Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"We need fashion to catch up to women of size" - Velvet d'Amour

steven meisel for vogue italia
Much has been written about this month’s Vogue Italia cover story of three plus sized models: Americans Tara Lynn and Candice Huffine and Australian Robyn Lawley. Frockwriter covered the story here. Above and below is the remainder of the accompanying fashion editorial. This edition has been hailed as a watershed moment in the body image debate by some, including Australian commentator Mia Freedman, the chair of Australia’s National Body Image Advisory Group, who noted: “Huzzah! An Australian size 14 is on the cover of Italian Vogue”. Others weren't quite so perky. “Topless plus size women equals empowerment?” asked womens’ advocate Melinda Tankard Reist. Some suggested the move was tokenistic. While others lamented the fact that the women had been photographed semi-nude in lingerie, which only served to reinforce, they noted, the sexualised cliché of larger women and porn. What says plus size icon Velvet d’Amour? 

Regular readers of my various blogs would know that Velvet is an American actor, model – and latterly, photographer - who lives in Paris. 

We first met after the Jean Paul Gaultier Spring/Summer 2007 show in Paris in October 2006, in which Velvet walked alongside Gemma Ward and other "straight"-sized models, generating headlines around the world. Gaultier's casting appeared to be a direct nod to fashion's latest skinny model debate, that had been sparked in August that year by the eating disorder-related death of Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, which was swiftly followed by the deaths of two other South American models, including her sister Eliana. Velvet had previously walked for John Galliano. 

Here are the interviews I did with Velvet at smh.com.au and later at news.com.au. In the latter, which generated quite some heated (and at times abusive) commentary, Velvet talked about the flak she has copped from the plus size industry, which has always considered her far too big for its ranks. 

Here is her take on Vogue Italia's June issue, body diversity in high fashion imagery and the commonly-espoused theory that fashion's embrace of larger women encourages obesity:

First off, congrats to your Aussie sister Robyn for scoring some great work of late. She and the models featured are definite beauties!

There is certainly a lot of talk about the Italian Vogue shoot. Mainstream folk seem to take offence to the fact that the models included are even deemed PLUS, when they are more ‘average’ size women, and others discuss a sense of exploitation, a lack of actual ‘fashion’, and then the inevitable health debate, while many are quite simply thrilled by it.

The way I see it is, that we need fashion to catch up to women of size, in order to make a stunning FASHION orientated editorial. If you were to take the average Vogue Italia editorial, and attempt to dress these same models in the clothes, best of luck to the stylist to find their size.

As to a sense of exploitation, or ‘soft porn’ feel, my sense is that our minds have been programmed via mainstream fashion to question FLESH. Fleshy, curvy women have been relegated to men’s magazines, whilst edgy editorial fashion in particular, has been inundating us with imagery glorifying adolescence (sometimes using models even as young as 13); the standard sample size forces the use of more skeletal models; and the opening of the Eastern bloc countries (where women are naturally quite delicately slender) caused an influx of lanky lovelies to grace the pages of our magazines and thus it’s really quite normal that the curves here are deemed as more risqué. We have been fed a steady diet of rail thin, white, tall, Youth for the most part. Thus instead of delving further into what Beauty means to us as individuals, the tendency is not to question authority. And VOGUE is certainly the pinnacle of authority when it comes to Fashion.

Yet were we to take what is the essence of the true meaning of FASHION in all likelihood it encompasses and revels in Change, in decadence, in obscurity versus ordinary, in risk-taking. While fashion beckons followers and innovation creates fashion, it’s those who deviate from accepted norms who create so much of our fashion from the get go. Fashion is innovative, tumultuous and it’s not meant to stagnate. Sameness is born of the dependence fashion magazines have on advertisers, who tend to be the very last people to take risk (due to the amount of money involved). It is this unlikely marriage of two opposing yet dependant components which has stagnated the blossoming of fashion, and in turn, its’ muses.

I have always been drawn to Steven Meisel’s photography and find these images equally stunning, though not particularly controversial in my opinion. I have stated on my own model portfolio (on the Model Mayhem website),

I'd say a good 99.999% of the artists interested in working with me wanna get me naked, not that I blame them, lol

It is quite the odd dichotomy that as a society, fat is viewed with derision, yet should one go out on a limb and include a genuinely voluptuous model, 9 times out of 10 they will do so by harkening back to the Renaissance. Rubens and the like, are seemingly our only reference point for a larger body.

Given I shoot as well, and certainly have photographed my fair share of nudes of all shapes and sizes, I understand the drive.

Were Herb Ritts to come back to life, I'd greet the boy starker’s.

I have posed nude for photographers like Daniele + Iango, Rancinan and in the film AVIDA, etc. thus I do not dismiss all tasteful nude propositions, but my main reason for modeling is in fact, as a political statement; that we need to diversify modern standards of beauty. If we continually marry the fat body with nude classics, then we are hardly creating a revolution. It's too easy in a sense, one gets a 'different' look and perhaps is praised for such, but if you really want to be revolutionary, then why not do a FASHION shoot with a bigger body versus pulling out the old Botticelli standard? 

As to the continuing Health debate, many a comment revolves around the message sent by using a woman of ‘size’, some stating the models are ‘obese’ and unhealthy, others fearful it will encourage people to be fat. The concept that fashion magazines are a reference guide of health to their viewers, seems only rarely pertinent on occasion, when we witness an exceptionally thin model, and inevitably whenever we possibly include a slightly curvy model. The reality that cultural pressures are one of the factors involved in eating disorders cannot be dismissed, though the notion that someone leafing through a magazine witnessing a plus size model has a sudden urge to down several thousand pizzas in the hopes of gaining a few pounds, is rather laughable at best. Were the inclusion of plus size models to spur viewers to gain weight, the inverse of that logic would mean (given the dearth of rail thin models in magazines), that the entire world would be emaciated, versus fat.

Time and again the issue of health is touted as a pertinent reason for the near total exclusion of fat women in modern media. Yet let’s have a look at who we utterly deify in popular culture, without questioning for a second their physical or mental health. Then ask yourself just how legitimate an argument it is to impose upon plus size models the responsibility of being the poster children for bonne santé, when we have no clue as to any model’s state of health when looking at her dancing through the pages of a magazine. Au contraire, we are well aware that a great number of popular actors, models, dancers, rock groups etc that inundate media have dabbled in drugs, drink,etc. And rather than scoff at them with derision and judgment, we fete them on a daily basis.

Avoiding fat people isn’t about health, it’s about Cool and un-cool.

My take on Cool is Diversity.

I don’t look to fashion magazines for advice on health, I look at them for fashion. We need to start looking beyond the simplistic and dig deeper. If you want to have a health debate, then let’s tackle mental health, which is the stimulus, more often than not, affecting s one’s physical health. If we start to include a major cross-section of our society within the revered pages of fashion magazines, fat women, emaciated women, women of colour, aging women, differently-abled women, small women, you name it - then we can turn the tide against the overwhelming sense so many women suffer from not being able to live up to this exceedingly stringent, highly unattainable beauty ethic we currently subscribe to.

- Velvet d'Amour 


all B/W images: steven meisel for vogue italia june 2011


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