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Sinéad O'Dwyer sculpture fashion RCA
Sinéad O'Dwyer Final CollectionCourtesy of Sinéad O'Dwyer

Fighting for plus-size representation in fashion schools

If the fashion industry is to become truly inclusive, the revolution must begin in the classrooms of our creative institutions

When Lucinda Graham enrolled on her Fashion, Textile, Art & Design course, she already had a fraught relationship with her body. “I had a complicated past with eating disorders and compulsive exercising,” the 23-year-old recalls. “Earlier in the course, I often felt out of place as a 5”9, size 16 woman – especially as all the female mannequins resembled prepubescent teens.”

Graham has worked to overcome her issues, and helps others to do the same – she creates clothes for her own body, and has become a mental health and body image advocate in the process. Her initial feelings, though, remain commonplace. Much has been written about the pressures of fashion education, particularly in recent years. In 2018, a student of the prestigious Antwerp Academy died by suicide, opening up debates around the frequently harsh critiques students face, the intense pressure of gruelling timetables and work, and creative burnout. Yet, the ways in which fashion education shapes students’ relationships with their bodies is lesser-discussed, despite statistics outlining a link between the industry more generally and disordered eating.

Designer Sinéad O’Dwyer has been open about these struggles, channeling them into her innovative, critically-acclaimed collections. “I had two very different experiences in my BA and my MA,” she says, noting that she already had “a massive obsession with being really thin” when she began her bachelors. “I suppose that became even more amplified. I had an eating disorder and dysmorphia, although I didn’t know it then – I used to measure my entire body every week and note it down. Then when I started my BA, it immediately felt like there was preferential treatment biased towards beauty and thinness. It was part of the culture.”

Soon, O’Dwyer was being asked by other students to be their ‘fit model’ – essentially, a live mannequin, used by designers to see how clothes look on the body. “I was always like, ‘I would love to’ – it sounds so amazing and glamorous! But then they’d see the clothes didn’t fit, and it was like… ‘oh, never mind’. That happened over and over again, to the extent that I had to just tell people the clothes wouldn’t fit. It felt awkward, uncomfortable, and of course, embarrassing – I was only 18.”

“When I started my BA, it immediately felt like there was preferential treatment biased towards beauty and thinness. It was part of the culture” –  Sinéad O’Dwyer

Using other students as fit models is standard practice in schools, and each person we spoke to had unique feelings on the subject. “There were a lot of issues,” says Khensani Mohlatole. “A lot of us were shorter, thicker, and differently-proportioned than our standard pattern blocks. I think it’s good practice to use each other, because you get a better idea of how clothes fall on different bodies – but this line of thinking wasn’t greatly encouraged.” 

Race also becomes an issue with the widely-used mannequins, which are designed specifically to replicate the bodies of thin, white women. “We rarely discussed plus-size fashion, or even the needs of thinner women who didn’t have traditional, American body proportions,” Khensani continues. “Any time I expressed that our pattern textbooks and tailor’s dummies only fit a narrow ideal, I was quickly dismissed. In fact, it was considered rebellious for anyone to design plus-size clothing – we were only allowed to do that in graduate collections.”

Tabitha Haley shares that students tend to pick “their most ‘model’-looking friend – usually a size 8, and really tall. I remember doing the same, although now I can see how harmful this attitude was – it reflects the damaging effect that size-exclusivity in fashion had.” Things worked differently for Lucinda Graham; “after struggling to find a voice and confidence in my style, I began making my own clothing to fit my ‘odd’ body.” While a bold act of reclamation, it’s also one that made her studies more difficult: she essentially had to become her own fit model, which is far from practical.

O’Dwyer recalls the particularly horrible experience of going to a casting for final year students, who made notes next to her picture in the casting book. “It was our time to look through, and there were all these mean, snarky comments about my weight, which was really hurtful. These were people I would have looked up to.”

