certain way and to be a certain size. These expectations have always been there and change with the fashions. Models are objectified by how they are portrayed as walking mannequins, they are there to display the clothes and not to distract from them. Mulvey has suggested ‘pleasure in looking’ and ‘fascination with the human form’ in her film; ‘visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ from 1975. The film proposes a primal pleasure humans have from looking at one and other. This is evident in fashion catwalk displays, we enjoy looking at beautiful people so why would designers display their garments on anything else? It was Laura Mulvey that began my research into a link between the objectification of women and the objectification of models, and how if one is accepted, why is the other not?

Mulvey’s theories indicate that men dominate women and subconsciously men influence women’s choices. Evidence points to this being apparent in fashion also, models aren’t told to change their size and appearance directly but indirectly force is put upon them.

John Berger is well known for authoring the book ‘Ways of seeing’ within this he describes the world and everything in it as being viewed differently. He in many ways describes how men see women. Berger (nd) ‘you painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘’vanity’’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure’. This brings up some admirable notions, it was the painter who would ask for the women to pose naked yet it is her who is judged when he paints a mirror in her hand, the painter receives no penalty for observing this naked woman. A woman may be judged for what she is told to wear, but also by what she chooses to. A model may possibly pose innocently, but a photo taken out of context can be viewed in many different ways, and is this the models fault? We subconsciously burden models with the pressure of being a certain way then judge them for being so. Berger identifies everything can be seen differently, and it remains clear that just by looking with a new mind set your, initial perception can easily be changed.

Models in the public eye can feel owned by the public that spend so much time looking at them, but then others may argue that to be in the public eye is to belong to it. Goodreads (nd) ‘the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product’.

For years women have argued there stereotypes and pushed away from the male grasp, but as is apparent in fashion we do not do the same thing. It is human nature to look and to enjoy looking, so why is this sometimes widely accepted but at other times not. John Berger has given us an insight into his way of seeing and hopefully inspired a change in others views, but there will always be those who refuse to look deeper.

My research into John Berger has given me a better understanding into a different way of viewing the world, but not just through looking, he has given me a different understanding of the things around us. I think Berger’s ideas have helped me put forward my view in this essay as they are similar to what I have tried to describe. Berger’s book can be a good example of how things can be taken out of context, there are those who are incapable of changing their initial thoughts and views.

There are many authors including the ones that I have mentioned so far in this essay that have written about the objectification of women. They establish that this is wrong and write of how women must come away from this. Then surly the same feelings should apply to the fashion models on display every day.

Moore (1949 p.3) states ‘to my thinking, the evidence might rather indicate that fashion is a means whereby women demonstrate, however deludedly, their independence and freedom from masculine domination.’ This suggests that women will always use fashion to express themselves and use it as a defence. Over the years fashion has played a big part in women identifying themselves, and almost every new era in fashion has shocked the masses from women in trousers to the mini skirt. Designers will always be there to push the boundaries to the limit for the simple reason of making a statement.

Looking into my researched areas has made me more aware of the pressures that our runway models endure from all directions. Although there have been many protests and objections towards ‘size 0’ models (figure 3) and many companies insisting that they do not promote this, we are still seeing svelte like models walking on our runways. It is seen as unhealthy be able to view ribs, collar bones and hips, but if it is on a model it is seen as beauty, MademoiselleHannah (2010) identifies these issues at London fashion week, ‘At Fashion Week, the overwhelming majority of the models accessorized the season’s latest styles with protruding hip bones, ribs that could be counted from the back rows of the tents, and pin-thin limbs. The vast majority of runway models are clearly suffering from life-threatening eating disorders; these girls should be treated, not paid thousands of dollars a day to further their illnesses. Diversifying the runways by including a variety of sizes and shapes could dramatically improve Fashion Week by promoting acceptance of healthier, more realistic body types.’ We need to change our initial ideas on what we believe to be a healthy body shape. I believe this is not at the fault of big companies and designers, most people recognise the look of a model to be tall, skinny with a quirky twist and will struggle to accept anything else. This is a subject that affects both male and female models even though the male side may not always be demonstrated as much.

I have noticed first hand as a fashion design student, when designing and illustrating garments, they will be drawn on an elongated and slimmed figure to look more pleasing to the eye. Whether or not we see this as acceptable it has always been apparent that clothes look better on a slender figure.

In recent years plus size models have begun to make appearances such as in magazines and supplements, yet they are still failing to break the mould. (figure 4) I view this woman to be a healthy body shape, however she is still labelled as a ‘plus size model’ she is not labelled as fat but she is just not the ‘ideal size’ to fit in with what we see as normal. Whist conducting my research into ‘plus size’ models I realised that you don’t have to be plus sized at all to fall into this category, it seems so long as you are not showing bones through your skin you fit the ‘plus size’ group. When comparing the two images (figure 3 & figure 4) it is clear to see which looks healthier, yet the healthier option isn’t the most common on our runways. Men and women are breaking their bodies to fit in with this mistaken stereotype.  I believe that this will always be the way, the idea of a ‘healthy body shape’ is fixed within us even though our thoughts may portray the opposite. It is easy to look at another person and immediately determine if they are fat or thin, but our idea of fat and thin rarely seems to be correct. (figure 5) This is a front cover from Elle Spain, Babble (2013) reports ‘It’s being hailed as a victory for the voluptuous’, but then further in the article it writes of how this has been criticized, this makes me question my own ideas of what fat and thin and healthy and unhealthy really are, no wonder so many people have issues with weight if it is this difficult to determine what a healthy body image is.  

In this essay I have tried to conclude a link between how women have been viewed for hundreds of years and the way we view models in the fashion industry today. For years women have protested and campaigned to make a stand and to be heard, through hard work and determination women and fought to have equal rights and are now typically seen as equivalents to the opposite sex. Women struggled against men suppressing them, telling them to look a certain way and pushing them aside if they did not conform, sound familiar? Models receive this same unfairness every day and it does not seem to phase people as being wrong. This takes me back to my earlier argument, society enjoys to look upon beautiful people even though it may carry bad stigma and start arguments within the industry. This may push you to think that because this is human nature it cannot be helped so it is correct to do so, but not if our depiction of beauty is incorrect.  It is my conclusion that we should not change the rules on who can become a model, but we should change our opinions on what we see as beautiful.

 

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