10 May, 2011

The ethics of underpants

The final model casting for Oxford Fashion Week is at 5pm on the last Saturday of term, the first Saturday of December. The entire afternoon has been cold and rainy, which has combined with the previous days' snowfall to produce a kind of ice and slush and puddle mix all over town. Needless to say, this is not doing much for the overall attractiveness of Oxford or those of us out and about, suffering under wet coats and sopping hats because, as ever, the sun was shining when we left the house this morning.

OFW takes place in the spring, and is an impressive and sparkling cavalcade of runway shows and panel discussions and charity auctions and networking opportunities masquerading as drinks parties. The whole affair is organized by Oxford students, including this afternoon's model casting, to which are invited hopeful models from the University and its commutable surroundings. No modeling experience is required, which disclaimer is underwriting this entire adventure, at least so far as your correspondent is concerned.

The ostensible purpose of this outing is to get some first hand experience of a model casting, and compare this to the popular impression of such events, which I gather is not especially positive. As an example of this, my house warden, a middle-aged professor and mother of a ten-year-old daughter, will become physically uncomfortable listening to my account of the experience tomorrow morning. She will respond at length, and in a state of surprising vulnerability, that young girls suffer a constant and largely unconscious barrage of signals as to what is 'beautiful', throughout their entire lives, let me assure you, and all of this is counterproductive and borderline toxic, and let's not even think about what an overweight child must feel. It's pretty clear she thinks I'm now complicit in the whole sordid and basically criminal business, to the point where I am momentarily unsure whether we can still be friends.

But on the slippery and more-than-mildly-treacherous bicycle ride across town, I'm thinking about the upcoming experience in terms of vanity, viz., what sort of person puts themselves forward as a model? Even more curious, what sort of person feels comfortable making overt distinctions between people on the basis of exclusively physical attributes? (There are some pretty meat market-y type observations coming-up, which are partly designed to see what this feels like.) Already I'm aware of approaching this experience under the guise of journalistic mission, allowing this to supplant most if not all feelings of personal insecurity. This is pretty transparently self-protective, and maybe somewhat informative of the sorts of mental and emotional reactions people have when they think about model castings and maybe even the modeling slash fashion industry more generally.

Arrival at the House Bar on Blue Boar Street, where the model casting is being staged on this otherwise bleak midwinter afternoon: The ground floor bar area, which is serving as the waiting room for the actual auditions on the first floor, is positively choking with beautiful girls. There are upwards of forty young women sitting, leaning or standing about the place, smoldering in various states of undress. (By which I don't mean anything salacious. The ambient temperature inside the bar is at least fifteen degrees hotter than outside, and people have dressed for the latter, not the former. There are lots of coats and even some sweaters piled on chairs or set-down on the floor. The bar's windows have completely steamed-up, and so have my glasses, which is exactly the sort of cartoonish reaction you'd expect when a guy walks into a room filled with beautiful girls, and also explains why such girls are frequently described simply as 'hot'.)

Let's begin here with the meat market-y type observations. (Depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing, you may want to skip to the last paragraph in this section, because this is going to be pretty explicitly shallow.) The female bodies in the room break down roughly as follows: Maybe ten percent of the girls are Show Stoppers. The kind of beautiful where if you showed your mother a picture and said 'This is my girlfriend', she (your mother) would call you a liar. These girls look about six feet tall (some with, some without very tall stiletto-heeled shoes), and somehow glide around the room on legs that end above my waist. They have very pronounced facial features, especially cheek bones. They are skinny but not even close to emaciated-looking. Their hair cut and colour situations are pretty variable (this actually holds for everyone, not just for the SS), and none of them have particularly large breasts (again, this seems to hold pretty generally).

The next seventy percent of the girls are very beautiful, by which I mean they have some but not all of the features of the SS. Typically this means they are shorter, or not as skinny, or have softer faces. (A few of these VB girls are just as tall and just as skinny as the SS, but they look kind of malnourished.) The remaining twenty percent of the girls lack nearly all the features of the SS, and so are not really VB but merely pretty.

If the previous two paragraphs weren't uncomfortable enough (your correspondent is feeling pretty uncomfortable), let me further observe that no one in the House Bar on the last Saturday of term even remotely resembles the 'actual' models that your correspondent has seen loping around in places like the West Village in New York City, where he once lived. The sorts of girls who are even taller, and skinnier (but still not emaciated-looking), and with even more distinguished facial features than the SS auditioning for OFW; that cause actual traffic accidents just by walking down the street, and more frequently drive men and even women to such distraction that they (the men and even women) trip over sidewalks or walk right into lamp posts; that cause a collective intake a breath upon entering any room, a vacuum they fill immediately with a bright, sensuous, tingling light.

