There are times when the outright ugly reminds us that anything, anybody, any shape can also resonate with beauty.
It is not simply that we can be forgiving, tolerant or indulgent. Our perceptions of what brings us pleasure are open to manipulation and influence. The tension between the influencers (fashion designers, photographers, magazines) and our sense of what’s true, good, and beautiful, is right up there with questions about mortality and fate.
In the words of designer Philip Treacy, who talked to me about hotels, handles and hats, “beauty travels”.
Aesthetics transcend cultures. Whereas material wealth is a privilege of the advanced west, beauty is not just over here, “it is not specific to this side of the world," says Treacy. The pleasure it provides is democratic.
When we start arguing about body shape and appropriate weight and size, as has been happening the past week or so in the fashion world, we open up a larger canvas of issues than those triggered by our hormones.
Earlier this year, designer John Galliano sent a dwarf down the catwalk for his 2006 show, accompanied by an old spiv, a crinkly woman, and a variety of models with the demeanour of circus acts.
The reaction of the fashion world was: Well done, John. But is it a one-off or are we seeing the first step towards a greater variety of bodies, faces, ages, sizes associated with glamorous fashion?
Galliano's tribe of apparent misfits was the response of an iconic designer to the accusation that fashion distorts our sense of beauty, supplying role models with bodies that are not only unattainable but unhealthy. Galliano’s figures are odd but never less than striking, always noble.
For one man on the Galliano team the opportunity to alter perceptions of fashion and beauty couldn’t have come a minute too soon.
“I’d been looking for a way to do something like this for some time,” fashion photographer Nick Knight tells me. “I completely endorse the reaction against the way fashion has pushed the female form to one aesthetic. This is wrong and it is untrue. In previous projects I tried to expand on what is seen as acceptable beauty. Then Galliano asked me to cover his show…”
Knight's first step in producing extensive and still ongoing coverage of the Galliano initiative was to look at Galliano’s sketches and to get an insight into what the designer wanted to achieve. Clearly the use of different body shapes, ages, and perspectives had to be more than a gimmick.
He asked the models to write down their dreams, not their aspirations but literally their dreams from the night before. At the next sessions with the models he asked them to read their dreams aloud.
The dreams became the basis for a series of experimental films which six months on from the catwalk show, are only now beginning to reach maturity.
The films now past post-production number some forty made by members of the public who visit Knight’s Show Studio website, and a dozen made by leading filmmakers from backgrounds as varied as the world of mainstream movies (Mike Figgis) to porn directors and TV soap directors. This is the editing fashion project, born out of the Galliano show. Its purpose is to explore different perspectives on the Galliano experiment.
Fashion is typically represented by static images. Look at Vogue or Harper’s, magazines that capture designs and models and display them to the world devoid of movement. The iconography of fashion, the creation of instances of perfection, is only possible because it is static.
Yet shows are about movement, plot development, relationships, tension and conflict, a finale. The lack of movement in the way fashion is portrayed is, says Nick Knight, one reason why we perceive fashion in erroneous ways.