A Century of Killer Fashion

For years before two runway models died from extreme dieting, the focus was on thin

San Francisco Chronicle

By Jessica Seigel

Not politics. Not child care, marriage or even work. It's appearance that is one of the most controversial women's issues of the year. How slender is too slender? And can such a narrow look ever be natural, or is it always unhealthy -- even for the young and delicate icons of haute couture? If that is even possible.

Such arguments over "thin" in fashion may sound all-too-familiar given the recent high-profile deaths of two runway models from extreme dieting. But the year I'm talking about is 1890 -- a gilded age of those other robber barons. Benjamin Harrison sits in the White House, just like another president who once won without the popular vote and ran up the deficit. Ladies wear bustles and long trains -- and controversy rages over female proportions. The focus is also thin. Not of the whole body like today, but one latitude in particular. The middle.

The corset made it all possible, creating the narrow waist of the hourglass ideal. But "stays" also stayed women from bending over to tie their shoes, impeded walking, caused fainting, miscarriage and uterine collapse. (Years of tight-lacing literally pushed the uterus out of the body through the vagina.) Filling out the hourglass bottom, weighty petticoats dragged vermin and dirt into the house, and sank like a stone in a boating accident.

Back then doctors joined women's rights advocates and granola bohemian types to oppose the "killer" style -- just like today. But for decades, social elites defended paralyzing undergarments, viewing females without corsets and petticoats as whores and heathens -- or "loose." And simply unattractive.

Now we think of such "Victorianisms" as oppressive, tyrannical and absurd -- part of a stultifying world with punishing rules for dress and etiquette, like an Edith Wharton novel. So it was like time travel -- with no need of a transportal device or even outfit change (and pointy toe shoes are still holding) -- to land in the heart of America's fashion elite. The designers themselves had organized a public panel and "health initiative" this month to address public outcry over the extreme-thin ideal.

But instead of reforming killer style, they clung to it like Victorians to their corsets. As health panel chair and power fashion publicist Nian Fish explained, "The aesthetic of fashion is thin." But the fault lines opened wide as designers blamed everyone but themselves for girl troubles on the runways -- where the slender ideal begins.

The hour was ungodly for the truly chic -- 8 a.m. -- before the onslaught of the day's shows parading the new collections for fall. Indeed, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's watching-of-the-runways is one of few social rituals left where status determines admittance and seating assignment -- by a sign with your name or affiliation taped to a folding chair. With gossip sheets tittering over which blonde socialite sat in the front row -- and which got bumped -- the ins and outs feel as crucial as when the size of Mrs. Astor's Ballroom defined who fit into New York Society -- "The Four Hundred," officially named in 1892. That legacy was quite near, in fact, with the white show tents pitched in Bryant Park behind the historic New York Public Library, an institution built with Astor wealth.

Sometimes status and cultural ideals seem to emanate from nowhere and everywhere, but in this case, the players are known: the 284-member Council of Fashion Designers of America promoting its ad hoc panel's two-page "health initiative," which pointedly rejects body weight minimums or doctor's exams for models as "policing." Instead, the nonbinding recommendations center on industry "awareness and education" campaigns about eating disorders, and measures such as banning backstage drinking and smoking (already illegal in the United States for those under 21).

The belief that really good intentions -- and collective caring -- are enough to cure what ails models who sicken trying to stay thin was best expressed by much-loved fashion council president Diane von Furstenberg. "We agree there should be guidelines and no enforcement," she said from the dais without any irony at all. Her resurrected 1970s wrap-dress, which became last season's working girl's uniform, may be female friendly and easy-to-wear, but her defense of extreme-thin was no easy wrap. "You can't just blame fashion. It is part of our culture," she said, suggesting that many others are also to blame, like perhaps Hollywood, the ballet and gymnastics.

Along with trim von Furstenberg in her cute white jumper (her own design, of course), designers all over the world have been quoted defending thin with similar arguments, including that clothes simply "look better" on slim women. Others insist the look is natural for the young genetically gifted few, or as gaunt impresario Karl Lagerfeld famously put it: "We don't see anorexia. ... The girls are skinny. They have skinny bones."

But it's another thing to see the bones.

With New York City politicians just now calling for reform, Milan and Madrid authorities have already acknowledged their skeletons -- not even in the closet, but on the runways -- by enacting minimum weight standards (body mass index) set by the World Health Organization and banning girls under age 16 from the catwalk. The Italians are even worrying about the ways haute couture affects real women in everyday life, urging their designers to manufacture clothing in larger styles to fit more average women -- about a size 12 or 14 -- today seen as fat in fashion compared to size 0 models. By these standards, the ideal Victorian lady would be considered obese, nipped waist and all. Yet she would have viewed the runway model as a consumptive wretch.

Just like the 19th century corset defenders, today's fashionistas twist themselves into rhetorical knots trying to explain why even extreme thin is always in.

