In recent news, Karl Lagerfeld is being sued for comments made in his latest book, “The World According to Karl”, which is a compilation of his most famous quotes — the good, bad, and ugly. He repeated some of the more scandalous quotes on an episode of Le Grand 8 on French television, which included this gem: “The hole in social security, it’s also [due to] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat.” The formerly fat doyenne of fashion, whose weight loss seems to have hung over him in a perpetual grimace of pursed lips and Diet Coke high, abhors plumpness and some self-righteous plus-size French women, who clearly have had enough of it.
The group suing Lagerfeld, “Association Belle ronde sexy et je m’assume” (loosely translated as “The Association for beautiful, curvy, sexy and I am ok with it”) was founded just over a year ago. In a country that inspires the proliferation of diet books touting the “French” method to becoming thin, it seems odd that this group would exist in the first place. A look into the group’s facebook page is extremely revealing. With an almost guerilla-like passion and dedication to the cause, the page is filled with photos of group members and their stories of accepting the rolls and silhouette of a larger woman as well as numerous events and fashion shows whose purpose is to change the very fabric of French fashion by bringing what they term “diversity” onto the runway with a variety of different-sized models to represent all women of all sizes.
A look further into the group’s page gives a face to the brains behind the organization. According to Facebook, Betty Aubriere, the group’s leader, is a bodacious blonde with curves galore and plump, luscious lips, like a modern day — albeit oversized — Betty Boop (she even has the cartoon pin-up icon as one of her many profile pictures). She is a woman who clearly loves the art of getting dressed as is evidenced by the range of selfies and sexy poses in clothes that show off her more-than-ample bosom. Her demeanor is one of comfort in her round frame, yet to the average viewer there is a certain disconnect and awkwardness to her carefree attitude. Because her body can be classified as morbidly obese, where she seems to have gone past the societal and medically accepted realm of “pleasantly plump”, her overtly seductive poses and posturing become less tantalizing and more grotesque to the viewer. A series of posturing that reeks of vulgarity.
The question arises as to why a person would be reviled by an image of a larger-sized woman in revealing clothes. What is it about plus-size nudity in any form that so repulses us? And should larger-sized women be represented in the high-fashion world, in the exclusive runways of Chanel, Dolce and Gabbana, and Prada? The answer lies in the aesthetics that rule our time.
Historically, aesthetics define and determine everything from fashion, to body shape, to even gestures of each time period and even what decade. The tightly laced boned corsets of Louis XIV’s court ensured that women’s stomachs were tiny, especially in comparison to the wide door-averse panniers popular at the time. But those corsets also allowed a woman to stand straighter and thus be more graceful with every rolling flick of the wrist. This is contrasted to, say, the 1920s era where the “beanpole” aesthetic was revered and corsets were shaped to fit the drop-waist androgynous style or even the “S” shape aesthetic at the turn of the twentieth century that promoted the “mono-boob” as the height of fashion.
Of course, these “idealized” forms do not necessarily define every member of that society. Although the softly curled ringlets, button nose, and kind eyes of the “Gibson Girl” was popular during the Gilded Age in the early 1900s, there were certainly those who did not embody that beauty ideal. But that’s the thing – it’s an ideal, not a notion that every person can achieve, but something one can strive towards.
And that is perhaps what Karl Lagerfeld truly meant with his less-than-tasteful comments. Of course not all larger women have health issues, but that doesn’t mean they should be wearing high fashion meant for sample-sized women. When a woman of larger or even too small proportions wears the same dress as another woman whose shape meets the standards of aesthetics of the time, the woman who matches the standard will always seem far more pleasing than other body types. This is why, after years of sending models whose waifish figures exacerbated their more emaciated forms, the public began to find that look aesthetically displeasing. And, hence, models today are decidedly more “fit” looking with defined abs and curved (yet still thin) thighs. True, they are far from what the average American woman looks like, but they represent an idealized form of the modern era — a look that women imagine themselves to be and aspire to look like.
There is an added dimension to the problem of showcasing a less than perfect vision of womanhood — economic considerations. Because of the rules of aesthetics, people will only buy what clothes they deem beautiful and so the model that showcases those clothes is key in selling it to the masses. Are the clothes not flattering on a model’s complexion? It is unlikely she will strut down the runway in it. Does she have some puckering bit of cellulite-ridden flesh? Makeup or photoshop should do the trick.
Even if plus size fashion becomes the latest in highly prized aesthetics (if the current wave of fat-acceptance is any indication), it is unlikely that certain notions of beauty like flaws will escape social judgment. Even plus-size fashion bloggers (as well as their more sample-sized peers) are careful to show only the most perfect forms of themselves — full makeup, hair perfectly coiffed, and any unsightly blemishes or rolls promptly photoshopped to perfection.
And so, although the “beautiful, curvy, sexy, and I am ok with it” group is a noble cause, it is a bit of a hyperbole for them to state that Lagerfeld’s comments as being damaging to children and therefore worthy of a lawsuit. It is akin to art teachers protesting to teaching their students about Leonardo de Vinci, Picasso, and Monet as their oeuvre is unattainable to the average art student. Such a statement would be instantly labeled as ridiculous, but it serves to showcase how we as a society have become overly indulgent and sensitive to other people’s feelings. The seemingly unattainable model dimensions — nearly six feet tall and possessing a 32”-24”-32” body — are the perfect form to highlight contemporary clothes in the best possible light with regards to how society as a whole sees perfection. Modeling isn’t about the person in the clothes, rather it is about the clothes itself, how it moves on the body, how the design sparks desire in the viewer so that she wants/needs this item immediately. A girl who has an eating disorder as a result of seeing a skinny model on the runway or in a magazine has less to do with the image itself and more to do with her mental state and societal values.
It’s time that we as a society accept that the industry is not going to change any time soon, especially when the almighty dollar is at stake. There is a place for big, beautiful, and bodacious women to be fashionable, and any move on the part of plus-size designers to make their clothes more flattering and stylish is commendable. But to try to change the industry itself with pithy lawsuits against unrepentant jerks a la Lagerfeld is but a futile effort.