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Saint Laurent’s skinny model is just the thin end of the wedge

A few weeks ago I read about a fashion advert that has been banned by the ASA. But what confuses me is why the advert existed in the first place. It seems to show a very ill girl lying on the floor – why would that sell clothes?

Patrick, by email

Ah, Patrick, Patrick, Patrick. I do not know what you do in life, Patrick, as your email was tantalisingly succinct, but I do know that you have – unwittingly, I suspect – taken on the role of truth-teller in this instance. Not for nothing does the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes use fashion as a metaphor and you, Patrick, are the young boy pointing your finger at the king’s nudity.

As you say, earlier this month the Advertising Standards Authority banned an advert for the label Saint Laurent, which showed a strikingly thin model lying on the floor. Here is the ASA’s full statement on the advert:

“The ASA considered that 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. We therefore considered that the model appeared unhealthily underweight in the image and concluded that the ad was irresponsible.” Saint Laurent’s response was – and I’m translating from the French, of course – “Like, whatever” (that is a paraphrase, but only very, very slightly. Incidentally, it might be worth noting that this advert appeared in Elle, a magazine that in 2013 announced it would be “rebranding feminism”. I’m going to assume, judging from the magazine’s decision to publish an advert featuring a seemingly distressed and very skinny young woman, that this continues to be a work in progress.)

Any sane person – one such as yourself, Patrick – looks at this photo and is repulsed. Fashion people, however, look at it and see the height of chic. So what, you rightly ask, is going on here? Now, I’ve criticised fashion a lot in this column over the years. I’ve also defended elements of it, too, saying that the value of an industry expressly aimed at women and largely staffed by women, from the high-end designers (Miuccia Prada, Donna Karan, Vivienne Westwood) to the high street designers (Jane Shepherdson, Kate Bostock, Jenna Lyons) to the editors and journalists, should not be underrated. But there is no doubt that there are some disgusting elements to the fashion business.

Much – so much – has been written about fashion’s obsession with skinniness, but I think that what is really going on here is often overlooked. Because it’s not female skinniness that the fashion world fetishises – it’s female frailty.

For all the nonsense that some designers talk about loving “strong women”, “proud women”, “sexy women”, and blah di blah di flipping blah, it’s notable how fond these same designers are of putting women in clothes that specifically hobble them. Perilously high heels, most obviously, but also whacking great handbags, constrictive clothes, flat-out uncomfortable clothes, clothes that only look good on the very thin, and incapacitatingly expensive price tags. Fashion trends often explicitly celebrate this frailty. When chunky heels were in fashion eight or so years ago, a Vogue fashion writer explained in the magazine that she loved this look because it made her resemble “a baby fawn learning to walk”. Rachel Zoe is probably the most influential fashion stylist of the past 20 years, and the look she championed so successfully a decade ago was all about making women look frail: bug-eyed sunglasses, enormous handbags, oversized patterned kaftans that on anyone other than the severely underweight would look like sofas. Tatler memorably and accurately dubbed the look “dead socialite”.

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I like Saint Laurent’s clothes and I also like its designer, Hedi Slimane, who is probably one of the canniest operators on the scene now. But he undoubtedly has a fascination with frailty, or at least vulnerability. When he was a menswear designer, his great muse was Pete Doherty, who he photographed adoringly. Now that he is making womenswear, his icon seems to be a young woman leaving a nightclub at 5am, utterly wasted and barely able to make her way to the taxi rank.

This isn’t a problem just in the fashion world: the media itself loves to hound frail women – stalking Lindsay Lohan, for example, in the hope that she might overdose in front of them. But there, the attitude is one of prurience. In the fashion world, it is more voyeuristic and celebratory, like an immature teenager who thinks that a rock star who kills himself is just so deep, or that idiotic tendency of idiots to romanticise self-styled bohemians who destroy themselves with hard drugs. I have no time for any of this nonsense, and neither does anyone with a maturity level greater than that of a 14-year-old, which apparently includes the ASA, and my correspondent Patrick. As for you, fashion, grow up.


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