Why fashion is an uncomfortable fit
Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit
By Mel Campbell Affirm Press, 198pp, $24.95
WEARING clothes — a la mode or otherwise — can often be an invitation for unsolicited judgment. Hipster bible Vice magazine became renowned for its un-PC arbitration between trends that are hot and those that are not; most women’s magazines provide politer instruction in the art of dressing directionally. To be outed as a fashion victim is to be subject to disproportionate levels of ridicule; the phrase connotes not only embarrassment but suffering. Fashion writers and sales assistants are often on hand to pre-empt our fashion mistakes by providing us with a raft of corrective solutions.
It has always been this way. At the heart of the thriving fashion-industrial complex are tensions between our social and cultural values and our bodies, argues Mel Campbell in her thought-provoking debut book Out of Shape. These tensions stoke our aspirations as well as frustrations — particularly over issues of sizing and fit. These experiences are not new, as Campbell illustrates in her witty exploration of fashion through the ages as well as its representation in contemporary culture. The wardrobe malfunction and its link to moral lassitude, for instance, is not without precedent. We learn French socialite Virginie Gautreau — a 19th-century predecessor to Paris Hilton — caused a stir while posing for John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. The reason for the fuss? In the painting’s initial version, one of the straps on Gautreau’s ‘‘ severe, figure-hugging black velvet dress’’ was ‘‘ slipped insolently off her shoulder’’.
More than a century later, plus ca change. Society’s capacity for outrage remains a bottomless pit. Last year, the Nine Network’s A Current Affair broadcast a story called Girls on Show, where Ita Buttrose and model Charlotte Dawson tut-tutted at the sartorial crimes committed by teenage girls on a night out: these included ‘‘ clingy, strapless and low-cut tops, miniskirts, hotpants with their buttcheeks hanging out’’. The program served to reinforce the old-fashioned notion that, in addition to adhering to magazine-sanctioned ideals of sartorial self-embellishment, women must also ‘‘ appease other people’s moral judgment’’. Using the examples of Pretty Woman, Pygmalion and Strictly Ballroom, Campbell shows the makeover functions in a similar way, albeit under the guise of selfimprovement.
Is it possible to reconcile the desire to win the approval of outsiders with our individual tastes? Fashion is home to many conflicting tensions: the styles we see in stores are a compromise between a designer’s aesthetic values and market demand. If your demands (physical or aesthetic) aren’t met, it becomes a stressful pursuit. ‘‘ Wearing clothes shouldn’t be a chore,’’ Campbell writes. ‘‘ It should be playful and exciting, the way it once was when we were kids growing up.’’ As adults, that sense of playfulness is replaced by calculated risk-taking. The lifestyle media likes to designate rules for body types: Campbell notes that given her ‘‘ rectangular endomorphic body’’, ‘‘ high-waisted jeans with small back pockets will make [her] bum look big’’ and ‘‘ calflength skirts will make [her] look ‘ stumpy’ ’’.
But the message that goes with body shape diagnostics — that people should dress according to their shape — is useless. Campbell mounts a convincing argument by pointing to the meaningless terminology used to identify body types. It hardly matters if we are able to assign our bodies to certain ‘‘ sciency’’ physiognomic categories (ectomorph, endomorph) or to descriptive nouns (apple, cello, brick, skittle); the implication is our physical flaws can be fixed by the correct choices in attire.
That approach to a person’s physicality can prove damaging. Throughout Out of Shape, Campbell uses interviews with consumers and fashion designers as well as personal anecdotes and examples from pop culture to highlight the angst of what she calls orthovestia: the idea we must ‘‘ constantly tend to and revise our appearance’’ to be socially successful. Her personal reflections are poignant and at times humorous. We feel for her when she attempts to emulate the glamour of garconne chic as a teenager, only to be mistaken for a boy, or puts on a miniskirt that makes her feel great — until she catches her reflection in a shop window. By articulating her vulnerabilities with such honesty, Campbell reassures us such cultural anxieties are normal, which makes her argument more compelling.
Out of Shape is an engrossing read, not only because Campbell puts her body on the line, but because of her intelligent and conversational style. She’s at ease distinguishing the differences between vintage and retro, riffing on historical materialism, or critiquing beauty ideals put forward by the media. And while there are no easy answers for our quandaries, Campbell gives us a place to start. In an industry that is all about ‘‘ the look’’, there’s nothing more stultifying (or banal) than the desire to dress appropriately.