I walked to 21st Street and 10th Avenue where Christian Siriano of "Project Runway" fame was showing his spring 2013 collection, glued to the map on my iPhone, only looking up to search for other fashion show attendees and where in the hell they were headed. I arrived at the venue at exactly 4pm scared out of my mind.
How was I going to get in? What if they didn't believe that I was Sarah? What if they asked me who my boss was? What if they just told me no. I couldn't be her because my clothes were way too mainstream, I wasn't wearing any makeup and my hair looked stupid. I had already decided that if they carded me (which seemed completely reasonable), that I would show them my license which reads "Sarah Warner" and tell them that I had recently gotten married. Perfect.
As I was instructed to do, I ignored the endless line outside the venue and marched towards the women with the iPads checking people in. "Hi, um, I'm Sarah Leon? Huffington Post?" I said with as much authority as I could muster up. A bouncer-type man ushered me to the desk inside. "Hi," I repeated again. "I'm Sarah Leon? Huffington Post?" A woman scanned her tablet as I pretended to do something important on my phone. "I'm sorry, what was the last name again?" Shit. She had found me out. "Leon? L-E-O-N?" I looked around nervously, trying to plot my best plan of escape with minimal embarrassment. A violent cough? Urgent call on my phone? Wrong show? Then finally she spoke up. "Oh, okay, here you are." Phew. The woman wrote my seat number on a piece of paper and smiled. "Enjoy!" she said, as if she had not just put me through the worst 30 seconds of my life. I walked into the room and there were already hundreds of people there, sitting on benches, standing behind or mingling in the center. Reporters and cameramen peppered the stage snapping shots and interviewing other fashion show attendees. I found Sarah's name written on a bench in the second row, with three inches on either side between two other people. How in the hell was I supposed to fit in this six-inch spot? They do realize that the models are the ones we're watching, right?
I sat down, hoping my neighbors wouldn't arrive, and checked out the goodie bags around me. Christian Siriano designer condoms? Amazing. As someone who goes out of her way, nah, inconveniences herself to get free stuff, I jumped on the opportunity, trying as casually as possible to gather as many condoms as I could from other stray bags. Then my neighbors came. Two chic women sat down on either side of me. They eyed their bags with general distaste. "So who do you work for?" The woman to my left asked me. I had to make a split-second decision: Continue to be Sarah, my fashion-forward roommate, or concede and be other Sarah, the fashion backward me. Fun and exciting? Or boring and not cool? "My roommate actually works for the Huffington Post." I went for boring and not cool. "Her name is Sarah Leon and she let me have her ticket because she couldn't go," I continued. "Oh my god!" The girl to my right said, "I hung out with Sarah last night! She's so great!" Suddenly, I was glad to have been honest. I cannot imagine how that follow-up conversation would have gone.
Soon enough, the lights dimmed and everyone took their seats. The techno music started and the first model walked out in an beautiful light pink pantsuit. Everyone snapped shots from their iPhones, iPads, DSLR's, while a few scribbled notes onto paper. Model after model strutted down the runway, each with their hair tied back into a tight bun that accentuated their angular features and rigid stare. Eyes followed the models as they passed, fixated on the pink, seafoam and white fabrics flowing in front of them.
I was surprised at how beautiful and wearable the clothing was. When I think of runway shows, I imagine ballooning collars, feathers and frills in weird places. But Christian Siriano's stuff was stunning, even to an amateur's eye. I finally understood what my roommate meant when she said that an outfit "moved well" because these models floated down the runway. While I knew that the clothes could speak for themselves, there was one element that distracted me from their beauty: the models' bodies.
One girl stepped into the spotlight from behind the curtains wearing an incredible, yet simple white satin dress and as she passed me, her back was exposed, and I noticed an extremely prominent vertebrae. It was not pretty. I shifted in my seat and looked around to notice anyone else's reaction. Nothing. People's eyes glimmered as they sat in awe of her and her spectacular dress. There were a few whispers, a couple nods and a handful of smiles. "Wow," I heard someone say. "Gorgeous," said another.
I know that the topic of unhealthy models is exhausted outside of the fashion world, but I have no idea what people are saying inside the fashion world. I don't know if there are dialogues happening between designers, models or agencies but these overly skinny girls are unequivocally the norm, and it seems like it's a hush-hush subject. After that model left the runway, I couldn't help but notice the awkwardness of all the others. Some had slouched shoulders, jutting hipbones and walks that seemed to say their skin didn't quite fit them. While I am only peripherally attached to this world, I admire fashion for its ability to empower a woman at a business meeting with a sharp suit, an awkward teenager with a creative outfit and grandmothers with youthful ensembles. I admire fashion for its ability to be wearable art, for its self-expressive qualities and for the creative process behind each piece. I do not admire fashion for its longstanding history of making people revere and strive for unhealthy bodies, and I do not admire fashion for the dichotomy and polarization of plus-sized models versus runway models and stagnancy of these issues.
As the show finished, I found myself half-heartedly clapping. It truly was a stunning collection, and I wanted to see more. But as a feminist, media studies student and sociologist, I didn't know if I could support the show or this culture that unlike any other industry that is centered around people's appearances. If I could ignore the models and focus on the clothing like artwork in a museum, this would have been a different experience, but the point was that those were people under those outfits, and they were modeling and creating conventional notions of beauty that others would see and replicate. Like anyone in this world, I look for and appreciate beauty everyday. But this show beckoned the question: What happens when beauty hurts?