In John Lewis
London Fashion Week will begin on Friday, and with it comes the usual dismay about the thinness of the models and the impact of this on women and teenagers – including the models themselves. The Women’s Equality Party (founded last year) has launched the #NoSizeFitsAll campaign to challenge the UK fashion industry to do better. One of its demands is for Fashion Week to include models of UK size 12 and above. (Size 12, though smaller than average, is considered ‘plus-size’.) ‘The softly, softly approach has been tried for years and is not working,’ the manifesto says. Well: not for women, anyway.
Nearly a year ago I complained about the mannequins at the entrance of the ladies’ department in John Lewis on Oxford Street. ‘It’s nothing to do with us, it’s head office, you’ll have to fill in a complaint form,’ the sales assistants told me. A few months earlier, Topshop had been publicly shamed for its ‘ridiculously thin’ mannequins after a customer’s open letter went viral. I mentioned this to the sales assistants as I filled in the form. ‘You’re better off dealing with it now,’ I said, ‘before someone takes a photo and puts it on the internet.’ They nodded. Months passed, and I received no response. I forgot. Then in the spring, I went into John Lewis again. The mannequins were still there, greeting you as you came up the central escalator from the ground floor. I asked to see the manager. ‘A woman can’t be that thin and stay alive,’ I explained. ‘It’s head office’s decision,’ he told me. ‘You’ll need to fill out a complaint form.’
This time I did get a response from head office. But they made a mistake: they accidentally forwarded to me their discussion about how they would handle my complaint. ‘The customer has said the 1st floor ladies fashion mannequins at top of the escalators in John Lewis Oxford Street, the legs are thinner than her wrists,’ the case manager wrote, quoting from my form. ‘This is deeply unhealthy and unsuitable for a family shop. Customer has complained a few months ago but has had no response.’ The message was forwarded on, eventually reaching the communications, visual merchandising and store design teams.
‘I have the statement we put out re mannequins below,’ Diane Shankie (senior presentation designer, fashion) wrote, ‘we tend to keep it quite brief as less is more on this side of things’:
As a business John Lewis has for over the last 7 years has continue with a stylised theme , choosing mannequins for their creative visual effect that are not true to life form . Across all assortments of fashion they are sculptural in their look and feel . The mannequins primary purpose is to provide 3D inspiration, showcasing our Fashion assortments.
Less is more: a strange choice of phrase, given the nature of my complaint. When Luisel Ramos, a 22-year-old model, collapsed and died of complications from anorexia nervosa while working at Uruguay Fashion Week in 2006, reportedly after subsisting on lettuce and Diet Coke for three months, fashion shows started banning ‘size zero’ models (UK size 4), and high street stores were under pressure to stop using excessively thin mannequins. Shankie told the Guardianthat at John Lewis ‘we want our models to have a realistic look … We try to make them look wholesome and not undernourished.’
The ‘Fashion Queen’ mannequin range I’d seen in John Lewis is produced by Bonami in Belgium and has the following dimensions: height 185 cm (6'1"), waist 59 cm (23"), hips 87 cm (34") and bust 87 cm (34"). A Fashion Queen mannequin is taller than the average British man, but with the waist of a 10-year-old girl in John Lewis sizes. Some of the clothes on the mannequins at John Lewis were discreetly pinned in place because the outfits would otherwise, even in the smallest sizes, be too loose for their frames.
‘We have other mannequins on the shop floor that are thicker,’ the manager at John Lewis had said to me. But it was the thinnest ones, their shins sharpened to make them look even thinner, that were chosen to have prime position and to model the most prestigious and expensive designers. The mannequin leading the phalanx had been posed with toes turned inwards (the ‘pigeon-toed I’m-a-little-girl thing’, Naomi Wolf once called it in Vanity Fair).
Elfriede Jelinek’s fable Women As Lovers contrasts the lives of three Austrian village women: Susi, the grammar school girl, plays tennis, cares about the poor and is too good for sex; Brigitte works in a bra factory and is intent on coercing Heinz, whom she despises, into marrying her so she can take over his shop and income; Paula, the sales assistant, believes in love and so is destined for ruin. Jelinek traces the interrelation of capitalism and the commodification of desire; the violence inflicted on women by other women; the way predators, too, are a kind of victim. Of the five senior John Lewis staff members who reviewed my complaint at head office, four were women.
I went back to the store a few days ago. The Fashion Queen mannequins were still there, in the same centrepiece display, in the same feeble poses. All that had changed was the clothes pinned to them.