Runway Recap: Quote Unquote "Real Women"

Sorry for the delay in getting this out! Yesterday was a bit, shall we say, challenging. Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers about last Thursday’s episode of Project Runway: Season 10, Episode 6, “Fix My Friend.” If you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t seen it yet — you stand warned.

So what’s this ridiculous business of designing clothes for women who aren’t fashion models, anyway? How could anyone expect a serious designer to stoop to such a level?


Project Runway Fabio and client
It’s become a Project Runway tradition. In one challenge each season, designers have to do an outfit for, quote, “real women”: the very unfortunate term of art in the fashion industry for “women who don’t have the bodies of fashion models or A-list celebrities.” It’s a terrible term, with all sorts of ugly implications… including the implication that fashion models and A-list celebrities aren’t real people. I guess they’re androids or aliens or something, or maybe ethereal angels, far above the messy human business of digestion and respiration. (Ingrid and I have been trying to come up with a better term. “Regular women,” maybe? That’s not great, either. “Women who aren’t built like fashion models” is the concept we’re trying to convey, but it has way too many syllables.)

I actually have some compassion for designers trying to do this. Especially in the world of standard clothing design and manufacturing, where you’re not doing custom work for one person whose measurements you can take precisely.

When I was fat, I used to get very angry about clothes shopping: I’d go into a clothing store, and find that maybe two percent of the clothes fit me and looked good on me. (A totally legitimate anger: there isn’t nearly enough in the way of good clothes for fat women, and manufacturers tend to just take the stuff designed for smaller sizes and embiggen it, instead of making different designs that look good on larger bodies. When they’re not just making crappy boring swaths of fabric for fat women to hide in, that is.)

And it is easier now. Now that I’m about a size 8 or 10, when I go into a clothing store, I find that maybe five percent of the clothes fit me and look good on me.

That’s not a trivial difference. But the reality is that there is literally no way to make an article of clothing that looks good on every woman. Fatness or thinness isn’t the only issue. Height is an issue. Basic shape — busty? angular? pear-shaped? hourglass? — is an issue. Muscles are an issue. Age is an issue. The person’s individual style is obviously an issue. It’s something Ingrid and I have been both frustrated and entertained by: she and I have very similar bodies, with very similar heights and weights… but some pieces really do look great on her and crummy on me, or vice versa. My theory is that it’s because I’m long-waisted and short-legged, and she’s short-waisted and long-legged. Which gives you an idea of how impossible this is, if a distinction that fine can make the difference between a dress looking great and looking like ass.

So I do have sympathy for designers trying to do this. It can’t be done. All you can do is make clothing that will fit some women and look good on them, and do your best marketing to get those women into those clothes.

However. That being said.

Project Runway Ven and Client
In these Project Runway “real women” challenges, the designers have it rather easier. They’re not making clothing for Everywoman — they’re making clothing for one woman. Literally. One specific woman, standing right there in front of them and talking to them. They are, in fact, doing custom work for one person whose measurements they can take precisely. Plus they can get her history and life story, her feelings and fears and hopes about clothing, and talk with her at length about what might and might not work.

And yet, as much of a PR tradition as the “real woman” challenge is, it’s just as much a tradition for at least one designer to whine and carp about the hideous injustice of it all. As Tom and Lorenzo put it:

YAY! The so-called “Real Woman” challenge! The one episode every season that has 75% of the viewing audience throwing vases, drinks, throwpillows, children, or whatever else they can get their hands on in the throes of their rage, at their TV screens! The one hour (plus!) of pop culture entertainment every year that does the absolute most damage to the reputation of the fashion industry at large to people who don’t normally follow fashion!

Which is dumb, dumb, dumb on the part of these designers. I mean, totally apart from the sexist, size-ist, fucked-up attitude towards women who aren’t models… do they even watch the show? Don’t they know this is coming?

So first, here’s how really, really, really NOT TO FUCKING WELL DO THIS.

Project Runway Ven 1

First, Ven, and How Not To Design For a Size 14 Woman:

1: Do not think for a second that lots of drapey fabric is attractive on a bigger woman. This is something Stacy and Clinton on “What Not to Wear” cannot shut up about — and they’re absolutely right. Clothes should fit. Everyone, of all sizes, looks better in clothes that fit. And bigger women look better when they love the bodies they’re in. Lots of drapey fabric (a) makes you look bigger — which some big women are fine with, but lots aren’t — and (b), and much more importantly, makes you look like you’re hiding. It looks apologetic.

