The Ryerson School of Fashion is no stranger to inclusion. With classes that include a range of topics and design techniques for our world’s diverse population, and different sized mannequins to cater to all clients, the school is enforcing diversity in all its forms. This semester, students are able to delve deeper into the issues surrounding body diversity with a new course from the School of Social Work.
In July, the school’s chair, Ben Barry, approved the course Special Topics, Fat Studies, Intersectionality and Activism into the program curriculum as a professionally-related elective. The course explores the concept of weight, particularly “fat,” as an area of oppression.
May Friedman, a professor in Ryerson’s social work department and creator of the course, said she believes weight is an underrepresented area of discrimination. At a school like Ryerson, where professional programs exist, this course is important, she said.
“It’s actually, ideally, shaping the way people behave with their clients and customers,” said Friedman. “I think that’s a part of it and I think that it’s very interesting work that’s illuminating, and pushes the envelope in terms of us rethinking some of the things we take for granted.”
According to Barry, fashion schools have the ability to pave the way for the industry, specifically to reconstruct its norms.
“I think even more importantly, this course helps students to move away from social constructs and erode exclusion and stereotypes when it comes to representing body and designing for different bodies.”
He continues to say there is an enduring legacy in fashion that is built on the notion of exclusivity and hierarchy. So while the past decade has seen the industry evolve, for example plus-sized models such as Ashley Graham walking some of the world’s biggest runway shows, and brand CHROMAT consistently putting all types of people on the runway, Barry says it’s up to the next generation of creatives to “challenge and change” the notion of exclusivity.
According to a report from The Fashion Spot, mainstream advertising for all fall 2018 fashion campaigns had the lowest representation of body diversity since 2015. A similar decrease was seen on runways, with only 30 plus-size models walking in fall 2018 shows — eight fewer than spring 2018.While racial diversity is increasing in runway shows and campaigns, the majority of the industry continues to think that fashion is skinny.
“There are still so many people who feel that their body types are not represented in fast fashion and that it’s not for them,” said fourth-year fashion design student Blake Harris.
He said that the more students can educate themselves on those who don’t have much access to fast fashion because of its limited sizing, the better the industry can be steered in the right direction.
“The bigger you get, the less options you have”
Friedman agrees with Harris and notes the struggle for plus-size people to access clothing options.
“I’d argue that access to representative clothing is important for any population and it is a place where fashion falls short pretty dramatically,” Friedman said. “You know, the bigger you get, the less options you have.”
According to Barry, being more inclusive to body sizes comes down to the root of the design process, right to a collection’s sample size. When designers create a collection, most pieces are a size 2, 4 or 6, but rarely anything above.
“Clothes are cut, sewn, and sold, in one size,” said Barry. “So they can be cut, sewn, and sold in multiple sizes and for multiple types of bodies.”
The business of fashion
In an Elle Canada article written by Barry, he notes that models in fashion ads are “the bridge between the consumer and the brand.”
“When brands represent consumers within their ads, the consumers of the same size, same age, same cultural, racial backgrounds, not only did that support their body confidence, but that actually then fuelled brand loyalty, fuelled purchases,” said Barry.
He continues to say that this is not just being socially responsible. Representation has a “profound impact on business.”
For his PhD thesis, Barry studied the business potential of consumer-representative models in fashion ads. His study found that the intention to purchase clothing among women increased over 200 per cent when the models in ads reflected their size. In contrast, when women saw models who didn’t look like them, purchase intention decreased by 60 per cent.
As a student and designer, Harris said this new social work course addresses important topics for students.
“I think it’s super important to look at fashion from multiple perspectives,” he said. “We are, at the end of the day, making clothes for the body and there are so many types of bodies out there.”
According to Harris, the days of fashion being only for the elite are ending.
Barry agrees with Harris, stating that fashion is an industry built on exclusivity and hierarchy. But, with courses such as this, the fashion chair said students have the ability to change the narrative.
“Body ideals are created,” said Barry. “So body ideals can be recreated because they’re socially constructed.”