Through the Looking Glass: One Size Fits None

by Madison McIlwain | 4/19/17 2:35am

I grew up with a uniform in middle school and a dress code in high school. Despite the fact that Dartmouth doesn’t have a student handbook outlining wardrobe requirements, we all seem to only shop within the same few brands. Across the Green, season dependent, you can spot people in parkas (Canada Goose or North Face, usually), Bean boots and/or whatever their Greek affiliation chose to buy for gear last term. Sure, it rotates, with Barbour jackets in the fall and white sneakers in the spring. However, if you took a poll, I’d bet you’d find most wearing at least one of these items on their person.

If you’re wondering if I own some (okay, all) of these things, the answer is yes.

Don’t get me wrong, I wear most of them because they are practical and comfortable. The “Dartmouth uniform” is logical given our cold temperatures and rural locale. But it’s a little disturbing the number of girls who own the same Brandy Melville “one size fits most” crop tops given the fact that we were made to be anything but.

With this in mind, the fashion industry can appear streamlined, superficial and standardized. People are forced to aspire to the perfect look or body in an effort to belong.

However, I found that there are people out there who are trying to change this.

During my off-term this past winter in New York, I interned for the buying team at Rent the Runway. Rent the Runway is an online fashion start-up founded eight years ago by two Harvard Business School graduates. The founders envisioned a company that provided runway fashion to everyone at affordable prices. The website is built upon a community of women who share their user experiences with the dresses they rent. Customers in turn provide open feedback on what did and did not fit given their body type.

Being a part of their buying team was like a dream come true for me. I have had two personal fashion blogs (I’d tell you about them, but then I’d have to kill you). I founded my high school’s fashion club. I also generally love clothes and planning my outfits. Have I already started thinking about my Green Key ensemble? Possibly.

Most people’s knowledge of the fashion industry stems from “The Devil Wears Prada,” so let me summarize. Big retailers, such as Bloomingdale’s, Saks and Nordstrom, buy what they carry in store directly from designers or showrooms. Generally designers come out with new collections twice a year during fashion week. After fashion week, there’s market. Market is a magical and exhausting time when a “buyer” at one of these bigger retailers goes to a designer’s showroom, which could be anywhere (sometimes in Europe, #glam), to pick out what their company will buy for the upcoming season. Sometimes there are snacks, often there are models in the room who essentially give private fashion shows of the collection and occasionally you get the chance to meet the designer in person.

As the only buying intern for the winter season, I had a lot of opportunity to experience the thick of the fashion industry. Getting to go to my first fashion show was a dramatic adventure involving a Valentine’s evening alone but also spotting Sarah Jessica Parker, a fashion icon. Market appointments with my awesome buyers were the highlights of my job, mostly because it is all about the clothes. There is a selection strategy involved for what we think will dry clean well, how it fits into the current trends, if it’s within budget and more.

Hands down my favorite market appointment experience was with Prabal Gurung, who I had the fortune of meeting. A younger designer, Gurung has been using his large following as a platform for social change. During his fashion show this year, he had his models end the show each wearing a printed tee with political statements in relation to the election and feminism in general. My personal favorite was the t-shirt that said, “Girls just want to have fundamental rights.” To me, the designer using his fashion line to advocate for change embodies the potential power behind this “superficial” industry.

Rent the Runway’s business model is grounded in similar contemporary and revolutionary ideas. Our generation consumes everything through the on-demand economy. We want this car when we have somewhere to be. We want this food when we are hungry. We want this dress when we have an event. Since fashion trends are ephemeral, Rent the Runway naturally fits into our conditioned 21st century consumerism.

But in my opinion, Rent the Runway has tapped into something more than just our desire for goods when we want them. They’ve built their company culture and customer base around a key core value. The idea is that “everyone deserves a Cinderella moment,” no matter the price or your size. While not everyone has a fairy godmother, Rent the Runway’s community of women serves a similar purpose. People post everything, including their weight, on the site in the hopes that others will benefit from this information. Pictures and reviews provide greater context for consumers to feel like they’re getting the perfect piece for any event.

Not every day is going to be a Cinderella day. But I think this principle can be extrapolated. Everyone deserves to feel good in their skin. Everyone should feel comfortable in what they wear. At Dartmouth, I often feel most physically comfortable in my Lululemon leggings, Bean boots and sorority sweatshirt. But what if I wa sn’t in a sorority? What if I couldn’t afford Bean boots?

Having the perfect Dartmouth look is certainly not straight off the runway, but it accrues a similar budget. Here, clothes are a status symbol for belonging. But the fashion industry is built on standing out.

At Dartmouth, we consume fashion trends but neglect the essence behind the industry, which I believe is style. As the lovely Coco Chanel said, “fashion fades, but style endures.” Style isn’t built around what is on the runway or what is strutting across the Green. It is about you, the individual, and what you choose to wear. Designers like Gurung put together collections that speak to both their souls and the times. They can make a critique of society, they can applaud a movement and they can tell a story. In doing so, fashion becomes more than just something we wear. It turns into an aesthetic that defines generations.

My experience at Rent the Runway taught me to appreciate individuality in style. We don’t need to squeeze our budgets, our thighs or our personalities into a “one size fits all” dress. Rent the Runway allows the consumer to exist in the fashion world in a comfortable, affordable and fundamentally unique manner. Why not try a new look? After all, it’s rented.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be wearing our Dartmouth uniform. If that works for you, go for it. But consuming clothes only to conform to cultural standards seems dull and depressing to me. If you have to wear clothes every day, why not have them say something about you?

We are all unique; our outfits can be too.

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