Wed, 19th Feb 2020

Fashion Show Review: Inclusivity Beyond the Runway

Text by: 

Alisa Matyunina

Photo by: 
Lightbox

Living in a small town where you seem to know every postbox and the occasional discovery of new little cul-de-sac, St Andrews’ annual Fashion Show (FS) seems to erupt from the depths of the earth, bringing a professional sleekness more akin to a capital city than our rather quaint little town. An expansive tent, live singer, bubbly and even sushi. Noice.

The show follows a tour through the many rooms of the imaginary Playhaus, bringing a diverse set of styles and interspersing the more everyday with statement pieces. Alice in Wonderland robes appeared fitting to the fantasy theme, as did beautiful earthy coloured jackets. Further came grandiose swishing ‘shapeful ’ dresses using paper which trailed and bounced magnetically around the models. The makeup was immaculately done, featuring the classic crisp cheek bone highlights on the guys and vibrant eyeshadows on the girls, facilitating that intense model stare down. Yes you’re all screamin’, but I’m just walkin’ like I’m goin’.

But this stare did change and, towards the end, models would greet the reaching out hands, making faces at the public. From a momentary eyebrow shift perhaps brought on by some drunken cry to a full on fist-bump. Was this change in model behaviour choreographed? It corresponds with the comparative ease and ‘fun’ agenda that the Executive Director had been talking about.

Or was it spontaneous? It’s all very Brechtian and served to enliven the performance, if only to satisfy the rather inebriated guys next to me roaring ‘Break! Break!’

And if this was all but a fun night, my review would perhaps end here, on a massive cheer for the FS committee, able to organise an event in the face of Storm Dennis and raise huge funds for charity (£100,000 in the last four years alone).

However, FS aspires to something more, to refer to its mission statement: ‘To highlight the role all students play in determining the future of the fashion industry and to engage students in deserving philanthropic causes’. And here is where I would like to talk about gender representation, and where I think FS falls strikingly short of the mark.

The lingerie section is preceded by a video, self-directed by Stella Coulter, entitled The Red Room. Perhaps not a deliberate analogy, but in the day and age of Fifty Shades inspired bondage this sets a very particular, sexualised, male-dominated tone (you can see that I don’t buy the idea that Ana is ‘exploring her sexuality’ through her BDSM relationship with Christian). The quotes which are then emblazoned on the screen suggest female empowerment: ‘Strength and beauty must go together – Alcott’, ‘I’m very definitely a woman and I enjoy it – Marilyn Munro’.

And then we see a parade of size 6 girls, bikini waxed, who are paired with guys with six packs and hairy legs. In an interview, an FS model said that ‘beauty is so often by someone else’s definition’. But isn’t this a representation of the most stereotypical sexy female? If we are re-defining beauty, then surely we should have people up there who are not reflective of the bodies emblazoned on posters and advertisements? For an intersectional feminist representation, women should be empowered regardless of whether they are shaved or have a flat stomach.

The guys are up there too, so this is not only a question of female representation, but the historical and social precedent of female objectification in the media and fashion industry sets a precedent: in a sphere where women are particularly vulnerable to misrepresentation we need to exercise extra caution.

And certainly, this is a problem for the industry as a whole, not unique to FS, which sends restricted sample sizes which are only suitable for those able to squeeze into tiny sizes. And yet the model advertisement for FS says ‘open to all’, and organisers lament that ‘plus-size’ models do not come to auditions. But encouraging people to come when they see no representation of unconventional body types/ grooming (not to mention the fact that there are no bigger sizes – so you would be turned away) seems a bit of a long shot at inclusivity.

FS has done a great job of creating a cutting-edge display of style and sophistication, added to which is this year’s awareness of sustainability, evidenced not only in the show itself but in the organisation’s engagement with groups promoting environmental change and education. But at a time of a mental health crisis, eating disorders and sexual objectification, it is to university groups that we look for a voice in asserting changing attitudes: demand other sizes in your contracts; break the taboos around surgery from shaved ingrown hair and allow for diverse intersectional representation. Universities should be at the forefront, embracing the opportunities brought forth by more inclusive runways in London and New York, coming from designers such as Christian Siriano and 11 Honoré.

FS does a great job for showcasing fashion. But if it wants to be a bringer of change it needs to be truly inclusive. And that goes beyond a Facebook post saying ‘casting is open for everyone.’

FS is a not-for-profit organisation which runs an annual Fashion Show in St Andrews. For more information visit https://www.standrewsfashion.com/.