In other words, what we are dealing with on this cold and rainy afternoon are roughly forty girls of varying degrees of attractiveness, in some cases staggeringly so, but none of whom are in the running for the Vogue fashion spreads. It is with these thoughts in mind that your correspondent has proceeded to the back of the bar area, feeling not only doubly inferior (i.e., there is another stratosphere of beauty beyond the immediately visible firmament, and your correspondent is pretty clearly at the base of even this), but also slightly nauseated, having just drawn a complete mental picture of so many people he has never even met, and done so, it must be admitted, with very little difficulty whatsoever.


The back of the bar area also seems to be the end of a kind of queue that has formed along the north wall, interrupted by several tables-for-two. All of these tables are occupied by hopeful models, none of whom look particularly excited to be hopeful models. In fact, only your correspondent seems to be taking any kind of interest in the other people here to audition. Opposite the north wall is a long, scalloped banquette, in front of which are a number of small cocktail-sized tables, and around these are set little blocks of synthetic leather, which might be foot rests on a less-busy evening. There are lots of little conversations going on (mostly small talk, but also some quiet chat between or amongst girls you can tell came here together), mobile phones are being checked pretty regularly, and one girl is reading The Economist.

At the end of the kind of queue stands the beautiful E---. She is only slightly taller than me (without heels) and wearing an ice/slush/puddle appropriate sweater, which mediates her otherwise obvious and nearly overwhelming beauty to the point where I can find my voice and ask, just to get the average-looking-and-therefore-sheepish-boy meets beautiful-and-therefore-confident-girl bit out of the way, whether she is here for the modeling auditions and is this, in fact, the kind of queue for same, duh.

It turns out that this is not E---'s first time casting for OFW. She says that she modeled in OFW last year, in the 'concept show', wearing outfits that included some sort of duvet cover and another that I never understand beyond its resemblance to a box. She says 'It wasn't very flattering', which I find almost impossible to believe in the face of E---'s aforementioned obvious and nearly overwhelming beauty. Not only this, but E---'s conversation is so clever and her charm so effortless that I'm just about immediately disarmed, and brought very nearly to the point of giving voice to some truncated and (it goes without saying) comically inelegant version of the foregoing, when E--- finishes (she has actually been talking this entire time, probably disclosing interesting things about last year's experience) by saying, '...and this is such an important year for me, I'm not sure I should give up all this time to be in the show.'

'Oh, are you a finalist then?' (Your correspondent is also a finalist, meaning soon to be writing final examinations, and so about to have something in common with a young woman of obvious and nearly overwhelming beauty, clever conversation, etc.)

'No,' says E---, laughing lightly and causing stars to rain down all around us. 'I'm in Sixth Form’.

(…which means that E--- is in her final year of high school, a revelation that is especially awkward because your correspondent is a 'senior status' undergraduate at Oxford, and in fact earned two degrees, plus practiced law for two years, before matriculating.)

This is also the point when I notice all the mothers in the room. It turns out that anyone under sixteen needs parental permission to audition; it further turns out that height, clever conversation, easy charm and overwhelming beauty are hugely unreliable indicators of age. (One attempt to schedule a follow-up interview with E--- was torpedoed, no kidding, when she got detention.)

Another mother walks by where E--- and I are standing, pushing a pram.


E--- and I end up spending a good bit of the ninety (?!) minutes we are waiting to audition talking about various school-related topics. She has applied to study English at Cambridge, which makes an Oxford-Cambridge rivalry-related joke inevitable. Your correspondent suggests, in a self-deprecating sort of way, that if Cambridge were running this event we would be finished by now, such would be the display of organizational verve and dexterity. With almost unbelievable fortuity, it is at just this moment that Marvin (self-styled 'Mah-vin'), the 'hospitality director' for OFW, calls for the attention of those waiting in the bar area:

'I'm terribly sorry there has been such a wait, but we are going to hand out the numbered cards now. [That’s right, this is happening ninety minutes after the start of the casting.] In order to reduce the chaos, it would be super helpful if as people come up to get their cards, they can tell me whether other people were here before them.'


