Creating the New Runway // On Body Positivity in Project Runway

Kylie Krummel recently joined Boshemia staff as our US intern. K makes her Boshemia Blog debut with this article.

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Guest judge Olivia Munn, and judges Nina Garcia and Zac Posen

The fashion frenzy known as Project Runway began in 2004 and has been airing nearly every fall since then with the same simple premise: a group of twelve or more fashion designers is selected to compete against each other—and the clock—in challenges to design the best looks and dominate the competition. Every season crowns a new designer for his or her success in creating the most impressive collection for the runway. While ultra-fabulous supermodel Heidi Klum and ever-chic mentor Tim Gunn maintain a constant presence on the show, the designers are always different; they come to the competition with wildly varying styles, personalities, and backgrounds, and each one of them is celebrated for his or her unique view on fashion. But one of the factors of Project Runway is often overlooked and rarely celebrated for its variety: the models.

Modeling for fashion has a fluctuating history of what was considered “standard” or “beautiful,” flip-flopping from the curvaceous models of the 1950s, to small-framed Twiggy in the 1960s, to a demand for healthier looking models for Sports Illustrated’s first swimsuit edition, to the rise and fall of the androgynous look in the 1970s and 80s, and finally crashing headlong into the “heroin chic” aesthetic that dominated 1990s-era modeling. As fashion headed into the new millennium, the industry was still telling women what they should look like.

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1960s icon, Twiggy

Project Runway, while only occasionally hosting challenges to design for “average-sized” women rather than models, (and once even for female WWE wrestlers), has often stuck to the tall, thin (and often white) model as a blank canvas for its designers to decorate. The models are copycats of each other, dressed in identical high ponytails and simple black dresses, and are usually quiet, reserved, and for the most part, ignored. Their opinions and individualities weren’t taken into consideration—until now.

Project Runway’s Season 16 is doing something unprecedented: the models are all different sizes. Kicking off with its first episode, One Size Does Not Fit All (August 17, 2017), the show premiered its new group of models for the season. They range from size 2 to 22 and they will be rotated between all the designers throughout the competition. This is an exceptional example of body acceptance in mainstream media because of the sheer variety of bodies on display; they range, they fluctuate, and they are all unique. And that is what is being celebrated. Not only are the models a realistic array of sizes, but this season they will be featured in all-new “Model Mirror” segments, in which they are encouraged to express how they feel about garments and designers—because these are people wearing those clothes, not mannequins.

What stands out about Project Runway’s decision to use models that reflect reality is not only the body accepting imagery and its inclusivity, but the reactions it highlighted in several of the designers in the first few episodes. Upon discovering that their models were women of varying sizes, some designers commented that the proportions were difficult, their forms were too large, that they’d never designed for “curvy women” before, and even that they altered their designs to camouflage parts of their models. These comments signify a deeply-seated (and culturally imbued) notion that some bodies are not ideal.

Wrong.

The fashion and modeling industries may have been telling women this for decades, but–newsflash—it’s 2017. It’s time to start accepting people for who they are. Luckily, several of the designers on the show expressed excitement for the upcoming season, listing their favorite descriptions of the some of the members of the wonderful group of models for this year: curvy, bootylicious, hourglass, and full-figured, just to name a few. One designer even specified that it doesn’t matter what you label it, “as long as a plus-sized model is not considered a problem-sized model.” Judge Nina Garcia emphasized to the designers to celebrate the figure, rather than camouflage it. She acknowledges that the real world is multi-dimensional, just like the new runway.

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Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn, and the featured models of S16 Project Runway

By providing a platform for the models to speak their minds and interact with the designers and the designs in a new way, Project Runway is celebrating their models’ diversity, personalities, and their sizes. It is ushering in a new (overdue) wave of reality into so-called “reality TV” and forcing those who’ve been stuck in the unrealistic standards of fashion and modeling to face the facts and start a journey towards loving all body types and in turn, loving all people.

There is already a growing body positive movement on social media and in some ad campaigns, but to break into a mainstream program that is connected to an industry historically known for exclusion and unrealistic images is a huge victory. Project Runway’s S16 will prove to be exciting and groundbreaking up until the end; as one designer put it, this season will be full of “curves and butts and hips and all kinds of good stuff,” and I can’t wait to see how much good stuff it will bring to women everywhere, of all sizes.

Auf wiedersehen!

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