Clothing does not the woman maketh

 "Perfect body" - you're kidding me, right?  I flicked through the news item about a petition "forcing" Victorias Secret to modify an ad campaign with a sense of bemusement.  For a start I don't know this retailer at all.  I don't visit underwear retailer quite simply because I feel, well, I'm not exactly their target market.  M&S will do for me.  Or Debenhams underwear dept, maybe.  But something makes me feel "unwelcome" in the likes of VS and its far preceded this AD campaign.

Not that I really have a case to answer for.  I'm probably thinner now than I have been for 28 years.  I weight in at about 9 stone (and I should ad, have probably been around this weight for about half of the last decade).  I'm only 5 foot so that's about exactly right for my height, but thin - well, you know, as I've discovered after nearly 9 years of successful if what some would regard as extreme eating and exercise regimes, well actually I'm not a perfect shape.  I have a middle that is perfectly , well, middle aged, no matter what I do.  I've figured that, yes, I could continue on a relentless mission to reduce my unflaggingly resistant beer gut to nothing, but by which stage I'd probably have to be about 7.5 stone and a size 2 if not zero.  Given that I already have a problem with finding a wristwatch petite enough for my slim wrists, I'd probably be skin and bone by that point.  So while yes, I still work out every day if possible, and very carefully manage my diet on a rigorously low-carb base, I'm not actually trying to lose any more weight, just maintain it.

Anyway this isn't about me, its about you.  Its about all of us.  This obsessive overemphasis on body image doesn't just hurt people who are genuinely overweight, or underweight, or suffering from an eating disorder: it hurts all of us.  It hits our perception of ourselves and others.  It creates unfair distinctions between those who can and cannot attain certain sizes, without any regard to the fact that those shapes are merely the arbitrary result of nature.  It doesn't take into account the shifts and changes an average person experiences over a lifetime, nor does it take into account normal occurrences such as illness, childbirth, poverty or genetics.  It rewards somebody solely on the grounds of having a certain kind of genetic makeup, while punishing somebody who doesn't.

Yet we routinely buy into a whole subculture of fashion, media and society simply on the grounds of this.  We don't really question it, and what is worse that instead of correctly simply ignoring it, we actually reinforce the damage by ridiculing and degrading those who do meet the stringent criteria of this unfair judgment set, instead of elevating those beneath (references to "stick insects" and various other barely-hidden misogynist comments are rife).  It comes through every walk of life, even including areas previously assumed to be immune (the now notorious "Octaviangate" scandal where 5 male critics lacerated an operatic performance by a young artist simply because she didn't meet their psychical criteria).

The reality though, is that we still shop in the very same stores that promote exactly this culture, we still buy the magazines they advertise in, and we often make choices on a day-to-day basic, often unconsciously, that reinforce the very system that hurts most of us.  Why?

One thing I've persistently complained about in the last couple of years is the infantilizing setting in which women's fashion is sold: the blaring teenage pop music, the uncomfortably awkward displays complete with plenty of unreachable rails designed to humiliate anybody under 5'4", the overwhelming overemphasis on sizes for so-called "adults" that are "normal"  only for 12 year old girls.  You are infantilised in so many ways: from unrealistically tiny sizing, from the music and lack of service, from the humiliating communal changing rooms to designs that only flatter a (very thin) 12 year old teenage body.  And yet 95% of women's fashion is STILL sold in exactly this way.

This doesn't even take into account the near slave trade which exists around manufacturing.  The Bangladesh Accord is a great starting place because it explicitly shows you gaping holes where manufacturers choose local, ethical manufacturing rather than sweatshop offshore labour (note the entire absence of Portugal, and the very few Italian designers for example).  It is laughable that what is supposed to be a signatory of a more ethical system is in fact almost a calling card for those accused of exploiting cheap labour the most.  (Which incidentally, isn't unique to manufacturing: IT service providers just LOVE countries without labour standards so they can deny workers breaks, leave of absence, sick pay, holiday pay and cut wages by around 80-90%).  While it is excellent to move as much work as possible into the developing world, it is of little value if it is merely a cynical attempt to undercut workers rights and exploit lower living standards merely to increase net profit margins.

