TARA CARLIN discusses the underrepresentation of models from ethnic minorities in the global fashion industry.
It’s not only through wearing stilettos that the fashion industry can hurt: eight out of ten models are white, finds Dazed and Confused. Consequently billboards are covered with white faces and physiques, suggesting that being beautiful and desirable is the domain of white coloured skin. However, L’Oreal Paris has recently appointed model Soo Joo Park to be its ‘brand ambassador’, making her the first Asian-American spokeswoman in L’Oreal’s 106-year history. Could this breakthrough imply that the fashion world is finally redressing the imbalance? On the front line of this fight is Lorde Inc., a model agency with the deliberate aim to represent models of colour.
Lorde Inc., established in 2013 by art history graduate Nafisa Kaptownwaia, is a London-based street-casting agency that searches for young modelling talent with realistic body features. From thigh to armpit-hair, they even resist the urge to Photoshop every last acne scar and pimple. Lorde Inc. scout their models in cafés and on Tumblr, with a gaze not limited to the fair, tall and exceptionally slim fashion ‘ideal’. The agency’s particular focus is to recruit talent that represents minorities. Kaptownwaia is aware that in our digitally connected era the stereotypical “fashion body” seems increasingly remote and out of touch. She poignantly stated, ‘I hope that through the Internet people all over the world are getting more acquainted with all types of people, faces and identities and starting to realise how insular fashion is’.
A discussion of Disney heroines may not seem relevant to an article about the modern fashion industry. However, current fashion and Disney are comparable; aside from both dealing with ballgowns, they are both influential forms of media with a strong bias for white heroines. Have you noticed how often Disney leading ladies are white? Cinderella, Ariel, Aurora, Merida, Elsa and Bell: all white. The list of exceptions is shorter: Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan and in 2009 the first African-American princess, Tiana. We must consider the potential ramifications arising from the imbalanced racial representation of women presented to a child-audience. Would it be far-fetched to argue that we are pre-conditioned to believe white women are representative of ‘beauty’, contributing to their overwhelming dominance in the fashion industry?
In Disney’s defence many of their legends are of European descent; Rapunzel and Snow White are both from Bavaria. Fashion is a global industry, not tied to ancient European folk stories. It has no excuse for propagating the same limited, stereotypical body image time and again. This image is dangerous: both Disney films about princesses and high fashion allure through an aspirational, wish-fulfilment formula, whereby the stars are hankered after and idolised – the narrative of Cinderella encourages people to dream that they too can become a princess and people read Vogue even though they never intend to buy the items displayed. That the heroines are so often white creates a pernicious link between dreams and desires and white coloured skin.
If the status quo is going to change we need to transform the role model prototype. Mulan is orientalist in many respects (Geishas aren’t from China, Disney!), however both she and Cinderella were heroines to my miniature self’s eyes – despite huge differences in looks and achievements. It is important that there are conspicuous, visible role models from all backgrounds, so that everybody can see somebody succeeding in their desired field who looks like them. Soo Joo Park’s appointment as the face of L’Oreal means that British girls of Asian descent flicking through UK Vogue won’t feel excluded from the world presented.
The pervasiveness of white skin in wider media images creates a further and more deeply worrying association – between ‘white’ and ‘normal’. Feminist vlogger Marina Watanabe tells of her boredom at being called ‘exotic’ because she is a woman of colour – the implication being that she deviates from ‘the beauty norm’. Her comment demonstrates that this limited body paradigm, cultivated and often unchallenged by the fashion industry, has a discernable impact of the daily life of men and women from ethnic minorities. This is supported by research carried out by the Guardian into the stereotypical misrepresentation of women of colour. A survey in the US asked people to keep a visual diary of images of black women in the press. The most frequently recorded archetype, noted by eighty five per cent of the subjects, was ‘Baby Mommas’; the type least represented was ‘Community Heroines’. The Guardian concludes that the story is the same in the UK: that black female archetypes are rarely empowering. It does not, therefore, seem extreme to suggest that the exclusion of black women from luxury, high-end channels helps perpetrate negative representation across the board.
To me, Maria Watanabe’s comment and the Guardian’s research utterly refute the counter-argument that calling for fashion to widen ethnic representation is patronising, by suggesting that minorities need ‘quotas’ or ‘engineered representation’ to be fairly represented. This strain of argument may appeal to people who don’t understand why there isn’t a ‘White History Month’, but it seems clear to me that we need to actively fight against the fashion-driven body paradigm. We cannot let young people from ethnic minorities feel excluded; we cannot force black women to tire of explaining that their colour cannot be ‘exotic’ because it is not ‘out of the ordinary’; we cannot permit the majority of examples of black skin in the media to be derisive. Crucially, we have to keep reminding ourselves that, especially in the west, there are still privileges that come from being white that minorities rarely receive
If we turn back to the fact that 80 per cent of models are white, taking into account that there are more female models than male, it’s clear that we are dealing with an issue of race and feminism. Intersectional feminism – the wave of feminism that recognizes and responds to other human rights issues – is needed in the fashion industry as much as anywhere else. In fact, it may be particularly important with regards to fashion brands because of their reputation as exclusive and desirable, the stuff of fairy-tales. Fashion brands need to use models of varying race and culture because although they present an artificial simulation of our world, they are not divorced from that world: their customers come from all races and cultures. Women should not feel they have to ‘wait their turn’ to feel included by the industry. As a petite woman I can also sympathise with feeling excluded from it, as I imagine most women can, even though their advertising also targets us. However, there are minorities of women who not only suffer the disadvantages of being women, but also being ‘women of colour’. As the glorious Nina Simone stated: ‘It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live’. If fashion is, as it is heralded to be, an art form then it can only truly depict the society we live in by including all women, or risk looking increasingly off-trend itself.