Which brings me to 2: Do not keep obsessing about the horrors of a large body and how demeaned you are by the grotesque injustice of being expected to dress it. Ven could not shut up about how big his client was. He was fixated on it. He kept talking and talking and talking and talking about it… to the camera, to the other designers, to Tim Gunn, to the judges, even to the client herself. There was no part of him that was thinking, “How can I make this beautiful woman look more beautiful? How can I emphasize her strengths, downplay the parts she’s less comfortable with, put her in a frame that makes her shine?” Every part of him was clearly thinking, “This is beneath me. How can I make this horrible fat woman disappear?”

Which brings me to 3: Do not make your client cry.

Apart from the obvious moral reasons why you shouldn’t make your client cry, why you shouldn’t make your client feel worse about herself, why you shouldn’t make someone who’s already less than happy with her body feel more self-conscious and alienated and miserable about it… it’s also just flatly stupid. Business is based largely on word of mouth. And Ven now has some seriously terrible word of mouth, via national television and a fashion blogosphere that loves to talk trash. A whole lot of PR viewers who liked Ven before, now cannot stand the sight of him, and would not work with him on a bet.

Project Runway Ven 2

Yuck. I don’t want to talk about this asshole any more. Let’s move on. What other mistakes can you make when you’re dressing a, quote unquote, “real woman”?

Project Runway Sonjia

A huge mistake is to forget that a dress form is not a human being. Sonjia’s dress looked lovely on the dress form. I was picking it as safe for sure; maybe even top three, depending on the styling. But on the client, this just looked weird and lumpy. The knot was in the wrong place. It looked almost like a third boob. Her client actually had an hourglass figure — I think, it was hard to tell under all that fabric — and Sonjia’s dress actually made it look disproportionate and boxy. And speaking as a short woman: A short dress on a short woman often looks awkward. The proportions are hard to get right, and it can easily look little-girlish. Or Jersey Shore. Or, disturbingly, both.

So what are the right ways to dress a, quote unquote, “real woman”?

Project Runway Fabio 1

Well, for starters: You do like Fabio. You listen to who your client says she is, and what she’s comfortable with. But you also listen, very freaking carefully, to who she wants to be.

When Fabio’s client said she never ever ever wore dresses, and he started making a dress, I practically threw my drink at the screen. But he was right. This woman loved her dress. And it was perfect for her: arty and graphic and distinctive, but done in not-flashy shades of gray, and totally comfortable like pajamas. Right down to the boots. He listened to who she was, how she felt about clothes, why she wasn’t comfortable with her femininity, why she wasn’t comfortable with fashion and style… and even more importantly, he listened to what she wanted to be. He heard her fears that dressing “feminine” would signal “weak”… and he found a way for her to look both feminine and powerful. He heard that she worked as an artist… and he dressed her for her ambitions, and made her look like an artist instead of an art student. I didn’t care for the belt… but otherwise, this was out of the park, and a totally deserved win.

Project Runway Fabio 2

And finally:

You just make your client happy.

Project Runway Gunnar 1

I actually didn’t care for Gunnar’s dress. Too high a waist for her body shape. Too much weird tortured fabric around the hips for her body shape. Black on black — boring. Overall, way too much like it came from the mall.

And I 100% agree with it being in the top three. It was obvious, from the way this woman walked down the runway, that she was loving this dress, and loving herself, and loving life. Gunnar was so sweet to this woman: they totally bonded, and it was delightful how he insisted that the hair and makeup people “treat her like a queen.” He knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her… and he wanted to make it as special as he could. And I don’t think it was fake. It was certainly a smart move — she radiated joy all the way down that runway, and the judges clearly saw it and rewarded it — but it also seemed entirely sincere. I’ve been hating on Gunnar up ’til now, but he stepped up to the plate this week. He proved that he could be a mensch.

And it paid off. See, that’s the thing. Even if an outfit doesn’t quite work, even if it’s wrong for your body… if you feel great in it, then chances are you’ll look great in it.

Project Runway Gunnar 2

So maybe that’s one of the best ways to be a good designer, at least for custom clients: Be a decent human being who genuinely likes other human beings and wants to make them happy.

Runway Recap: Quote Unquote "Real Women"

30 thoughts on “Runway Recap: Quote Unquote "Real Women"

  1. Wes

    Maybe “mainstream women” would be a better term? It implies normalcy, but without the boring connotation of the word “normal.”

  2. 3

    I’m not plus-sized, but I am short and also very short-waisted so the number of things that look good on me are limited.

