Ladies, I would like to inform you of something:
Fashion is trying to sell you a fantasy.
I know, right? So surprise. Much awe.
But don’t worry, Slate is here to explain it to you. Our esteemed Gentleman Tech Writer isn’t sure if you realized that a company primarily known for its soft-focus, saturated color, retro-tinged look books is selling you a lifestyle fantasy.
More than anything else, it’s the people in the pictures who contribute most to that illusion. Yes, they’re uniformly beautiful, but their bodies, varied in size and shape are real bodies—curves visible, imperfections occasionally apparent. That’s very much by design: ModCloth explains on its site that its “exclusive line of apparel is available in a full range of sizes―because we believe fashion is for every body.” This premise underlies ModCloth’s advertising, especially on social media, but it’s also a conceit that the company has elevated to the level of an ethical standard.
HOW DARE THEY.
You see, Mr. Brogan is very worried that we’re going to be duped by ModCloth’s extended size range and anti-photoshop stance into thinking that if we buy a cute pair of flats with foxes on them and a polka dotted dress that we’ll be magically transported into a candy-colored wonderland where our suitably diverse and extraordinarily lovely friends group will spend all day lounging by the pool in our stylish but functional 60s-influenced swimwear.
Can you imagine if the same article were written about a company that focuses on male-coded products? “Guys, you need to be careful. Buying a sports car doesn’t actually make you James Bond. An Apple watch won’t make you Steve Jobs.” Of course not. It wouldn’t be written because men assume that other men know this. But when it’s men writing about products marketed at women, suddenly we need to have basic facts of marketing explained to us.
Every company sells a fantasy, so why are we only interested in critiquing them when they’re focused on inclusive fantasies for women? Just look at the rhetoric around Tesla. Tesla doesn’t just sell cars. Tesla sells an identity, and they’re lauded for it. As they should be, as they’re very, very good at it. They’ve managed to make electric cars cool, a thing that no one would have predicted was possible even a decade ago.
ModCloth is doing exactly the same thing. They’ve taken a product line that has always had cultural connotations of utility and lack of flair, namely clothing for people who don’t fit the narrow precepts of beauty in the modern fashion industry, and through clever marketing and narrative building, have made it look covetable.
Ultimately, steering clear of Photoshop may not even require much effort from ModCloth. Built as it is around 21st-century notions of body positivity, ModCloth—a business founded in 2002—has a vested interest in showing its clothes on relatively real bodies, bodies that resemble those of its customers. The company regularly boasts that it has “never photoshopped [its] models’ bodies,” an assertion that Koger repeated during the Washington event. While that’s admirable, it also means that embracing the 2014 “Heroes Pledge” was hardly the “courageous movement” the company described it as at the time.
According to Brogan, because ModCloth has already made the change they wish to see in the world, their choice isn’t courageous. Can you imagine a tech writer saying the same thing about Tesla? Both Tesla and ModCloth are taking a specific moral stance: One says that renewable energy is the future. One says that women should be able to see women the way they really look in advertising. The language used to discuss Tesla usually says that they’re “pioneers” or “paving the way”. ModCloth is doing the same thing, in a different arena. Yes, ModCloth has a vested interest in being photoshop-free, but they have that vested interest because they’ve already done the work to make that change. (Additionally, it’s worth noting that both ModCloth and Tesla lose out by not being the only game in town. However, both companies are interested in changing the landscape of an entire industry, so they’re willing to take that hit.)
Brogan frames this as performative posturing based on their already-held stance, and rooted in technophobia rather than an actual positive change needed in fashion. And it probably looks like that to him, from his perspective outside of the fashion world. But if you come at that choice from the perspective of someone steeped in the problems of fashion, it does look like a brave stance.
Brogan clearly hasn’t spent his entire life looking at articles touting “get your dream body now!” accompanied by images of a woman who’s been photoshopped so that she looks like she’s missing several ribs and her left kidney, and had her liver moved to somewhere around her cleavage. That’s the fantasy we’ve always been sold, so forgive us if we prefer to partake in the ModCloth fantasy, where we could conceivably fit into the clothes at some point in this reality.
Brogan also shows his ignorance in this sphere by arguing against the need for this legislation at all. It’s really too bad that he didn’t bother spending five minutes looking into research about body image and advertising. (Thank you to Scicurious, who took that extra five minutes!)
Disruption takes many forms. It’s time that we stop glorifying the changes that are spearheaded by male tech leaders while making fun of changes that are led by women-focused businesses. ModCloth isn’t perfect, by any means, and the industry in which it functions is a capitalist patriarchal looks-based shitshow. I’m not here to defend either. I just really wish that we, as a culture, would interrogate the language we use to talk about subjects that are coded as female. Even more importantly, I wish that we would question who gets paid to write about these things.
There are legitimate critiques to be made of ModCloth and the fashion industry in general. There are critiques to be made about how the size range works in reality (and how many women are still left out of that range). There are critiques to be made about how “unconventional” beauty is presented in their advertising, and who is allowed to participate in those looks. But those critiques aren’t going to come from a white dude tech writer whose only interaction with the site has come from second person descriptions from friends. How could they?
They’re going to come from places like the Skepchick network (hiiiii), The Establishment, Harlot, and many other media outlets that employ a large range of women’s voices, and where editors make the effort to make sure that people are writing subjects that they can discuss in both an informed and a compassionate way. They’re going to come from people who are well-versed in both technology AND fashion, rather than looking down on one or the other (and I think we know which side is normally looked down upon). I can’t wait for them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go dream about my future life where I’m driving a super cute electric car while wearing a super cute 60s mod dress. While smashing the patriarchy.