“If we’re not busy moulding non-Caucasian women to fit our standards of beauty, we’re shying away from them completely.”
You would think that fashion brands want to appeal to the majority of their demographic. We are lucky enough to live in a multi-cultural society full of people from all corners of the earth. But somehow the runways and campaigns of today are still largely catered to the white woman, leaving many unrepresented. How can such a global political issue still be widely ignored within the fashion industry?
I can’t believe we’re still talking about this. Why are “women of colour” still being overlooked when it comes to fashion advertising? Apart from it being discriminatory, it just does not make any sense. We like to believe that our society is progressive and inclusive but our attitude towards models – who should be representative of our population – suggests otherwise. What’s more, it isn’t doing the businesses any favours either.
It is common knowledge that people like to see models that they can relate to. If you can’t see yourself wearing a style that is advertised, you’re not going to be easily convinced to buy it. This is clearly demonstrated by the results of a 2012 study that found that consumers are more likely to spend when the models look like them. In fact, their ‘purchase intentions’ increased by over 175%. So why aren’t fashion brands taking advantage of this?
One of the biggest issues contributing to this problem is our long-held idea of beauty. All over the world there are examples of a desire to achieve the Western aesthetic. Whether this is in the form of lightening the eyes and skin or favouring more anglicised features, this narrow-minded view of beauty is widespread.
In India, nearly two thirds of dermatological products are for skin lightening, and models’ skin and eye colours are often digitally altered for adverts. Just look at Aishwarya Rai, considered to be one of Bollywood’s most beautiful women. Compare her to the average Indian woman and Aishwarya’s narrow features, pale skin and light eyes stand out as more typical to Caucasian women than her own ethnicity.
A similar attitude can be seen in Eastern Asia and Africa, where skin lightening is also a phenomenon. In Nigeria, 77% of women use such products. Even more drastic, is the rising trend for double eyelid surgery within East Asian women. The purpose being to achieve a bigger, rounder and ultimately more Western eye shape.
These worrying practices are not exclusive to the East; we see it in our own culture too with celebrities such as Beyoncé having their skin Photoshopped. Black models are often booked if they are lighter skinned with straighter hair and have narrower features – the unofficial industry term to describe this being, “A white woman dipped in chocolate.”
If we’re not busy moulding non-Caucasian women to fit our standards of beauty, we’re shying away from them completely. Earlier this year, Vetements and Balenciaga designer, Demna Gvasalia, caused huge uproar with his white-only showcase at both of his Autumn/Winter 2016 shows. Not a single model of colour was included.
Gvasalia claims that, “The ethnic origin of models did not enter into consideration.” But for a designer whose main casting method involves plucking people straight from the street for their ‘interesting’ faces, he is inadvertently saying that no other ethnicity looked good enough for his aesthetic. What’s especially strange is that surely picking from the street would lead to a far more diverse use of models rather than picking from the predominantly white pool of professional models? Portraying a cohesive collection should not have to rely on uniformed skin colour.
Even when the perfect opportunity to include diverse models arises, fashion seems to remain ignorant. At the start of the year, Dolce and Gabbana released a hijab and abaya collection designed specifically for their Muslim fans in the Middle East. Perplexingly, the models chosen to advertise this campaign were white. What possible explanation could be given for this?
A shocking study by Models.com revealed that out of the world’s current top 100 models, 79% are white with just 14% black or Hispanic and 7% Asian or mixed. It can be argued that less people from non-Western backgrounds apply to become a model in the first place, as it can be a discouraged profession within other cultures. However, this cannot be blamed for the whole racial diversity problem.
In an interview with The Sunday Times last year, Jourdan Dunn spoke out about the racism she encounters in her career as a model. She explained how she is often turned away from castings as the client isn’t looking for any more black models. Jourdan says she has to arrive prepared, as many stylists have no idea what to do with her hair type and often don’t have suitable shades of foundation.
Indian model, Neelam Gill, has also spoken out about this problem. When she modelled for Burberry, the make-up artist had to mix a range of foundations to try to achieve Neelam’s colour. This highlighted a problem within Burberry’s make-up range and so they expanded their products to include a variety of shades. Without working with models from different backgrounds, larger problems such as this would not be discovered.
I spoke with Farid Haddad, Joint Managing Director at BMA Models, who, despite working for an agency devoted to finding work for a diverse range of models, still believes there is a problem, “It is getting a lot better but it is nowhere near what the actual demographic of the population is. There are definitely less jobs for people from a non-Caucasian background. We are seeing this change but it’s still an issue for securing work.”
A shift in attitude is appearing but far too slowly. More attention needs to be drawn to this overdue problem in order to resolve it. Once we start representing women of all backgrounds within our media, our perception of beauty will also diversify. How are people expected to believe that they are beautiful when they are ignored and have no one to relate to when it comes to fashion’s portrayal of what is ideal?
If you liked this post, check out: Menswear: What The Hell Is Going On?
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