    But one of the most empowering things for me to do has been to start knitting my own tops. I’ve learned that good materials and good design go a long way, and it’s incredible how something that is designed just for you can look so good.

    Any suggestions for good books on sizing clothes properly?

  3. 4

    What’s this thing about those high waists?
    Especially bustier women often look better with lower waists because then the contrast becomes bigger.
    But you’re right, the woman positively radiates in it and makes the black, pardon my platitude, sparkle.
    The blue one’s too short. The woman looks like she’d forgotten to put on her pants. Not because women mustn’t wear short dresses, but because it just looks like a very pretty top.
    And the top one really looks like the designer couldn’t be bothered.
    About the woes of fashion-shopping:
    There are many. You mention a lot of factors, but yes, for fat people it’s extra problematic. If there’s 10 different items your size chances are bigger that one might fit than when there’s just two anyway.
    And when I walk the streets and have a look on sizes I’m always wondering: Why is the majority of clothes made in a size that only a minority has? (well, maybe not a minority, but a significant part of the population simply does not seem to exist in fashion stores.)
    Oh, and sizes: it would be nice if they actually meant something.

  4. 5

    I’ve been hating on Gunnar up ’til now, but he stepped up to the plate this week. He proved that he could be a mensch.

    I hated him in the first couple of eps, but it seems like he (or the editing) was just putting on an act, and he’s been gradually getting better. I loathed his “bitchy version of Queen Anthony” act, and he’s toned it down. He was great this episode.

    Ven was tweeting up a storm of stupid over this one- about half “I never called her fat!” and half “It’s sooooo unfair that I got a fatty and the rest of them didn’t!” I think this is going to put a dent in his chances of winning- he’s good enough to get past not being liked, but maybe not actively being *disliked*.

  5. 6

    As a man shopping for clothes that look good is difficult. Limited styles available. Limited styles that are “socially acceptable”. And as a “full figured” pear shaped older man, some clothing brands just do not fit right. It’s like the manufacturer made the clothes for a short skinny guy and when the clothes were scaled up to my size the proportions are all wrong. Stores that specialize in men’s suits or big and tall seem to be the exception for us large men. But I have limited opportunities to wear a suit in my profession.
    Thanks for your time in reading my post.

  6. 8

    For Katie – the Palmer Pletch books on fitting and altering clothing are terrific, especially Fit for Real People (mostly dresses) and the pants and jackets versions.

    For knitting, Amy Herzog’s website and workshops are great ( I just took a workshop with her and discovered that the reason none of my handknit sweaters ever fit was because (a) I was making a sweater FIVE sizes too large, to accommodate boobs, and (b) I am 3-4 inches longer in the waist than a standard pattern. I’m working on my first sweater in at least 15 years and looking forward to wearing it.

    I’m grateful for Greta’s efforts to make fit and fashion accessible to us non-standard bodied, atheist types.

  7. 9

    Honestly, I don’t have a problem with calling women “real women” and fashion models “not real” by extension.

    Why? Because fashion models and A-listers aren’t real. Every thing we see on the screen and on magazine covers is a fiction. I mean, come on, we’re OK with acknowledging that while porn stars may be physically real human beings, we can say pretty safely that they aren’t all that representative of the female population, right? Those aren’t real women you see in a typical Vivid video production in that sense.

    I think it’s good to underscore just how out of whack with the rest of the planet fashion models are. And it’s a way to get across the message that most women’s clothing is designed for real outliers. 99.99 percent of women don’t look like Heidi Klum, and the models they get on PR or anywhere else bear little resemblance to any women I meet and know.

    I wonder tho: I have my differences with the way men’s clothing is designed — skinny jeans are really not age-appropriate for me anyway (that ship sailed in 1989). And there are limits on what you can do with mass production.

    But… seems that clothing manufacturers at least acknowledge men are different shapes. Jeans for instance are sold with a waist and leg size; whilst I have trouble finding ones I like, (I have either the most popular size in the world and get to the store late or the rarest, I am not sure which) I see no reason you can’t make women’s slacks the same way. “Size 14” tells you nothing. “33 x 30” actually conveys information. And if Levis can do it for their mens’ line why can’t anyone do it for women?

    And yes, Ven was a dick. A few seasons back they had designers who would be all “I can’t design for this woman” and I was thinking “You are a dick” every time one of them said that. What, you can only design for women with eating disorders? Hey Ven — look in the mirror. it isn’t like 14 is THAT big.

