Linda Evangelista and the Fantasies Fashion Sells

The re-emergence last week of the supermodel Linda Evangelista on the cover of British Vogue after her revelation in 2021 that a cosmetic procedure known as CoolSculpting had left her disfigured, has been hailed, widely, as a triumph.

The photo shoot inside the September issue, featuring numerous arresting photos of Ms. Evangelista by Steven Meisel, the photographer who first made her famous, has been likewise raved over and applauded. There she is, her body covered in Alexandre Vauthier leopard print and Chanel tweed and Fendi baby pink mohair, head swathed in matching scarves and jaunty hats, all of it perfectly framing a face that looks as luminous at 57 as it did at 27. Here she is, in the accompanying interview, entitled “Back in Bloom: The Rebirth of the Indomitable Linda Evangelista,” tackling the issue of fashion photo magic head-on.

“That’s not my jaw and neck in real life — and I can’t walk around with tape and elastics everywhere,” she said in the story, after admitting that the condition known as paradoxical adipose hyperplasia, in which fatty tissue grows and hardens instead of shrinking, had made her so depressed she “can’t look in the mirror.” Nor can she bear for anyone to touch her body, she said. And that for the pictures, her skin had been pulled back by the makeup artist Pat McGrath with tape to create a taut effect.

“I’m trying to love myself as I am, but for the photos … ” she said. “Look, for photos I always think we’re here to create fantasies. We’re creating dreams. I think it’s allowed. Also, all my insecurities are taken care of in these pictures, so I got to do what I love to do.”

Indeed, you would never know, looking at the pictures, that Ms. Evangelista had any sort of physical issue at all: She has been returned, via the illusions of makeup and clothing and digital postproduction, and with the imprimatur of Vogue, to her former pedestal.

Credit…Steven Meisel/British Vogue

And she is right about the fantasy part. Fashion has always defined itself as a purveyor of dreams (with Vogue itself as one of its chief vehicles). That is part of its promise and its allure. It offers escapism into gorgeousness, into a world where clothes can, like a fairy godmother, wave their wands and transform; where women are taller, thinner, fitter, more poreless and peerless than even seems possible.

Than, in fact, is possible — at least in pictures — thanks to a retouching process in which waists can be whittled, legs lengthened, bulges erased. It’s a mutually accepted con between creators and consumers into which both sides willing engage. Whenever fashion is challenged for serving up an unrealistic, unachievable, unaffordable image of women, that’s the answer: Beauty is its own justification. It’s a human imperative, and we need it to survive.

But beauty and perfection are not the same thing. And looking at Ms. Evangelista’s cover, it is impossible not to wonder: Should fashion still be serving up this filtered version of dreams, one forged in the decades when the industry itself was run by a group of gatekeepers who were largely white and privileged, in an era shaped by the male gaze? Or are we at a crossroads, where the opportunity is in celebrating the uniqueness of the individual, in all their imperfect, idiosyncratic glory?

This is a moment when the most urgent conversations have to do with the embrace of multiplicity and plurality, rather than the monolithic and homogeneous. It’s a moment of understanding the value of transparency, and sharing different points of view and experiences. Not to mention different definitions of beauty, which reject the sizeism, ageism and racism once endemic to fashion. In the context of now, the airbrushing of insecurities in which fashion has always indulged seems increasingly like a relic of another age, perhaps best relegated to the dusty archives of academia rather than preserved on the covers of magazines.

Besides, there is another kind of dream that fashion offers, one rooted not in the impossible allure of perfection, but in the potential for self-expression. It is entirely possible to glory in the joy of dressing up while still looking like yourself. While looking, in fact, more like yourself — or like the you that you want the rest of the world to see.

Linda Evangelista, March 1995. Credit…Gerard Julien/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A generation of designers are increasingly building their names, businesses and communities on just such a message, filling their runways not simply with traditional models, but with friends and family of all shapes, sizes, ages and gender identities; with wrinkles and bulges and the signs of life lived. And also, in their clothes, with attitude and power.

See, for example, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of Eckhaus Latta, Rachel Comey, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Raul Lopez of Luar, Hillary Taymour of Collina Strada and Marine Serre. Also Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Demna at Balenciaga, three names that have helped define the direction of fashion writ large over the last few years. They are all likewise subverting antiquated notions of who belongs on their catwalks and in their clothes and how they may look.

Yet, as Ms. Evangelista’s Vogue cover shows, there is still a tendency to cling to retro notions of style and glamour, despite the fact that many Vogues have become notably better about diversifying their pool of cover models (and in particular at British Vogue, where Edward Enninful, the editor, has made it part of his mission). This is the same impulse that recently led some consumers to call for the return of the 30-pound angel wings of Victoria’s Secret, as if dressing women up like naughty putti was the only way to define “sexy,” one that has led to metaverse avatars that more often resemble cartoon Barbies or Jessica Rabbit rather than the female form in all its infinite variety.

It is the visual expression of the calls for the return of “family values” and old-fashioned gender roles; of the mind set that sees inclusivity as a threat rather than an opportunity, and seeks comfort in the familiar out of fear of an uncertain future. The choice is between moving forward or looking back.

It is not Ms. Evangelista’s job to fight this battle. Simply speaking about her experience with CoolSculpting is a step forward in the public conversation about clinging to the past. And certainly, she has always been a proponent and symbol of fashion’s artifice, famous in her heyday for her constantly mutating hair color and willingness to do what it took to get the picture. In her Vogue shoot, she is being true to her own dreams and perspective.

But imagine the impact if Vogue had put someone, purported flaws and all, on the cover of its biggest issue of the year, and framed those flaws not as flaws at all but as simply part and parcel of a new kind of beauty, worthy of elevation; of being adorned in the most fabulous fashion. Glorious, just as it is.

That would be a genuine rebirth.

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