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Fashion: The Beast That Can't Be Tamed

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At a fashion and feminism lecture I attended a few weeks ago I felt both empowered, disillusioned and almost cheated.

Had my whole adolescence been watched over and controlled by the bellowing, perfectly bespoke eye of a media empire; the fashion industry?

"Today's children, pre-teens and teenagers have grown up having received more images of unachievable beauty in one day than I saw in my entire adolescence," roared one of fashion's most influential commentators, Caryn Franklin MBE.

"Young members of the audience, you will have four hours of media messaging in your day to, perhaps, ten minutes of parental messaging.

"This is a David and Goliath situation. The fashion industry doesn't offer any formula for thinking about self-esteem and well-being," she said.

Fluorescent adolesent

As these words sank in, I pictured back to the younger me, the wavering youth, not knowing what direction to take; discovering alcohol, cigarettes, men, nothing was certain, apart from one thing - the image I wanted to portray and be. I remember vying over utopic images of Giselle and Kate, saying to myself my body will look like that one day; surely that is what a beautiful woman is?

I wasn't stupid enough to believe it was real, I knew this was an elite group of people with teams of prodding, poking and digital enhancement. But it was still an elite I wanted to join. It went way beyond the clothes, it was a very rigid ideal the fashion industry was trying to sell. And I was, and still am, completely undermined by it.

Numbed Down

The panel of fashion observers that sat before me, each woman a feminist force to be reckoned with, typified a thought that I had inside me but which was sealed and locked away. The "numbing down" as Franklin put it.

"The numbing that you have done for yourself just in order to quiet the insecurity that you feel, I think a lot of women do, as a default setting -numb everything down," she explained. " They turn down the volume, so they can operate without kicking off every five minutes. When you go to the newsagents and see the tits out on the top row, we've all had to numb ourselves down."

Franklin's voice resonated. Indeed I don't even flinch at the top row stands, it has been ingrained in me since as long as I can remember, just accepting the naked, tits-out woman in front of me - "that's just the way it is" rang in my head, a facetious glimmer of Tupac in my periphery, I see no changes, that's just the way it is.

Blame

But the question that was posed to the audience was where does the blame actually lie?

The obvious answer would be the corporates at the top of their ivory tower. Franklin commented that it takes opposition for those in authority to address what she described as a "quite toxic" situation.

"The only way we can reach them is to be talking to them about profit and reaching the consumer in an empathic way that will generate more profit, sad as it is - businesses aren't there to consider the well being of the consumers."

But research that Franklin citied would surely have businessmen's tongues rolling.

Ben Barry at the Cambridge Judge Business School, undertook three years of cross-cultural research and found that when the consumer sees his or her beauty and appearance mirrored in advertising, they are 300 per cent more likely to purchase.

That is indeed what corporates want to hear. But the change is yet to come. We have all seen the M&S ads, but apart from a small group of glamorous, all-ages women in M&S attire, and the odd Dove advert, the fashion industry still certainly hasn't changed its ethos.

We the consumers

But could part of the blaring imagery of this superior breed of human be held at consumer level? Brits are famous for not complaining about anything; if you get shit service at a restaurant, most just accept it and move on. If you barge into someone, you are the first to apologise. Complaining is not in our nature.

When I see a gargantuan ad spread across the consumer minefield that is Oxford Street, I often glare in ardor; Beckham's looking great for his age, and Mossy has become more defined and charismatic with age, but in that split second, from looking up into ad wilderness, to looking back down to street level, I don't have time to think about whether it has been digitally enhanced. I just accept it and move on.

Franklin said that children are now entering into a world where they Photoshop and digitally enhance their Facebook photos. I can't say I've done the same, I would definitely prefer to be a let-down on Facebook, rather than be the let down when someone meets me in real life and thinks "oh dear she looked better in 2D".

But this online face-altering commodity is there because it is in every ad image we see.

"They have internalised imagery that is a falsification and they have responded to advertising that is illegal, whereby a company can tell complete falsehoods," said Franklin.

I remember one small change that was made in mascara ads, whereby now they have in the tiniest print on the bottom of the ad "styled with lash inserts" and yet we still buy into it, I am an offender.

Indeed if they can say it straight to our face and we still don't respond there must be something wrong. It is as if the mascara gods are laughing down at us: We have even told you to your face that they are fake eyelashes, but you're still going to buy our product!

It only takes 17

From make-up ads of seamless, flawless skin tones, symmetry and unachievable beauty, to fashion bodies of pure divine bone and "pre orgasmic" women, as Franklin describes, are lying to our blotchy, uneven skin toned faces, our meatier, curvier, give me the last cup-cake bodies.

We don't complain enough for the twisting representations of post-production work we're exposed to.

Indeed, are the consumers at part to blame? It only takes 17 complaints to get something removed from an ad, Franklin explains.

"It relies on the consumer to complain to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), and request a digital trail, in order to ascertain whether they are telling the truth.

"The consumer is so apathetic about this and believes that he or she deserves illegal proclamations - that they don't complain. But they have been destabilised, so it cannot come from them, because they are already undermined."

But whom then can it come from? "It needs to be old duffers like us to say something's got to change," jokes Franklin.

Reaching fashions future influencers

And Franklin is a fine example of a powerful, influential woman leading the way for the resurrection of the "individual" in fashion as the corporate grows - and isn't individual expression what fashion was founded on in the first place?

Although, I do remember attending an open mic night a while ago and one of the speakers said a line that will never leave me, "Women wouldn't follow fashion if they were really individual." Aside from this small interruption, Franklin is trying to bring the power back to the fashion astute individual, by giving lectures up and down the country to fashions future influencers - and undo the "numbing" we have all succumbed to.

"As a whole we are operating in a dynamic that is toxic and needs dismantling. That is why we lecture up and down the country to fashion students -we want to say to them, 'you have been disempowered and you have been destabilised by all of the media information you have been given, we want to embolden you to take a level stance.

"The next generation of creators; you are the future, you are the solution, lets name what we feel, and kick off with confidence," she said.

The whole room almost leapt to their feet after this conquering speech- but this is Britain, not an American election campaign. We indeed all sat there with quieted confidence and jubilance (had I even been "numbed down" to not celebrate at a euphoric declaration?).

But this was short lived as our confidence was soon scuppered by Franklins conversation with one of the most influential entities at the top of fashion hierarchy, "mass production of fashion means that there is a need to churn out something and keep on repeating, as even the very top designers know; Giorgio Armani once said to me, 'I am just a cog in a wheel.'"

Cog in the wheel

I meekly sat there and thought of all the "cogs in the wheel" at UAL; all the future fashion graduates, the CSM success stories, the LCF victorious valiants, and wondered if they could make that change. Un-numb us all, empower the individual, fire against the wall of the fashion bureaucracy.

But then my mind took me to this season's London Fashion Week, the frivolous FROW, the backstage buzz, the model machines, and the carnivorous collections, one huge imperious concrete bubble, that will only burst at the weight of Neptune's fork.

And I somewhat doubt that not one solitary fashion soul will dive into the bottom of the ocean to retrieve it. They will simply see the shining lights of the buyers bribe, look into the heavens of ad space, and see their garment rested on a digitally enhanced demigod.

Big brother is always watching

I will never forget or underestimate the power of the fashion machine, from one line in every young glamazons nightmare The Devil Wears Prada, where Satan (aka Miranda Priestly, aka Anna Wintour) comments on her new interns blue sweater.

"You think this has nothing to do with you, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns.

"And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you fished it out of some clearance bin. That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff."

We are never safe, I suppose if you can't beat them, then you have join them?