10/19/2011 01:15 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2011

Celebrity Fit: Hollywood Skinny and Sample Sizes

The direct implications of the fashion industries standard sample size in our culture, a 0 for runway and a 4-6 for catalog, extend to more than just models and magazine editorials.

As celebrities have replaced fashion models on the covers of magazines and in advertising campaigns, and editors in the front rows of fashion week (as well as taking to designing themselves), we expect more and more of our actresses to look like models. Meanwhile more and more models are making their way seamlessly into 'acting.' The line between fashion and Hollywood has increasingly blurred while the standard of beauty for women in media (even television news anchors) has increasingly narrowed with the utmost rigidity. To be good at what they do, or even have a chance to be good, they now have to win a certain genetic lottery first. What they don't win at birth must be painstakingly sought after through pills, surgeons, trainers, and dietitians.

Every weekly tabloid covers feature a celebrity "how she lost it" diet and exercise regime story. This might seem like just another example of our cultural obsession with thinness. But in Hollywood, size, samples and success are intimately related. If a young actress wants to achieve or maintain A-list status, getting on the cover of Vogue is a good bet, but she'd better fit into the clothes.

As noted in my last post, couture pieces can have very limited production. For those pieces -- usually by a label that is a major advertiser -- that end up on the magazine cover wrapped around a Hollywood starlet, there may not be a production sample, and so that celebrity has the added pressure of fitting into the size 0 runway sample.

Tina Fey, in the "Amazing, Gorgeous, Not Like That" chapter of her recent book Bossypants, portrays the atmosphere of a fashion shoot pretty accurately, with only some comic exaggeration. When Fey jokes that everyone on set claps as if she's won an award when she can sometimes shimmy into the clothes (forget the zipper), she's really making fun of a harsh reality.

If a celebrity can't make their fitting, their assistant sends measurements over to a modeling agency and do the fitting on a similar-sized model. Sometimes that can mean a plus model. When the plus model goes and can't fit into any of the clothes, she wonders what the stylists are going to do when the actual celebrity gets there. The answers are: stretch fabrics, panels of muslin sewn up the back, chains of safety pins strung across the back, ripped out seams. And tailoring.

One of the best kept secrets in Hollywood, and New York for that matter, is one's tailor/seamstress. A friend of mine (whose anonymity protects her business) is the personal tailor of more than a few A-listers, and has described to me how the fittings take place weekly, always privately at home or hotel. This is why in "who wore it better" tabloid pieces they sometimes look like different garments.

Then there's the last-minute red carpet alterations. It's not unheard of for a tailor patch two sample sizes together, creating a sort of invisible panel, though my friend has personally never resorted to such measures. She has, however, had to painstakingly hand sew a mesh beaded couture sample dress back together after it was slit up the back for a cover shoot, because it was the only thing that would remotely fit her client, so that it could be returned to the design house in one piece. Sometimes they can get approval to alter or destroy the sole sample of a multi-thousand dollar garment, and more often they can't. But then, she reminds me, they photoshop the whole thing to "perfection" anyway.

When Christina Hendricks was recently featured on the cover of Lucky Magazine , I eagerly flipped to her piece. I was surprised when I saw a collection of "favorite items" laid out in the story while she was still posed in the cover dress. I had to wonder if they'd told her to bring some things of her own, just in case.

If the regular samples don't fit our most gorgeous, sensual, voluptuous stars -- or even our regular, small-sized petite ones -- why not just get some bigger samples? But that's exactly the point. There aren't bigger samples, unless you go up to "plus" samples and now I'm sure you're already ahead of me listing the obvious: that they're not "plus" at a size 8; that the label "plus" is negative PR; that no plus designer is well-regarded enough to be featured on the cover of a magazine (one they are almost certainly not paying for main advertising within) and finally: a plus sample size 10-18 won't fit most celebrities any better than the zero does, anyway.

All of this amounts to a huge industry-wide pressure to be as thin as possible, not only out of personal vanity or cultural pressure, but a pragmatic shot at success. When today more and more young women define fulfilling their wildest dreams as having some kind of audience, public platform, or popular renown it may not ultimately matter where their talents lay or how skilled they are, but what their dress size is. Even more distressing may be the fact that those young women who are happy to contribute to society in anonymity still have their self-image shaped by mainstream culture, which shows no sign of slowing its deluge of cookie-cutter femininity. But in response there is a slowly growing outcry gaining cultural steam that celebrates non-conformity, original talent, and a wide-spectrum of unique beauty wherever it is found.

You can read my prior post on the fashion industry and standard sample sizes here.