While issues remain, using fellow students as fit models also offers a sense of communal creativity and collective exhilaration. Oya Komar, who now runs fit and colour consultancy ColourFit, says that working as a plus-size fit model for various brands actually improved her relationship with her body. “I ended this vicious cycle of strict, unhealthy, anonymous diets which I had been doing for a decade,” she says. That said, Komar explains she wouldn’t necessarily endorse the practice of employing larger fit models herself, as it’s particularly tricky to match those bodies to that of the client. 

It’s not surprising, then, that the fashion industry has only just begun making moves towards greater body diversity on the runway. With each upcoming generation of design students learning their trade on sample-sized bodies, only those who take it upon themselves to work with models of different sizes are equipped to continue that practice when emerging onto the fashion landscape. The lack of education in this area serves only to fuel the lack of size inclusivity in fashion and the cycle continues ad infinitum. 

With Glasgow School of Art and The University of Salford declining to comment when we reached out to them, a Central Saint Martins spokesperson responded to explain that its BA Fashion students “completely embrace the diversity of their college community”. They also confirmed that, over the course of the last four years, the school has been investing in different mannequin sizes to “accommodate and encourage students to be inclusive in their practice.” There are, however, no course requirements that enforce this, leaving the onus on the students to consider larger bodies (or not, as the case may be). 

A rep from Birmingham City University, meanwhile, says that its Fashion Design and Garment Technology students are “exposed to the realities of size proportioning” and that a number of young designers have collaborated with plus-sized retailers on projects in the past. The quote wraps up: “We place emphasis on making sure the future of design can help ensure the self-esteem of consumers of all sizes are catered for, and clothes fit their body correctly.” Exactly how the school is emphasising this remains unclear.

“After struggling to find a voice and confidence in my style, I began making my own clothing to fit my ‘odd’ body” – Lucinda Graham

In terms of actually acknowledging the need to overhaul the system, the Royal College of Art’s Zowie Broach highlighted a clear understanding of what needs to change.. Broach stated that, “it is key to know that we have to change our voice, our touch, our visuality… to know that the language ‘oversized’ is not okay to use.” Tellingly, it was the RCA that encouraged Sinéad O’Dwyer’s innovative, body-led practice. 

This may speak to an undercurrent of change for the better, but a real shift in the industry requires systemic change, a huge amount of mental reframing and, of course, cash. O’Dwyer paid her own fit model for her MA (“it was expensive, but I made that decision”) and speaks anecdotally of other institutions which insist on measuring student fit models before approving them. “Working with your friends, your muses… that should absolutely be embraced,” she says. “But when there’s a rule about which of your friends you can use, one that isn’t based on your own practice… that’s disturbing.” 

O’Dwyer suggests a compulsory requirement for first and second year students to change their fit model with every term, by way of a solution. “Maybe it’s someone shorter, or a totally different size, or someone with disability… whoever they are, you just make a body of work that you’re passionate about and show it on that model,” she says. “Maybe in the final year you can choose whoever the fuck you want, but before that, you’ve actually had the opportunity to work with different models.”

The system won’t change overnight, but plenty of schools have yet to do the basic groundwork – from the schools we reached out to, it seems that many still don’t have mannequins, pattern textbooks, or even curriculums built with plus-size bodies in mind. When a lack of inclusion is the norm, it’s not hard to see the effect this has on your own relationship with your body. From jokes about eating disorders to subtle fat-shaming, a number of students we speak to off-record indicate this isn’t just about practice; it’s thin body privilege entrenched in the cultural fabric of the fashion industry itself.

Issues of systemic bias always require a multi-pronged response, but there’s a knock-on effect – numerous plus-size bloggers have spoken about their inability to buy sustainably-made, plus-size clothes, and the fashion education system has a huge role to play in this oversight. It’s about more than self-esteem, body image, and even size-inclusivity: it’s about preparing a new generation to overhaul an industry in dire need of change.