Sorry for the delay in getting this out! Yesterday was a bit, shall we say, challenging. Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers about last Thursday’s episode of Project Runway: Season 10, Episode 6, “Fix My Friend.” If you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t seen it yet — you stand warned.
So what’s this ridiculous business of designing clothes for women who aren’t fashion models, anyway? How could anyone expect a serious designer to stoop to such a level?
It’s become a Project Runway tradition. In one challenge each season, designers have to do an outfit for, quote, “real women”: the very unfortunate term of art in the fashion industry for “women who don’t have the bodies of fashion models or A-list celebrities.” It’s a terrible term, with all sorts of ugly implications… including the implication that fashion models and A-list celebrities aren’t real people. I guess they’re androids or aliens or something, or maybe ethereal angels, far above the messy human business of digestion and respiration. (Ingrid and I have been trying to come up with a better term. “Regular women,” maybe? That’s not great, either. “Women who aren’t built like fashion models” is the concept we’re trying to convey, but it has way too many syllables.)
I actually have some compassion for designers trying to do this. Especially in the world of standard clothing design and manufacturing, where you’re not doing custom work for one person whose measurements you can take precisely.
When I was fat, I used to get very angry about clothes shopping: I’d go into a clothing store, and find that maybe two percent of the clothes fit me and looked good on me. (A totally legitimate anger: there isn’t nearly enough in the way of good clothes for fat women, and manufacturers tend to just take the stuff designed for smaller sizes and embiggen it, instead of making different designs that look good on larger bodies. When they’re not just making crappy boring swaths of fabric for fat women to hide in, that is.)
And it is easier now. Now that I’m about a size 8 or 10, when I go into a clothing store, I find that maybe five percent of the clothes fit me and look good on me.
That’s not a trivial difference. But the reality is that there is literally no way to make an article of clothing that looks good on every woman. Fatness or thinness isn’t the only issue. Height is an issue. Basic shape — busty? angular? pear-shaped? hourglass? — is an issue. Muscles are an issue. Age is an issue. The person’s individual style is obviously an issue. It’s something Ingrid and I have been both frustrated and entertained by: she and I have very similar bodies, with very similar heights and weights… but some pieces really do look great on her and crummy on me, or vice versa. My theory is that it’s because I’m long-waisted and short-legged, and she’s short-waisted and long-legged. Which gives you an idea of how impossible this is, if a distinction that fine can make the difference between a dress looking great and looking like ass.
So I do have sympathy for designers trying to do this. It can’t be done. All you can do is make clothing that will fit some women and look good on them, and do your best marketing to get those women into those clothes.
However. That being said.
In these Project Runway “real women” challenges, the designers have it rather easier. They’re not making clothing for Everywoman — they’re making clothing for one woman. Literally. One specific woman, standing right there in front of them and talking to them. They are, in fact, doing custom work for one person whose measurements they can take precisely. Plus they can get her history and life story, her feelings and fears and hopes about clothing, and talk with her at length about what might and might not work.
And yet, as much of a PR tradition as the “real woman” challenge is, it’s just as much a tradition for at least one designer to whine and carp about the hideous injustice of it all. As Tom and Lorenzo put it:
YAY! The so-called “Real Woman” challenge! The one episode every season that has 75% of the viewing audience throwing vases, drinks, throwpillows, children, or whatever else they can get their hands on in the throes of their rage, at their TV screens! The one hour (plus!) of pop culture entertainment every year that does the absolute most damage to the reputation of the fashion industry at large to people who don’t normally follow fashion!
Which is dumb, dumb, dumb on the part of these designers. I mean, totally apart from the sexist, size-ist, fucked-up attitude towards women who aren’t models… do they even watch the show? Don’t they know this is coming?
So first, here’s how really, really, really NOT TO FUCKING WELL DO THIS.
First, Ven, and How Not To Design For a Size 14 Woman:
1: Do not think for a second that lots of drapey fabric is attractive on a bigger woman. This is something Stacy and Clinton on “What Not to Wear” cannot shut up about — and they’re absolutely right. Clothes should fit. Everyone, of all sizes, looks better in clothes that fit. And bigger women look better when they love the bodies they’re in. Lots of drapey fabric (a) makes you look bigger — which some big women are fine with, but lots aren’t — and (b), and much more importantly, makes you look like you’re hiding. It looks apologetic.