I had a discussion recently on Twitter where I was expounding my desire for a fashion shopping experience based on the more "adult" male experience where shops have a quiet, adult like ambiance and customers are treated as such.  A contact suggested what she described as a "radical" proposal which, when you think about it, sums up the problem: why don't we have female dress sizes that actually reflect female body sizes?  I mean, male clothing sizes take several things into account: waist size, height, chest size and neck size.  Incredibly, men even sometimes have the luxury of being able to select multiple sleeve lengths, as if (laughably) women somehow all have identical length arms.  In contrast, unless you are buying a bra, chest size is basically assumed to be the same in all female sizes, your waistline and hips are also assumed to be similarly proportionate, which incidentally doesn't even take into account height, which often means that if like me, you're short, means that you end up buying a shirt 2 sizes bigger than your shoulder size in order to fit the waist and hips, which fall in the wrong places.

I buy my clothes at a variety of different retailers, mostly mid range ones, in an effort to find a balance between my day to day clothing needs and the sizes and pricing available to me.  It was an extremely depressing experience when I was (very) overweight as the vast majority of retailers just had nothing for me at all.  My purchases were for a few years basically dictated by the very limited choice available, not what I would have liked.  Now that's different, with a bigger disposable income and a small size, I find most retailers have something to offer.  However I still find a lot of them simply pointless.

Thing is, right, even though I'm now a lithe size 8 in trousers mostly my bloomin beer gut means I need a size 12 in a shirt, and sometimes bigger.  Problem is, (thanks to lots of press ups and lateral pull downs), I've very well toned shoulders and upper body, so shirts in standard sizes just don't fit.  Next are good for this, as are Zara (who I suspect cater better for the shorter woman even in their standard ranges).  So I find that even in Mango, I could be wearing any size from Small/8 to large/14, which is annoying.

H&M are another culprit of the cult of "normal sized equals FAT" disease.  Try going in there at any size over a slim built, tall 10 and you won't find anything at all.  I was at the size 8 before I was able to find a single item to buy in this store.  In retrospect I question why I persisted.  If a shop isn't going to cater for me, why should I even WANT to spend my hard earned cash there?  What is wrong with us that we get angry about persistent displays of impossibly emaciated physiques but still want to consume their wares?  Why do we simply not walk straight to the next store and buy there?

A big part of the problem is the lack of choice.  Sure, you can skip the vile Abercrombie & Fitch, but most people who do so simply end up walking into a store with a less aggressive sizist stance, but the same absence of service for anybody over a size 10.  You go home then with magazines and newspapers full of glossy ads of the same emaciated bodies and if you walk into an office you quite probably compete as much on clothing as you do work quality and productivity.

On the last point, its extremely interesting to note the huge variance in individual workplaces.  As a contractor, I have spent a lot of time in 4+ years visiting very different kinds of workplaces with massively different values.  One thing I've noticed is that where there is a largely male workforce, like in a technical company, there is a massive diversity of dress styles for women and no real dominant "types."  However, one thing I've noticed is that in commoditized services companies, like retailers and banking services, where there is a large proportion of women and a workforce bigger than 500 or so, there is a huge swing towards hyperfeminized styling for women.

To suggest this is oppressive would be to oversimplify the gender and social dynamics at play on such sites.  While it was interesting to note that during my time subcontracting at a series of client sites in retail sectors, there was a marked difference between how women dressed on, for example cash and carry outlets (casual), and in purely administrative offices (hyperfeminine).  At least one of my female colleagues noted the same.

