November 21, 2012

Is The Fashion Industry Morally Sound?

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“You sold your soul to the devil when you put on your first pair of Jimmy Choo’s. I saw it.” (The Devil Wears Prada).

I didn’t start with Jimmy Choos. In fact, I may not end with Jimmy Choos, either. But I did start somewhere. It was September 2006, and I had just entered the sixth grade. That school year marked the beginning of a period of critical realization that would shape my future career interests. It was when I began to grasp the idea that what someone wears matters.

Two years later, in the middle of my eighth grade year, I took that concept to heart. I started studying fashion magazines, websites, and editorials, enthralled by the way designers and models treated fashion as an art form. In an effort to emulate the high-end fashion depicted, I began to think of my personal fashion sense as artistic, too. I probably made about twenty fashion “errors” a week that year, the first being the way I viewed fashion.

I took the editorial spreads, photo shoots, and runway photos too literally and began dressing outrageously, piling on anything I liked and aiming to compile all the latest trends in a single outfit. I dressed to fit the runway definition of fashion and failed to consider that dressing practically is equally as important. The idea that fashion is an art both inspired and corrupted the way I dressed.

“A million girls would kill for this job.” (The Devil Wears Prada)

From as early as I can remember, I have always loved to read and write. My love and appreciation for the written word began — as is the case with many children — with Dr. Seuss. Ever since I learned to read, I have been interested in what words could offer me. I sometimes find myself wondering how different life would be had I never learned to read, how unclear the world would seem, how confused and misled I would be. I wonder the same about writing, but for different reasons. As with reading, writing is an escape for me. When I write, I can create a unique world or present a foreign idea in a familiar way. I have an outlet where I can speak my mind. That alone is important to me, even if my work is never published.

“What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who can’t afford an education?” (Unknown)

I became much more interested in the fashion industry throughout high school. I spent my paychecks at the mall, searching for trendy, inexpensive clothes. Shopping was often a frustrating experience — I worshipped high-end fashion designs for years, so realizing a four hundred dollar blouse was impractical and didn’t fit into my budget was unsettling. In an effort to become more knowledgeable about the industry, I began spending less money on clothes, more money on books about the history, designers, bloggers, photographers, and journalists of fashion.

“When I was a young girl, I did not know what I wanted to be, except that I knew the woman I wanted to be.” (Diane Von Furstenberg)

It was October of 2011, and I was in my senior year of high school. I was taking four AP classes, one of which the school administrators forced me into, and preparing myself for what people consider the best of the four high school years. I was also preparing for college. Influenced by my family, school counselors, and the fashion books I so often consulted, I found myself confused as to what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and where I should go to school.

“In an increasingly designed world, art and design reflect and shape all kinds of experiences. Through rigorous practice and critical scholarship, Parsons The New School for Design prepares students to be leaders in their professions and society” (Parsons The New School for Design).

As far as my fashion interests were concerned, I should have applied to Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. Flipping through The Teen Vogue Handbook, it seems like everybody who is even slightly important in the industry had started there. But I’m not one for creating with my own two hands. I took the required art classes in elementary and middle school and only two semesters of computer art in high school. My true creative talent lies with writing. I began to question whether I had the ability to meet the artistic demands of the fashion industry.

“…Many modern day plus [size] models are wearing the same sizes models like Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley wore in the 90s in the height of their careers” (“Fashion industry considers size 6 as plus size” — Fox 5 San Diego, KSWB-TV).

After reading books, articles, websites, and blogs praising the fashion industry, my journalistic instincts told me to investigate further. Why is it so competitive? Am I strong enough to have a career in such a demanding field? Later, I will add to my investigation the question that continues to haunt me today: Is the industry morally sound?

Too often I find myself coming across stories about anorexic models, worked to the brink of exhaustion in the hopes of one day being casted for a famous designer’s runway show. They are emaciated and physically and mentally ill. One cannot help but wonder if the industry has made them that way. The Teen Vogue Handbook suggests that aspiring models “include your stats — height, age, hair and eye color, and bust, hip, and waist measurements…” Are a woman’s bust, hip, and waist measurement so crucial that agencies are willing to discard a beautiful face because it is attached to a size six body?

“…Average models (not the superstars) often get paid in clothes, work very long hours, and have no workplace protections—an arrangement some former models have compared to indentured servitude” (What the Fashion Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know).

I imagine an immature, inexperienced teenage girl walking the streets of New York City, trying her best to emulate the confidence that so many others before her have exuded. She is walking to the modeling agency that signed her just months ago, right before she was set to graduate high school. Since then, she has been working fifteen-hour days five days a week and spending at least two hours at the gym six days a week in order to stay in peak physical condition.  Her hair has begun falling out, from both stress and lack of nutrients. She’s dressed impeccably, but barely has enough money to pay this month’s rent. Still, she continues work with the agency because modeling is something she loves.

For quite some time now, I have questioned whether the industry gives young models a false sense of security. Yes, we’ll take excellent care of you. You’ll get samples straight off the runway. You’ll go places most girls your age have never even dreamed of. In reality, it seems as though young models are taken advantage of simply because they are naïve and don’t know any better. Agencies ask them to work long hours and expect them to meet nearly impossible standards regarding physical appearances because they are willing to do so. People who have dreams of someday working in the fashion industry seem to be convinced that conformity is the only way they will be able to succeed. Admittedly, I am uncomfortable with the idea that I may be one of those people.

I am reminded of a scene from The Devil Wears Prada where intern Andrea Sachs nervously asks her boss, Miranda Priestly, “What if I don’t want this?”  Unflinchingly, Miranda responds, “Oh, don’t be silly. Everyone wants this.  Everyone wants to be us.” TC mark

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