Which brings me to 2: Do not keep obsessing about the horrors of a large body and how demeaned you are by the grotesque injustice of being expected to dress it. Ven could not shut up about how big his client was. He was fixated on it. He kept talking and talking and talking and talking about it… to the camera, to the other designers, to Tim Gunn, to the judges, even to the client herself. There was no part of him that was thinking, “How can I make this beautiful woman look more beautiful? How can I emphasize her strengths, downplay the parts she’s less comfortable with, put her in a frame that makes her shine?” Every part of him was clearly thinking, “This is beneath me. How can I make this horrible fat woman disappear?”
Which brings me to 3: Do not make your client cry.
Apart from the obvious moral reasons why you shouldn’t make your client cry, why you shouldn’t make your client feel worse about herself, why you shouldn’t make someone who’s already less than happy with her body feel more self-conscious and alienated and miserable about it… it’s also just flatly stupid. Business is based largely on word of mouth. And Ven now has some seriously terrible word of mouth, via national television and a fashion blogosphere that loves to talk trash. A whole lot of PR viewers who liked Ven before, now cannot stand the sight of him, and would not work with him on a bet.
Yuck. I don’t want to talk about this asshole any more. Let’s move on. What other mistakes can you make when you’re dressing a, quote unquote, “real woman”?
A huge mistake is to forget that a dress form is not a human being. Sonjia’s dress looked lovely on the dress form. I was picking it as safe for sure; maybe even top three, depending on the styling. But on the client, this just looked weird and lumpy. The knot was in the wrong place. It looked almost like a third boob. Her client actually had an hourglass figure — I think, it was hard to tell under all that fabric — and Sonjia’s dress actually made it look disproportionate and boxy. And speaking as a short woman: A short dress on a short woman often looks awkward. The proportions are hard to get right, and it can easily look little-girlish. Or Jersey Shore. Or, disturbingly, both.
So what are the right ways to dress a, quote unquote, “real woman”?
Well, for starters: You do like Fabio. You listen to who your client says she is, and what she’s comfortable with. But you also listen, very freaking carefully, to who she wants to be.
When Fabio’s client said she never ever ever wore dresses, and he started making a dress, I practically threw my drink at the screen. But he was right. This woman loved her dress. And it was perfect for her: arty and graphic and distinctive, but done in not-flashy shades of gray, and totally comfortable like pajamas. Right down to the boots. He listened to who she was, how she felt about clothes, why she wasn’t comfortable with her femininity, why she wasn’t comfortable with fashion and style… and even more importantly, he listened to what she wanted to be. He heard her fears that dressing “feminine” would signal “weak”… and he found a way for her to look both feminine and powerful. He heard that she worked as an artist… and he dressed her for her ambitions, and made her look like an artist instead of an art student. I didn’t care for the belt… but otherwise, this was out of the park, and a totally deserved win.
You just make your client happy.
I actually didn’t care for Gunnar’s dress. Too high a waist for her body shape. Too much weird tortured fabric around the hips for her body shape. Black on black — boring. Overall, way too much like it came from the mall.
And I 100% agree with it being in the top three. It was obvious, from the way this woman walked down the runway, that she was loving this dress, and loving herself, and loving life. Gunnar was so sweet to this woman: they totally bonded, and it was delightful how he insisted that the hair and makeup people “treat her like a queen.” He knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her… and he wanted to make it as special as he could. And I don’t think it was fake. It was certainly a smart move — she radiated joy all the way down that runway, and the judges clearly saw it and rewarded it — but it also seemed entirely sincere. I’ve been hating on Gunnar up ’til now, but he stepped up to the plate this week. He proved that he could be a mensch.
And it paid off. See, that’s the thing. Even if an outfit doesn’t quite work, even if it’s wrong for your body… if you feel great in it, then chances are you’ll look great in it.
So maybe that’s one of the best ways to be a good designer, at least for custom clients: Be a decent human being who genuinely likes other human beings and wants to make them happy.