Now that the numbered cards have been distributed, things start to move along. E--- and I wait about fifteen more minutes before E---'s number is called, leaving your correspondent to his own devices. I write down some of what E--- has told me about her school experience, and the above transcription of Mah-vin.

Next to me is a team of seven girls, sitting very close together, in a kind of huddle. There is a distinctive strength-in-numbers vibe emanating from this group, in the same way that a strength-in-numbers vibe would emanate from a football team or a street gang, I imagine. These girls are nervous, but for reasons that have nothing to do with their relative standing in the room. (As noted previously, only your correspondent seems to be paying attention to 'the competition'.) The central topic of conversation is whether anyone should go for the lingerie show, the audition for which is the same as the audition for the other shows, except that you have to wear a bikini, not just high heels. (The girl nearest to me is already wearing her heels, which are Day-Glo orange and have some kind of mesh or webbing on the side.)

Before realizing the entire significance of all of this, your correspondent's number is called. Good ol' one hundred and one. (It's never entirely clear how the numbering system works; there is no way one hundred people have gone before me this afternoon. It may be cumulative over all of the castings, which happen on different days and even in different universities around the South of England.) I follow four girls up the stairs to the first floor, which is a hive of activity, the central feature of which is, so far as your correspondent is concerned,

Girls auditioning for the lingerie show.

After the whole 'I'm in sixth form at the Cherwell School' revelation, I am understandably circumspect in my appreciation for the lingerie show auditions, notwithstanding the immediately ascertained absence of mothers on the first floor. The atmosphere is a lot like the fitting rooms in a department store - albeit featuring a way higher level of average patron attractiveness - meaning that people are focusing on their own appearance/audition and otherwise indifferent to the rest of the room, which indifference is more or less reciprocated.

The room itself is a slightly smaller version of the downstairs bar area, without the bar. This room is divided one-third/two-thirds by those portable display partitions you often find at trade shows or student job fairs. The larger two-thirds, opposite where we enter from the stairwell, is set-up as a kind of runway, with the four casting directors seated at the far end. A photographer hovers along the side, carrying an extremely expensive-looking camera. (The telescope lens on this thing is outrageous - I've only seen this before at baseball games or Formula One race tracks, where the expansive field or track size necessitates taking close-up photographs from like fifty yards away.) Every 30 seconds or so, loud music is played and another hopeful model struts back and forth before the casting directors, posing, turning, strutting, posing, and turning. There is also a video camera behind the casting directors, recording every performance.

For obvious reasons, most of the people in the room are in the smaller one-third. Various OFW staff are milling about, directing traffic. Your correspondent puts some subtle but dogged journalistic queries to one of these millers, who turns out to be the producer for the lingerie show. When I ask why she isn't watching the models, she says: 'The casting decisions are made by the casting directors, after we tell them what sort of image we are looking for.'

Some immediate reactions to this statement:

 - It sounds suspiciously like someone isn't very comfortable making meat market-y type distinctions, and so has delegated this necessary but unseemly task in favour of the more palatable, down-stream activities involved in producing a fashion show. If this is the case, then the meat market analogy is way more apt than I thought.

 - It could be a means of quality control, in the sense that fewer eyes are more easily trained on a uniform ideal of beauty. If this is true, the 'ideal' of beauty must be a whole lot more malleable than most people realize, which is the first indication that the meat market-y type observations made earlier are more than a little artificial, i.e., mere projections of what your correspondent thinks is the way casting directors or even most people in fashion divide-up the world.

(N.B. These observations also turn out to be hugely ironic, insofar as the whole meat market-y excursus represents a popular conception of people who traffic in popular conceptions. One reason my house warden is so down on model castings is that she thinks ‘beauty’ is artificial and completely disconnected from meaningful indicators of individual self-worth. For this same reason, she has never been to a model casting and gives the whole fashion miasma a pretty wide berth, which means her opinions have been formed in a vacuum. (Actually, the basis for a lot of her opinions seems to be a combination of the JonBenet Ramsey tragedy and various examples of her daughter’s classmates talking about their need to lose weight, both of which were referenced a number of times during what got summarized back at the beginning of the piece.)  While your correspondent’s views on the matter have never been so corrosive, colourful or strident, they did emerge from a similar dearth of evidence, or so I now realize.)

 - It could just be way more efficient, reducing the number of people who have to attend every casting and otherwise be responsible for this part of the process. It did take ninety minutes to even start to hand-out the numbered cards.