  8. 10

    I find it entertainingly punny to use the term “mean girls/guys” for conventionally attractive people. Not as in “cruel” (obviously plenty of conventionally attractive people are awesome), as in “mean, median, mode”. My understanding is that our attraction to particular body types is largely a factor of the average appearance of all of the people we see, and the standard is what it is largely because we are so inundated with that particular body type by media.

    Maybe mode would be less prone to misinterpretation, though. Not actually sure if the rule is more about “the type you most often see” i.e. analogous to mode, or “a composite average of all of the types you see weighted by frequency”, i.e. analogous to mean.

  9. 12

    Outside my element, but I find myself agreeing with Greta on a lot of points, aside from black-on-black, since I’m a fan of boring solid colors.

    One thing I’ve been steadily exploring during my adulthood is figuring out what I find attractive in women, and it’s not as simple as cup size and waist diameter, despite what marketers think. It’s about how the whole package comes together, and a part that often gets neglected or under-appreciated is posture and movement. I like it when a woman appears comfortable and can move naturally. If they’re wearing something uncomfortable, their posture will tend to give it away, and I’ll be sympathetically uncomfortable. If they’re wearing something restrictive, I’ll feel restricted.

    I once had a short conversation with another college student about her clear pink plastic flip-flops and how much trouble she appeared to be having walking around with them.

    Me: “Those don’t look comfortable.”
    Her: “They aren’t.”
    Me: “Then why are you wearing them?”
    Her: “Because they’re cute.”

    Because of that discomfort, the only part of her I can remember with any clarity is her feet, awkwardly positioned in hard, edge-covered plastic.

    For women of larger sizes, I’ve come to realize that isn’t inherently unattractive to me despite the cultural indoctrination. They still look good if they carry themselves well. Covering them in obscuring drapery seems like it’d undermine their confidence, and with it, how they’ll move.

  10. 14

    Statistically significant women. Unbiasedly mathematical, but includes the positive “significant” term.

    Actually, that’s more syllables than “women who aren’t built like fashion models… nevermind… *returns to the drawing board*

  11. 15

    It’s particularly sad because Ven’s girl would have been totally appreciated by anyone else in that workroom. And he treated her so badly. And she would look so charming in a tailored boatneck top in a cool blue tone with some fitted pants and fun jacket…

  12. 16

    I often worry, that all the small size 2 women in the world must have to spend ALL THEIR MONEY on clothing. I can’t imagine who else buys all clothing in all the stores that I don’t think anyone would look good in. Maybe a size 2 woman can wear that weird yellow and pink designer number….and pull it off.

    The other thing is, I like the gray dress as I can think of about 100 places I could wear it. Even the black, nice as it will stay in fashion for the 2 or some events that are dressy I go to each year. But those poor size 2 women must be forced by law to buy all the fancy clothes and attend premiere after wedding after dance at the palace, because someone has to buy them and wear them somewhere.

    I like, scarves and I know a lot of other “American normal” women that like shoes. They will fit and you can show your own style. Want to know why we fatties wear black a lot, because then you can show off the shoes! It’s too depressing trying for find a dress that fits. Though I’d buy that gray dress!!

  13. KT

    While Fabio’s model did have a conventionally attractive body, she wasn’t the only thin client. Also, his design was far and away better than anyone else’s. I don’t think anyone else even came close, really. Dmitry’s actual dress was pretty bland, and it was his styling that put him in the top, and as pointed out, Gunnar’s dress was not all that good, but he fulfilled the challenge expertly.

    In fact, I would say if anyone lucked out, client-wise it was Gunnar. His client had so much personality that she made an excellent story and Gunnar picked up on that and ran with it, putting himself in the top over a field of overall weak entries.

    I felt bad for most of the “clients” because I felt they would have been better served elsewhere. They all deserved at least one great outfit and most of them didn’t get anything memorable or that was a real improvement. I feel like they all need a shopping spree with Stacy and Clinton to make up for it.

    One that I was surprised at was Alicia’s – she stepped way out of her wheelhouse and made something pretty for her client. I think she could have beat Gunnar if he hadn’t made such a great reality show story out of his challenge.

  14. 18

    Ven, apart from now and forever (and deservedly) being this season’s villain, is a total fool. Dude, Heidi changed the rules of the challenge (“One, or more of you”) to deliver a message to you, yes, you personally. Did you acknowledge that when you went to the back? Did you show the slightest sign that if you weren’t a producer fav for some reason your butt would have been out on 5th Avenue? No. You complained to the other contestants about how the judges were unfair to you.

    And yes, Fabio’s dress turned the corner, and I said, “Winner. Hands down.”

