Sometimes fashion is about clothes, but sometimes it is really about bodies. The Council of Fashion Designers of America awards are the highest honours awarded to US fashion designers, so you would expect the star-studded New York gala to be a showcase for extraordinary clothes. But last week the red carpet was won not by a dress, but by a body. Uncut Gems actor Julia Fox wore a cutout dress that was mostly cutout, with a side order of dress. Baring Fox from her breastbone to her thighs, it revealed a black bikini and highlighted a carved-out, rock-hard midsection, visible ribs and sinewy glutes. Her slender body, not the dress, was the outfit.
The standout trend at this season’s catwalk shows was the flat stomach. At Fendi, ribs were visible under tissue-thin knitwear tucked into cargo pants that hung below the models’ hipbones. At Versace there was a long plane of taut bare flesh between the bumster-style waistband on a pair of jeans and the tiny bra top. Second-skin catsuits came in black lace at Burberry and crystal mesh at Stella McCartney. All of these were worn on the catwalk by models with the low body fat necessary for bones, cavities and ridges of muscle to be clearly visible.
The funny thing is that catwalk models are not actually getting skinnier. The fashion search engine Tagwalk crunched the numbers, and found that out of 247 fashion shows this season, 90 included “curve” (plus-size) models, up from 62 the previous season. That 64% of brands still employ only the traditional super-slender body type on their catwalk is slow progress, but the trajectory is curving in the right direction.
So why does it feel as if fashion is bringing size zero back? The statistics above do not differentiate between obscure designers who embrace diverse casting but whose shows get little attention, and megabrands that monopolise fashion’s bandwidth with glitzy gowns on supermodel bodies. What’s more, the revival of Y2K dressing – low-rise trousers, bra tops, corsets, teeny-tiny miniskirts – puts bodies under blatant scrutiny, whereas for a while they were veiled by a trend for long, loose dresses and oversized knitwear. One of the standout moments of the fashion season was at Coperni, where Bella Hadid stood virtually naked for nine minutes while a dress was created on her body using spray-on fabric. The stated message of the stunt was to celebrate the sustainable credentials of Fabrican, which uses upcycled material and a compressed production process to drastically reduce the environmental impact of fabric production. But it also felt like a showcase for Hadid’s flashlight hipbones. She was, undoubtedly, the supermodel with the most main-character-energy this catwalk season.
The return of size zero is bigger than fashion. This year’s Met Gala will be remembered as the one where Kim Kardashian lost 16lb to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s dress, her dramatic weight loss dominating headlines after the event. In 2023, the Met Gala will honour the late Karl Lagerfeld, who famously called Adele “a little too fat” and dismissed those who criticised fashion’s thin-obsession as “fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television”. It remains to be seen whether gala boss Anna Wintour – who in 1998 suggested to Oprah that she lose 20lb before her Vogue cover shoot – will address his fatphobia. The New York Post recently reported on Kardashian’s weight loss, the increased demand for pilates classes and the controversial weight-loss drug Ozempic in an article headlined “Bye-bye booty: heroin chic is back”.
Despite scoring Vogue pages and an advertising campaign for Calvin Klein, curve model Lovisa Lager was not booked for any catwalk shows this season. “The Y2K looks that are in again are pushing fashion backwards,” she says on the phone from New York. “It feels like the progress that curve models have made is getting reversed.” For Lager, who grew up in Stockholm watching America’s Next Top Model, curve modelling is about representation. “The first time I met my boyfriend’s mum, who is the same size as me – above a size 18 at this point – she was so excited that I was modelling for a brand she bought clothes from. That brought her so much joy.” But Lager says she is “often very lonely at work. I’m almost always the only curve model on set or in a show. It can feel kind of humbling. I tend to hang out more with the creative team and the hair and makeup team than with the straight-size models.”
What’s more, she says, there are often no clothes on the rail that fit her. “If I’m doing a magazine editorial, I’ll end up wearing lingerie and a coat – that’s a standard way of dressing curve girls, if the samples of the real clothes are too small. People are lazy. They don’t dress us with the same respect.”
The Brazilian-born designer Karoline Vitto is bucking this trend. Her latest collection of stretch jersey pieces with sculptural metal details was shown on the London fashion week catwalk exclusively on non-sample-size models. “I knew I didn’t want any [UK] size six or eight models in the show,” Vitto says when I reach her via Zoom at her studio. “No traditional models. The smallest size we were open to casting was a 10, but in the end the smallest model we used was a 12. I wanted a sense of representation for women who don’t see themselves in most shows, and I looked for a strong walk, strong personalities.”
