Body Beautiful: Diversity on the catwalk exhibition at the Barnsley Civic

An exhibition launched this weekend at The Civic in Barnsley challenges the fashion industry on its perceptions of beauty, style and desirability. Stephanie Smith reports.

Models display their dress sizes on the 2017 Curve catwalk for Simply Be.

Who decides what fashion looks like? Who defines beauty? And who decrees what a catwalk model should be? Young, six foot tall and unusually slender have long been the preferred criteria, but why?

These questions, being asked with increasing force and persistence both inside and outside the fashion industry, are the focus of an exhibition called Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk, which opens at The Civic, Barnsley, this weekend.

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Showcasing those who are inspiring and driving change, it features a striking series of images by Tim Walker of Irish writer and activist Sinéad Burke wearing a trench coat by Burberry, which makes these most classic icons of style just 20 miles away in Castleford.

SINÉAD BURKE wears trench coat by Burberry, image: Tim Walker, Polyester, London, 2018. The trench coat before alteration.

Founder of consultancy Tilting the Lens, Sinéad highlights the lack of inclusivity within the fashion and design industries through her writing, social media and public speaking (she has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos). Three foot five inches tall, she was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism.

“There’s a phrase ‘If you can see it, you can be it’,” said Sinéad. “As somebody who frequently visits museums and art galleries around the world, I’ve always wanted to see a body like mine reflected on the walls – and that isn’t a prize just for me.

“You must ask the question – how many people will come through this exhibition and will envision a future for themselves based on representation alone? It has been very humbling and also quite frightening to make myself so publicly vulnerable.”

Tim Walker had seen Sinéad’s TED Talk (TED is an online platform for presenting ideas). Sinéad said: “It was his intention to use the symbols of alteration and customisation in a creative, explicitly beautiful way.

SINÉAD BURKE wears trench coat by Burberry, image: Tim Walker, Polyester, London, 2018. The trench coat after alteration.

“The coat was originally floor-length, and the sleeves were longer than my arms. Tim just took an enormous pair of scissors and began to cut the sleeves first, and then the length. The cuff fell to the floor and I suggested making a crown from it – we literally pinned it to my hair, he handed me the scissors and that was the final image.”

Social media has, without doubt, democratised fashion, not least by providing a platform for all. Body Beautiful explores how fashion creatives are embracing inclusivity by exploring the themes of size, gender, age, race and disability. As it does so, it calls into question existing practice in the fashion industry.

“Body Beautiful is the first exhibition to examine the various ways in which the industry is addressing body positivity, with more and more designers incorporating ideas that are inclusive, shifting, making it a particularly exciting time in fashion,” said David Sinclair, head of Visual Arts and Engagement at The Civic.

“The catwalk creations on display in this exhibition offer a refreshing counterpoint to historical, narrow ideals of beauty.

n the age diversity category, Simone Rocha ready-to-wear, AW2017. Picture by Chris Moore. Copyright Catwalking.com

“The Civic exists to provide Barnsley and the surrounding communities with a culturally significant voice,” he added. “The aim is to present a progressive programme of festivals, exhibitions, performance and events that relate to the area, the social, economic and political attitudes, while also entertaining and encouraging debate.”

The exhibition, on tour from National Museums Scotland, also features a more familiar image of models on the 2017 Curve catwalk for Simply Be.

There is also a photograph of US athlete Aimee Mullins, taken in 1998 for Dazed and Confused by Nick Knight, who says: “My aim has always been to push at the boundaries of what is and isn’t beautiful. Instead of our perception of beauty opening up, it’s becoming narrower all the time. But anyone with a brain knows that it is the quirkiness and imperfection in a person that attracts other people. That is completely obvious to human beings; it’s just when it gets to a corporate level that it all falls apart.”

Many of the catwalk images are by veteran fashion photographer Chris Moore, who has had a front row seat for more than six decades. “In my experience, the catwalk scene began its life rich in diversity, only narrowing in the last two decades of the 20th century,” he said. “Happily, in recent years there has been a move towards restoring or even broadening inclusivity.”

‘Period Drama’, in ‘Now Trending’ story, W Magazine, August 2015 , styled by Edward Enninful, photography by Emma Summerton / Trunk Archive. Summerton’s work is notable for celebrating a vision of womanhood as seen through the female gaze.

Jamaican-British designer Grace Wales Bonner investigates the aesthetics of post-colonialism and the black male body in fashion and the exhibition features images from the SS16 collection which drew on the history of Ethiopian migration to India, exploring how race becomes more complex as it clashes with geography and religion.

There are also images from the & Other Stories autumn 2015 campaign, featuring transgender models Hari Nef and 
Valentijn de Hingh, the first mainstream fashion campaign to use an entirely trans cast and crew.

Meanwhile a W Magazine image from August 2015, styled by Edward Enninful, was taken by Emma Summerton, a photographer noted for portraying womanhood through the female gaze.

Body Beautiful runs alongside another exhibition called Bearded Brutes, photographic portraits by Mark Leeming combining the masculinity of the bearded male with the camp flamboyance of make-up and theatrical poses.

Both collections are part of The 
Civic’s No Boundaries year-long 
programme of consultation, performance, exhibitions, commissions and artist development opportunities for artists with disabilities and from diverse backgrounds.

Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk opens at The Civic, 
Barnsley this weekend and runs until November 26, see www.barnsleycivic.co.uk

& Other Stories Fall 2015, by Amos Mac. The & Other Stories Autumn 2015 campaign was the first mainstream fashion campaign to use an entirely trans cast and crew.
In 1998, Paralympic sprinter Aimee Mullins fronted the cover of Dazed & Confused’s ‘Fashion-Able’ issue, guest edited by Alexander McQueen. An industry first, this editorial is one of the few high-profile examples of disability representation in the mainstream press. That same year, Mullins wore a pair of prosthetic legs carved from solid ash to open McQueen’s Spring catwalk show in Paris.