Give me the skinny: how to read a fashion image

Legs of models on the catwalk



Fashion, this week, feels particularly unfashionable. A campaign image by Saint Laurent was banned after the Advertising Standards Agency upheld a complaint that the model, Kiki Willems, looked too thin. Their statement reads like doctors notes, the kind of thing you’d read over someone’s shoulder in a hospital lift, and feel quite faint before you looked away. It’s worth quoting at length. “The model’s pose and the particular lighting effect in the ad drew particular focus to the model’s chest, where her rib cage was visible and appeared prominent, and to her legs, where her thighs and knees appeared a similar width, and which looked very thin, particularly in light of her positioning and the contrast between the narrowness of her legs and her platform shoes.” They’ve described the image pretty well, only leaving out that her position is that of a body that has fallen from a great height, or at least from a wobbly chair. She’s lying on the carpet of a conference room, despairing.

Many designers share Hedi Slimane’s (of Saint Laurent) obsession with the aesthetics of rock’n’roll. But there are many rock’n’rolls. Rather than the noisy, drunken fun of a band performing, of a big night out in a university town or a singer confronting her crowd with her massive voice and massive cleavage, some concentrate on the bit after. Not just backstage, because there’s still some happiness there – a plate of seedless grapes, some public sex on a tea-coloured futon. No, this is the bit after the bit after. Some designers stop at the sleaze and the strut, others are inspired by darker places at the end of rock’n’roll, dressing their models as people barely alive. “Swallow your joy!” a photographer is surely shouting, somewhere, “Think of the saddest song in the world, and hum it silently! We are all dying!” And this attitude seeps across the brands – it’s in the cut of the trousers, the slump of the models – but rather than the cool thrill presumably intended, for me it infuses everything with a sad sickness, the smell of burning.

The interesting thing about the ASA’s statement is that it has been careful to avoid any judgment on the weight of the model, instead focusing on exactly what was unacceptable about the image itself. Too often, when boring on about the problem with the fashion industry and body image, the fact that a fashion image is created is forgotten and the model within the image is critiqued directly. If a model’s legs look terrifyingly thin, it’s likely that the stylist wants you to see them that way. It’s not just the clothes that are styled, it’s the body itself. Shadows. Angles. The way she leans. Out of a hundred shots of a girl in a room, some labels will choose the one that suggests something awful happened out by the car.

You can’t tell from a photo whether or not a person is healthy. You can try, but you’ll probably be wrong. And this is never more true than with a fashion image, which has been manipulated and massaged by people who know exactly what they’re doing, until it is almost art. Which is why attempts to police the weight of fashion models seem often to be passing the blame on to the women, when they should be concentrating their anger on the labels that endorse them.

More and more, I think one of the most important subjects for children at school is media studies. Yes, I hear pisses being taken. The words “media studies”, when I did my A-Levels, anyway, were always accompanied by a little sideways snort. But where else are you taught to read an image? Where else will we learn that adverts are built up from dust, created to make you feel feelings that will quietly lead you to their online shop?

Ideally, less stuff would be banned. Ideally fewer images would be censored. So one way to avoid this, surely, is to give everybody the tools to see an advert like Saint Laurent’s and then, like soft bread, simply tear it apart.