The significance of this is linked to the kinds of jobs being done by the women on different environments.  On the sites with less hyperfeminisation, women broadly were doing the same type of work as men.  However, on the hyperfeminised workplaces, women were frequently doing "admin" roles only.  In my current client site, there is a marked difference in style between the women in my own department (largely male and technical), compared to the most administrative service roles in other departments.  Funny enough, one all-female department is actually very diverse.  Otherwise, its extreme girlie for the women, especially in the less specialist teams.  Its not the first time I've seen this.  I wonder sometimes is it an age/education thing?  Generally I find that more educated women tend to be more individualist about fashion, but I could really be generalising there.

Anyway, if we really rejected the subliminal messages of Victoria's Secret and other fashion houses, they would cease to exist, because we'd skip them in favour of old school Bustenhalter retailers of Triumph and other makers that cater for "earthy" women.  But I think there are still enormous gaps in the market where larger or more differentiated women are being failed.  My ex partners current partner told me that she simply cannot buy a bra to fit her at any high street retailer and has to resort to ordering from a specialist mail order service.  This isn't somebody who is especially large or unusually shaped, yet she is forced into the psychical anomaly of "difference" in order to buy a very common clothing item.  Why is this even acceptable?

In fact this question is in itself begging an answer as to why it is OK that the ONLY differentiated women's clothing item is itself in danger of being commoditised to a narrow range of sizes.  For example, recently I was in M&S and delighted to find a very nice design at a reasonable price in the underwear dept that fitted snugly.  But here's the thing, I couldn't help noticing that the basic band size was the smallest on offer.  So it struck me: what if I did actually lose more weight?  Would I then be condemned to mail order retailers?  This is hugely problematic as it would mean being unable to try on in advance of purchase.  You wonder why in this age of increasing diversity of populations, retailers are in fact moving in the opposite direction: catering only for an ever narrowing centre of consumers, while at the same time, struggling to compete as competitors do the same.

In fact, the entire direction that fashion houses are taking is directly the opposite of the phenomenon which Michael Porter et al ( describes in his latest HBR missive: that companies are increasingly catering for the outcomes of customer needs instead of just providing a product.  Yet none of this is hitting the fashion industry, which I suspect is being increasingly hurt by increased re-use, the re-skilling of populations in traditional crafts such as dressmaking, and a tendency to re-use rather than treat clothing as disposable.  Why is fashion failing so badly to move with the times in terms of customer needs?  And why is this almost entirely a gendered tendency, as fashion houses that cater for men continue to carefully cater for a wider range of customer needs?

I suspect the problem is connected to the delusion of savings still linked to the obsessive off shoring of manufacturing in textiles, which is still preoccupying a commodity-minded fashion industry as it tries to cope with the negative CSR implications of job displacement, worker exploitation in the developing world, not to mention the almost complete collapse of end product quality which is the big dirty secret of noughties off shoring mania.

Yet in an industry which actively excludes many consumers, not to mention failing to gather proper information regarding its remaining customers, is there not a huge gap for a more heterogeneous experience, coupled with better quality products, better customer outcomes and in the long run, more customer loyalty?  Increasingly, I am starting to see kickstarters for clothing houses looking to cater for very specialised niche customers (for example, a clothing house in San Francisco which designs masculine styled clothing for butch women and transmen) and I suspect that fashion will eventually be disrupted by such niche businesses.

Also, I suspect that as it becomes increasing more obvious in the textile industry that off shoring has been a failure (as it has long since been quietly recognised by IT services), resulting in lower quality products, more patent abuse, worker accidents and returns that ultimately hurt customer loyalty, manufacturing will slowly be returned to more reliable areas such as the middle East and niche areas in Europe (Portugal for example) in order to restore consumer quality.  In doing so there will also be resumed emphasis on preordering with the end store acting as more of an order house for pre-placed orders, which will enable not only more pithy customer data gathering, but restored trust.  The current trend for ultra cheap but very low quality mass produced clothing may turn out to be nothing more than another fad.


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