Sitting down to register: The OFW staff is uniformly friendly. The guy recording my details into his sleek Mac book is attractive, thin, and taller than me even while we are both sitting. He smiles engagingly, and while meeting your correspondent is clearly not changing his life, he seems genuinely glad that I've turned-up. When we get to the end of the form, he says, 'Would like to audition for the lingerie show?'

It's not immediately clear whether he really said I could audition for the LS, or whether he is so used to asking this of females that it came out automatically, and they don't have a separate form for guys.

'What does that involve?'

'You go upstairs, change out of your clothes, and do the audition.'

'I didn't bring a bathing suit.'

'Well, that's OK, if you feel comfortable doing it in your underwear, that's fine.'

Personal note: This is the sort of occasion that makes your correspondent very glad to be your correspondent. There is a genuine therapeutic value in doing things about which one is hugely and otherwise insurmountably anxious, only to discover there was nothing to worry about. It's liberating, and I imagine there are certain people in the world for whom this state of liberated being is the norm - variously called angels, muses, free spirits, all the girls and some men for whom I've harboured desperate and otherwise inexplicable crushes - and your correspondent very much wants to be one of these people.

In other words, journalistic mission can function as a kind of lever for worthwhile personal development, which development is another reason why I think the girls downstairs in the huddle were clearly nervous but not for any meat market-y type reason

On the other hand, no amount of even Pulitzer-quality reportage is likely to overcome the bizarre and (I must confess) all-too-familiar mix of insecurity and vanity that is about to go down in the men's washroom on the second floor, where I am sent to change. It's a small room, with two sinks under a mirror, a urinal, and a smaller closet with a toilet, a water closet within a water closet. After stripping to my underpants (black, boxer-brief-style, thank goodness), I lower the toilet seat, perch on the edge, and perform some reverse crunches, which are somewhat restricted by the smallness of the WC. In fact, I can’t extend my legs past ninety-degrees, which means the weight being reversed-crunched is about half what it would be otherwise, so I have to do twice the number of reverse crunches I would do normally. Then, I go into the main bathroom area, between the urinal and the door (which opens in, by the way, so this is going to be fairly high-risk), and I can barely stretch fully in even this space, and start doing push-ups. I even turn my face to the side, to get my chest lower down to the floor and increase the effect of each push.

The whole time this is happening I am listening like a hawk for male-sounding footsteps approaching outside. The female traffic into the adjoining bathroom is constant and high-spirited, and my thinking is that it would hush or get real quiet or somehow change noticeably if another guy came up the stairs. This is only partly - maybe, say, ten percent - related to the risk of the door opening into my head. The real reason is I don't want anyone to see what I'm doing. (I even closed the toilet door whilst doing the reverse crunches.)

Possible interpretations the foregoing:

 - Is this just an insanely excessive reaction to the same mix of vanity slash insecurity that motivates furtive hair-and-outfit checking in restaurant or department store mirrors, or excusing oneself to the bathroom to undertake same? It seems to me that a similar pretence operates in every case: The facts of combed hair and a coordinated outfit – or a toned and nominally visible upper body musculature - belie whatever vanity slash insecurity one hopes to conceal by checking and adjusting the status of these when no one is looking.

This kind of behaviour, at which your correspondent is admittedly a ninja, is not only self-contradictory (i.e., studied indifference to one’s public appearance is just another way of appearing publicly), it also seems completely unnecessary, given that just about everyone pays some attention to their appearance, and that this attention, as a basic form of aesthetic expression, seems pretty harmless and is probably even desirable.

(N.B. In which case, maybe the OFW model casting is really just some more advanced version of this basic aesthetic expression. Pace my house warden’s sermon, why isn’t a fashion show - the clothes, the choice of models (who are not, if you really pay attention to a runway show, and certainly the OFW casting, even close to identical-looking, or like walking mannequins, etc), etc - simply an example of a highly cultivated and highly specialised aesthetic sensibility? The fine arts (painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, contemporary experiments with mixed-media, and all the rest) are also a business, and openly advocate for particular aesthetic sensibilities, and I don’t like everything I see in the galleries, either.)

- Or, is this simply evidence that model castings are like any other social situation, viz., there are certain expectations about appropriate behaviour that are implicitly obvious and derive from past experience, situational cues, and the like. You’ll have to take my word for it, but it’s clear that dropping-and-giving-myself-twenty would be out of place on the first floor, despite this being directly concerned with improving my physical appearance. 