    I also agree that several of the hems this season have been a bit too high. That’s not being prudish, the garments just looked awkward to wear and with another inch or two of length and they wouldn’t have.

  15. 19

    Greta, I have to make an objection about one of your statements. Size 14 women aren’t necessarily fat. I was size 12-14 when I was anorexic, and when I was younger. I was thin. Too thin, in fact. But I’ve never worn smaller than a size 14, partially because I am 5’10” tall. Please, don’t fall into the trap of limiting a woman’s figure by her dress size. Many women would have killed for my figure when I was a size 14 (and I thought I was fat. My anorexia nearly killed me.)

  16. 20

    What gets me the most is Ven’s double-down on his attitude. He simply has no idea that he got on television and told the world, “I am a mediocre designer.” Even if he thought it was sooooo unfaaaaaair he got a size-14 woman to dress, he could have stepped up and done it right. Instead, he shouted to the world that not only is he afraid of fat, he’s also just an uncreative spoiled brat.

    I admit, I also did a bit of yelling at the TV when Fabio’s client stated that she thought femininity was weak. But in the end, I was super-impressed that with one dress, he proved her wrong better than I ever could have with words. (I love that he wore a skirt too!)

  17. 21

    Greta, I’m so glad you posted this. I was dying to see what you had to say about Ven’s behavior. I had to call my sister and talk, not text, actually talk about what an asshole he was.

  18. 23

    I now hope never to see another beautifully crafterd flower-like garment from him, as it will remind me only of his contempt for women over size 6. I wondered why he’s not made it big before now…now we know. He makes his customers cry. Never a good business move.

  19. 25

    As a large woman, I was so mad at Ven I just wanted to spit. So much talent! So little compassion or tact! If I were a judge that night, I’d have kicked his butt right out of the competition.

    Every detail of that dress was so completely wrong for his client. I’m OK with the color of the top, except the drape and shininess made it look like fabric for a nightgown, not a blouse. He didn’t even sew the sleeves closed – just put on a drapey flap. That looks unfinished. His client has a nice waist, so he put bunchy fabric and a color contrast there and added the horizontal line of a belt, hiding what should have been one of her best features and emphasizing her weight instead of working with it. Then that slit up the front of the skirt – unless his client had specifically told him that she likes the way her legs look and likes to show them off, that zipper should have been worn closed. And then the huge purse to top it off! Bleah to every bit of this outfit.

    I’d been in awe of how beautiful some of his designs had been. Perhaps he should go be an artist, where he can create on his choice of canvas, because a designer has to design for the shapes people really come in. He had the chance to make his lovely client feel beautiful and special just the way she is, and he did nothing but gripe about how unfair it was and make her cry. ARRGH! Gunnar also had a larger model but he took the right approach, so she had a blast, completely loved her dress, and it showed.

    And Sonjia’s dress this time – so close to a really great dress. Lower that knot a few inches and take the hemline down to knee length and this would have been a stunner. Or shorter and add pants. As it was the proportions were just wrong. I’m still rooting for Sonjia, because the initial concept was good, and I liked the color.

    Ven, you are off my list for top three. Now I want it to be Dmitri, Sonjia, and I’m still thinking about the third because there is so much potential among the others.

  20. roo

    I’ve worked as a costumer and sometimes dressmaker for a couple decades now, and one thing I’ve never understood about Project runway designers is why they don’t take measurements, and why they don’t pad their dress forms to be shaped like the models they’re fitting.

    I suppose for a quick challenge with a sample-size woman (“non-sample-size” is my suggested replacement for “real”) you might not want to take the time to pad a form– but even then designers have been burned by a model with a juicier booty than expected, or some other shift.

    But when you’re working with the non-sample-sized, fit is everything. I don’t get this disconnect. It makes me think everyone on the show is far more amateurish than I would have expected.

    Anyway, great comments. This show has seriously jumped the shark, but I can’t quit it!

  21. 28

    Gunner, the kid completely won me with “I just want to hug you right now. Can I hug you?” He paused long enough for her to agree and then hugged her. Everything after that was colored by that moment.

    It was such a little thing* but the way he said it, it sounded like habit. Yes, he’s young and still a little selfish and self-centered but he’s ok with boundaries. He’s ok with his emotional needs not being primary. Plus his attitude during the whole challenge was really loving. I don’t love him as a designer (He needs to grow into his work. I wish he had been on PR #14) but I like him as a person, flaws and all.

    *I actually found myself thinking “See, is that so hard?”

    PS: sorry for the lateness. I’m only now catching up.

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