Melbourne-based critic and journalist Mel Campbell is the author of Out of Shape, her first book, which was released at the start of June.
In the book, Campbell charts her own relationship to clothing, as well as how notions of ‘fit’ and correct dress have persisted and changed throughout the ages, and how society polices our relationship with clothing today.
Before the Melbourne launch of her book, Campbell spoke with Myriam Robin about what she discovered.
You talk in the book of having always loved clothing and dressing up. But you also talk about how your relationship to clothing changed as you got older, and become something darker and far less carefree. Did writing this book help you regain some of your childhood delight in your clothing?
To be honest, not really. I still feel terrible about shopping. But what it’s done is make me more conscious about these issues, so when I’m shopping, I can stop and go, ‘this is how the retail environment is geared to make you personally responsible for size’.
The feeling of not fitting still gets to me, but I can take the step back and go, it’s not just me.
When researching, I did a survey of people’s worst experience in shopping for clothes. It was heartening to learn it wasn’t just me. Everyone struggles, and everyone thinks they’re alone.
In the book, you talk about the term ‘orthovestia’, which you coined. What is it?
I wanted to come up with a way of thinking about everything from exercise regimes and diet, to the stylist industry and the pressure to have the ‘right’ clothes. Orthovestia is cobbled together from the Greek ortha, meaning correct, and vesta, meaning clothes in Latin. It means ‘correct clothing’ – that feeling that we are for other people’s consumption – we must strive to look good for other people. It’s not about how you feel inside, but the right way to look. Orthovestia polices those ideas.
Is this a new thing?
There have always been manuals about how to dress – and fashion magazines have always opinionated about these things.
What I link modern orthovestia to is the rise of modern exercise and training your body. Until the mid-twentieth-century, women used undergarments to shape their body – we’re talking about corset and girdles. You’d squish your body with undergarments for foundation. But from the 1960s onwards, there grew this idea of shaping from the inside with your own muscles and flesh. You couldn’t just squish the fat anymore.
Shapewear is still around. But if you wear shapewear now, the idea is you’ve failed. You have to control your own body. That idea is from the last 30 or 40 years. When you think of the slinky clothing of the 1970s, it was built like that to show off that new aerobics body.
But even then it was on the verge. In the late 1970s, body-building was seen as a fringe pursuit. Think of someone like Elvis – his body was doughy and unshaped. There was no pressure on people to train their body in that way. If you look at Ryan Gosling now, or Henry Cavill, the new Superman, it is clear the body is now a spectacle. But back in the day, it was other things that made people attractive and sexy.
Spanx, which squishes you into shape, has been enormously successful in the past few years. Do you think that shows there’s pushback to this having to train your body?
The difference between shapewear of today and that of the past is that it’s now seen as something you resort to, as opposed to your normal underwear. It’s for that special occasion or that special garment. And it’s embarrassing to be seen as needing that underwear. Look at Taylor Swift when it was revealed that she wore it onstage. For a young, beautiful woman, wearing Spanx wasn’t seen as sexy.
Of course, there is still burlesque and corsetry, but that’s different to shapewear. It’s an over-garment.
The book is extremely broad, taking in history as well as the economics of the modern fashion industry. But it’s also quite personal. Why did you focus on your own experiences of clothing in this way?
I chose to focus on this because clothes are so personal. They’re part of our persona, and the feelings of shame and humiliation we feel when we get them wrong is very personally felt. You need to lift the lid on that.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Writing about the personal element was very difficult for me. My background is academic and journalistic. I’ve always been told to leave myself out, that I’m the least interesting aspect. I still feel that quite strongly – I think there’s too much of the personal in the media. So I really struggled with how to achieve a balance between the archival research and journalism that went into this, and the personal. That was the hardest part.
There’s another kind of book I could have written which would be a lot more abstract and detailed, and not so much of a personal journey. But I do think people react positively to the personal if they find it warm and approachable. So I was struggling to do that while maintaining the integrity of the research.
I also struggled with the idea that clothes are innately feminine, something only chicks are interested in. I left in a lot of stuff about menswear and the men’s experience. Partly because clothes are so feminised, there’s this idea that they’re a superficial topic, relegated to the lifestyle pages. I hoped to overcome that by maintaining an equal interest in all kinds of clothes.
Why did you put so much historical stuff in there?
I think it’s because we can’t talk about the clothes of today without the clothes of the past. What I refer to as the sizing evolution is erroneously referred to in the press as ‘vanity sizing’. There’s this idea that in the past, people were smaller. There’s all this vaguely ‘science-y’ stuff which seems commonsensical.
But there are so many decisions made about how the past is represented to us, and our attitudes to the past assume a fundamentally different environment to today. I wanted to highlight people of the past had ‘fit’ problems, and a broad range of sizes too. We didn’t just get fatter – we’re still skinny and fat.
There’s also this longing for the past you get around fashion – this idea that if we could magically get ourselves thrown backwards in time, the clothes will fit. For example, there’s this idea that the past had hourglass figures, and so suited people with small waists.
But there’s always been a broad range of sizes. I found pictures of fat ladies from the 1920s. Plus-sized retailing has been around for 60 years, and there was far more tailoring before that. There’s not this break between the present and the past.
This interview was first publsihed at Women’s Agenda sister publication Crikey