Having worked-out long enough in the second floor bathroom, I return to the first floor wearing only my black boxer-brief-style underpants and black leather dress shoes. The first floor is still crowded, which means I have to push slash wade through a half-dozen OFW staff and at least twice as many hopeful models, some of whom are also auditioning for the lingerie show. This makes progress not only slow but slightly fraught, the reason for which you can see for yourself by imagining where your hands and arms go when you push slash wade through a group of people.

One of the OFW staff is waiting for good ol' number one hundred and one by the partitions that separate the 1/3 waiting area from the 2/3 auditioning area. I leave my things behind the partitions and ask, ingenuously, whether I should keep on my shoes?

(N.B. The afternoon’s most compelling evidence of socialized, gender-specific expectations about beauty: It doesn’t seem at all strange to me that the females auditioning for the lingerie show are required to wear high heels.

I think it’s this sort of unconscious assimilation that really makes people uncomfortable with fashion, including your correspondent, and especially my house warden. There seems to be two things going on here, neither of which is positive. First, the ideal of beauty being assimilated comes from without, or is somehow inauthentic, which means the only reason I think girls in bathing suits look better in high heels is that other people seem to think this, and that’s not really a good reason. (Lurking in the shadows here are some related worries about not knowing or even having access to the reasons these ‘other people’ think the way they do, but being pretty sure their reasons are either dishonourable, or, that it’s turtles all the way down.) This isn’t great for me (insofar as I value making my own decisions - whatever that means) but it’s even worse for the subjects of the ideal, which brings us to the second negative thing going on here, this being that the ideal encourages (some would say ‘forces’) potentially harmful behaviour and forms the basis of decisions about people on what are actually specious or superficial grounds, what my house warden would describe as completely disconnected from meaningful indicators of individual self-worth.

(Incidentally, one example of why this sort of behaviour might be harmful: As part of the test-drive for this argument, I found an old pair of high heels - only like three inches tall - and walked around for a while in my room, nearly breaking both my ankles and my elbow when I fell over almost immediately and smashed into a chest of drawers.)

Not to punt, but it’s pretty clear we’re not going to resolve this in an interpolation, and probably not even an entire essay. It seems to me the really difficult bit lies in separating whatever real or valuable aesthetic expression is to be found in the ‘art’ of fashion (including as this might be expressed in the selection of models), from the corrosive implications this aesthetic expression might have on individuals living together under the influence of social norms that are more or less apparent to them; or, can these really be separated, in which case how much of one can we have without the other?

Also, not to give unsolicited advice, but the people at OFW are not exactly helping their side with a Mission Statement that is an absolute rhetorical boner:

‘Fashion reaches and touches every single one of us. What we wear and how we present ourselves constantly communicates who we are to the world. It is the most unavoidable and fundamental form of communication...’)

Anyway so the answer re keeping my shoes on is 'yes'. I'm now ready to face the casting directors, all four of whom are seated at the end of the makeshift runway. The person who I later discover is the 'head' casting director, called John, asks for my name and explains the process. There are photographs from the pro-level camera hovering on my left, then I walk toward the casting directors, pose, turn, walk back to the partition, turn, pose, and walk back to the casting directors, pose, finished.

Photos - music - walk.

It turns out that keeping every muscle in your body flexed and taught and looking its most attractive is just about impossible, at least while walking. Try just keeping your shoulders back while you read this - now think about what your abs are doing - now your chest - back to abs - shoulders? And what the hell do I do for the pose? Am I trying to make the casting directors feel seduced? Happy? I've never actually worn just my underpants and dress shoes, even in private. I'm at a total loss. This is a big reason why I forget to flex any part of the back of my body as I walk away from the casting directors. (How are you doing with the shoulders-abs-chest?).

It's just as I realize there hasn't been any back flexing - or even attention to basic posture - during the walk away that I reach the partition, force a spin, pose (how long is a pose even supposed to last?), and compel myself back towards the casting directors. I go for smoldering as my final pose, as in, my underpants and dress shoes are smoldering.


Post-script: About a month after the auditions, your correspondent learned that his modeling career would not begin at Oxford. As expected, E--- was successful, and is also now one A* and two A grades away from heading off to The Other Place. No word yet on how my house warden feels about either of E---‘s achievements.