Panel chairwoman Fish, creative director at KCD, the publicity firm that handles Fashion Week, pointed to style history as evidence that inadvertently proved the opposite. Fashion is about thin, she said, tracing the ideal to the rise of the model Twiggy (discovered at age 15), whose iconic stick-like figure represented 1960s youth, overthrowing the more mature, voluptuous 1950s silhouette. That slender look, she explained, then gave way to the sturdier 1980s "supermodel," which eventually shifted to the younger, thinner "waif" that first appeared in the early 1990s. But regulating such style choices, Fish insisted, would stifle creativity. "It would be like asking Rubens to paint skinny women and the New York City Ballet to use bigger-size ballerinas."

It was a slim defense, considering that fashion is also a multibillion-dollar industry that literally shapes the clothing women buy and how they want to look. And if designers of the 1950s and 1980s loved voluptuous and "amazon," how can extreme-thin represent "the muse" of fashion itself? But this claim was the order of the day, as the health panel's psychiatrist, nutritionist, fitness trainer and marketing specialist repeatedly and pointedly refused to criticize designers or razor chic. Instead, they blamed "abusive" agents or the models themselves for extreme dieting out of emotional problems, rather than to keep their jobs.

"It's a problem from childhood," insisted panelist David Kirsch, a muscle-bound fitness trainer and gym owner who works with beauties referred by top modeling agency IMG. Despite his lack of nutrition or psychology credentials, he said he is qualified to comment on eating disorders because he knows women, especially hot ones. "I'm a girl's guy. I've been fortunate to work with some of the most beautiful girls in the world."

But then one of those most beautiful girls in the world stood up to speak. It is difficult to understand why 24-year-old Natalia Vodianova was invited to tell her personal story, since her heartfelt rags-to-riches tale so aptly illustrated how thin-obsessed couture landed her on the brink of anorexia.

Statuesque under her baby-doll bob, the Calvin Klein model famed for her Lolita looks told how she never thought about food or her weight during her poor Russian childhood. But after she was plucked from obscurity at age 17 to the high-pressure runways of Paris, life revolved around diet, the gym and weight. "It was totally alien to me," she said, telling how her 5-foot-9 frame soon dropped to 106 pounds (after having a baby), making her severely underweight.

When her hair began to fall out and a doctor friend intervened, she gained it back -- only to be scolded for putting on an inch everywhere. "Some fashion houses called my agent to complain," she said, but she refused to diet -- and kept her clients because she was in demand. But a less successful model, she suggested, might have weakened -- and again stopped eating.

Yet the fashion panel and designers so adamantly defend extreme-thin as healthy for some genetically gifted girls -- and they do mean girls -- that a Reuters reporter took to haunting fashion tent bathrooms, reporting the smell of vomit, presumably from models with eating disorders. While investigative journalists have taken to sniffing out the story, former models are publicly telling what everybody knows, like first-time author Amanda Kerlin, 22, in her new roman a clef, "Secrets of the Model Dorm."

"The pressure is relentless. Everyone is always telling you to lose more," says Kerlin, who began modeling at 13 for designers like Galliano and DKNY. "As years went by, I grew hips, and I was constantly told I need to lose 5 pounds." That's why models hired in their teens are at risk for eating disorders when they hit their 20s -- and the curves of womanhood. Brazilian Ana Carolina Reston, who worked for Giorgio Armani, was 21, and Uruguayan Luisel Ramos 22 when they starved to death in 2006.

Those fatalities set the backdrop for the four-person fashion health panel -- including three members who pitched consulting services onstage, offering plans to run "industry workshops" in lieu of proposing concrete regulations. "So, how can I as a nutritionist lend a helping hand?" bestselling author Joy Bauer asked the audience.

The odor of hucksterism infuriated the small band of eating disorder doctors and activists who showed up in the audience to ask the panel to support binding weight standards, doctor exams, age regulations and research to document the problem's extent, among other reforms.

"They are not independent. They have commercial interests," said Eric van Furth, director of the international Academy of Eating Disorders, who flew in from Holland for the meeting. "They are not taking this seriously."

Oh, but they are. Very. There to the far right of the room sat the queen of it all, Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, with her trademark helmet-like bobbed hair and pinched expression, a film crew documenting her every move for an indy short intended to soften her frosty image pilloried in the film "The Devil Wears Prada." As tout le monde knows, she and her staff selected the four-member panel that drafted the "health initiative," with parent company Conde Nast as meeting sponsor.

But just look at the pages of Vogue. There you will see how serious they are about extreme-thin, glorified and extolled in luxurious full color -- the girlish femurs, humeri and sinews of high-paid models all on display, like in spreads for Balenciaga, Carolina Herrera, Cesare Paciotti, Jean Paul Gaultier, Puma and Valentino, which feature especially skeletal wraiths. One leading eating disorder psychologist even uses fashion photos of supermodel Gisele Bundchen from her Gucci 2000 runway show to illustrate the physical signs of clinical emaciation.

As America fattens, fashion narrows. Because it is elite -- just like the corset. And that is why the Voguish classes are deadly serious about retaining their "stays" -- the ones within.

Jessica Seigel teaches the journalism of sex and gender at New York University