Fashion + Body Image

Underrepresented: diversity in fashion

I never considered myself to be “model material,” and up until my mid-teens, I never questioned that. The people I saw in magazines and in commercials looked nothing like me, and I simply accepted that as the status quo. Nonetheless, as my self-awareness grew, so did my curiosity and I began to wonder why the fashion industry was not promoting diversity and using people who looked like the average person.

Wouldn’t they sell more products if people related to the model who was wearing it? Or was the idea that if the model was someone with unattainable characteristics, wearing an attainable product, people would feel compelled to buy it because they wanted a taste of the unattainable?

A step towards diversity?

One of my first introductions to “diversity in fashion” was America’s Next Top Model. I remember spending weekends watching marathons of seasons, and being fully engrossed in all that was happening: the photoshoots, the makeovers and the drama were some of the most intriguing parts of the show. However, what stood out most to me was that I saw people who looked like me, who had a similar body type to myself and people who simply did not look exactly like the kind of models I was already used to seeing. In fact, those were the girls I rooted for the most.

However, after binge-watching a few seasons during my new-found downtime, I started to question whether the show was as much of a catalyst for diversity as I thought it was. Coincidentally, I was not the only one thinking this, nor was I the only person who felt nostalgic and decided to re-watch the show.

Recently, Tyra Banks received backlash for a number of comments she made to the contestants throughout the show. One in particular was to Dani Evans, whose season I can vividly recall watching as a kid. The reason I remember her season so well is because Evans reminded me of my sister, who like her, had a gap in her front teeth. At the time, I did not know that there was even an option to close gaps until Banks made the request that Evans close her gap in order to make herself more “marketable.”

When that season first aired, social media was not as prominent as it is today, thus comments about Banks’ treatment of Evans never made the news. However, with so many of us looking at our screens nowadays, the outpour of disdain for Banks’ actions gained so much traction that it resulted in an apology from her. The show that I once heralded for showing women who did not fit the established mould, actually made a number of women tone down their own diverse and beautiful characteristics, so that they would be able to fit in with the models who were already on the runway.

Does fashion notice the lack of diversity?

It was two years ago when the fashion brand, Victoria’s Secret, found themselves in a PR nightmare. Their VP of Public Relations stated that the brand had little to no interest in including transgender or plus-sized models in their fashion show, as the show is supposed to be a “fantasy.” This, like Banks’ comments, evoked social media outrage from a range of people, including celebrities.

For a while, the brand tried to stand firm on the statement made. However, by late 2018, their CEO was resigning and their VP of Public Relations began retracting his earlier statement. This lead to the introduction of the brand’s first transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, in 2019.

Furthermore, the concern about the underrepresentation of diversity in fashion goes much deeper than the people we get to see as the face of the brand – it also involves what happens behind closed doors. If there is a lack of diversity amongst the people who are choosing what products get sold, there is also a likelihood of mistakes being made due to ignorance. An example of this was when both Prada and Gucci released products that suggested blackface. Of course, this induced an attack via social media on both brands. However, the brands quickly understood that this problem was the result of an organisational issue and went into overdrive creating diversity councils to circumvent a situation like that happening again.

Industry outsiders bringing in a new wave

In the last few years, the fashion industry has seen more than its fair share of blunders when it comes to a lack of diversity. Nonetheless, those years have also seen new faces that have been making quite the change.

In the fall of 2016, musician and fashion designer, Kanye West held his Yeezy fashion show. Immediately after, it was ranked as one of the most diverse fashion shows of that season. In total, 97% of Yeezy’s models were people of colour, which was actually down from the previous 100% that Yeezy had in the season before. Yet, what that change shows is not that he went 3% down on diversity but instead became more inclusive. Which is something that the fashion industry should also be mindful of.

When we ask for the fashion industry to become more diverse, we are not asking for them to sack every model that they currently have in order to bring in all new faces, shapes and shades. Instead, we are simply asking to include more. Diversity becomes void without inclusivity, which brings to mind another musician who has been shifting the fashion industry towards that: Rihanna.

When Rihanna held her first Savage x Fenty fashion show, the following day, news outlets and social media were ablaze singing her praises for how diverse the fashion show was. The show featured women from a variety of races, with a variety of shapes including two visibly pregnant models, one of whom was in labour while walking in the show. In comparison to Victoria’s Secret, the Savage x Fenty line also features a wider range of sizes to cater to more people. Moreover, returning to the questions I posed at the beginning, Savage x Fenty utilises the fact that people are likely to buy products when seeing models who look like them, wearing the products and feeling empowered while wearing them.

Is social media making an impact?

Social media has definitely played a part in ensuring that the fashion industry is held accountable more than it used to be in regard to its lack of diversity. People are now taking a stand when they see injustices happening in the industry. Furthermore, because social media has become so pivotal in today’s culture, influencer and celebrity endorsements and partnerships are now commonplace within the fashion industry. Bearing this in mind, those in fashion can now face being denounced by influencers, celebrities and their respective followers, due to their mistakes (as seen with H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” controversy in 2018).

Undoubtedly, the fashion industry still needs to make strides towards ensuring that diversity in the industry no longer is something that public have to demand. Moreover, due to the power of social media, the fashion industry has to be cautious of their choices because everyone is watching. Nonetheless, with the goal of diversity not being underrepresented in the industry, having social media as the industry’s “accountability partner” is definitely a plus.

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