Size inclusivity on the catwalk is frequently tokenistic – one hourglass body in a procession of reed-thin physiques – but on Vitto’s catwalk there were soft rolls of flesh folding over necklines, thick calves and soft tummies squished by the sculptural details on her dresses. For an audience accustomed to living on a thin gruel of identical bodies over the week’s catwalk shows, it was a visceral, visual feast. Imagine if you had spent a month looking only at Degas’s dancers, and then were suddenly presented with a roomful of paintings by Rubens.
Casting director Madeleine Østlie – who collaborated with Vitto this season to find her catwalk cast, and included photographers Fernanda Liberti and Kerry J Dean among a lineup that was diverse in size, age and background for Roksanda Ilinčić’s show at the Serpentine Gallery – believes that “We have come a long way. To see different bodies doesn’t just feel tokenistic any more – it has become cemented into the way we think about fashion.”
She points to the rise of the “mid-size” body – models such as Jill Kortleve, a size 12, who has walked for Chanel and scored advertising campaigns for Valentino beauty, H&M and Mango – as a sign that a more nuanced and sophisticated conversation is developing around body size in fashion. The 1990s-era supermodels who have returned to the catwalk in the past decade are still very slim, but have inevitably thicker torsos than catwalk colleagues 30 years their junior. “Mid-sized bodies are becoming more visible,” Østlie says. Lager notes, however, that mid-sized bodies often fall between available sample sizes – on the catwalk and in editorial: “Most clients have one sample for the straight-size girls, and one sample for the ‘curve’ girls, which is usually a size 18. So the mid-size girls often need to wear padding to make that sample work.”
The crop-top-ready aesthetic that has returned with the Y2K fashion revival is a reminder that pop culture’s obsession with thin has deep roots. Skinny bias is so internalised that bikini pictures on Instagram are both clickbait and trigger.
Kate Moss recently told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs that the remark “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” was only ever a fridge magnet she quoted as a joke – but that didn’t stop a generation believing it to be her mantra. Taylor Swift has been criticised for the video for her track Anti-Hero, which shows her standing on a set of scales that reads “FAT”. That the message of the video and the song is intended as a comment on her insecurities, rather than her weight, has not stopped it being flagged as problematic by a culture that vibrates on red alert for body shaming.
Vitto grew up as a curvy teenager who idolised the slender, highly defined silhouettes of Azzedine Alaïa and Thierry Mugler. Her creative breakthrough as a student at London’s Royal College of Art came when she switched to fitting her stretch-jersey, cut-out looks on bodies like her own. “When I started to integrated the folds and flesh of the body into the clothes I was making was when it all clicked for me,” she says. “I’ve always gravitated toward body-conscious clothes with a structural element, but all the luggage of my formative years looking at fashion, all the references I had grown up with, suddenly became so much more meaningful and more interesting when I had the wearability experience of designing for my own body. It’s not just about size, it’s about shape, about flesh, which can be soft as well as hard.”
Body size is part of a complicated debate around diversity in fashion that extends to gender, ethnicity, age and disability. That models have become totemic for who they represent is reflected in a nascent trend toward casting that is not based on visuals at all: the sustainable designer Gabriela Hearst cast Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, Mexican environmental activist Xiye Bastida, and anti-toxic shock syndrome campaigner Lauren Wasser in a recent show. Spare a thought, says Østlie, for traditional straight-size models. “I don’t like the word ‘skinny’,” she says. “I have model friends who are 30 years old, who eat like I do, have children, have a healthy lifestyle – and just have a tiny frame. It happens. If we ‘other’ skinny women, or assume anorexia, then that’s not inclusivity.”
Perfection – whether as a waist size or as a model of absolute inclusivity – is not a helpful metric, says Vitto. “I’m proud of what we achieved at my show,” she says. “The atmosphere backstage was incredible. Some of the women were a bit nervous, and they really held each other up. But my clothes stop at a UK size 28. So, what about if a woman is a size 32? Am I inclusive?”
The best response, she says, came not in sales, but in messages from women “who said that the show made them see something positive in their body that they hadn’t seen before. They weren’t going to buy from me, but I made them feel good. That meant a lot to me. I want to release the pressure.”