“Over the years, I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it,” Yves Saint Laurent, couturier extraordinaire and early diversity champion once said. In the 1970s, the French designer was already pioneering mixed runways and four decades later, it seems we’re only just catching up to the tails of his smoking jacket.
Despite this slow-moving progress, 2015 nonetheless glistened as a revolutionary year for stereotype-shattering firsts. Mariah Idrissi became H&M’s first hijab-wearing model, Jaden Smith brought a face to gender-fluidity in his Louis Vuitton campaign, Ashley Graham was the first plus-size model featured in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, Jamie Brewer made waves on the New York runway as the first model to appear with Down Syndrome and Rihanna became Dior’s first black spokesperson.
This newfound activism, activated on-screen through viral content, hasn’t translated to the catwalks, however; the visual language of fashion remained as white, youthful, slim and cis-gendered as ever. In Spring-Summer 2016 season, just 0.1 per cent of models were plus-size, 0.06 per cent transgender and 0.05 per cent over 50. More alarming were the racial statistics. Even in London – a city so frequently praised for its colourful cultural mix – 79.1 per cent of models used were white.
Of course, the make-up of every show wasn’t as colourless as this. Zak Posen was praised for his support of the #BlackModelsMatter campaign by almost exclusively employing models of colour, while Yeezy Season 3 was lauded for avoiding white models altogether. Indeed, these might be considered bold steps toward progression, but unfortunately the praise, hype and excitement over this may actually be feeding into the issue: by endorsing these stand-out ‘rarities’ we’re implicitly endorsing the normalisation of whiteness too. As it-girl Jourdan Dunn observed in a recent edition of Elle: “Why can’t it just be the norm to see black models? … It’s still too much of a big thing when this happens.”
With chasing consumers still at the forefront of the luxury market agenda, however, this doesn’t look set to radically change. The emergence of the Asia-Pacific market has seen models from new cultures flood runways to some extent, but ultimately the ‘principle of unattainability’ – a mindset that has stimulated whitening cream and hair relaxant sales as shoppers seek a ‘Western’ look based on dated colonial ideas – still triumphs. “Fashion isn’t about selling real life,” notes Reina Lewis, professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion. “Even something ostensibly real, like normcore, is only cool when it’s shown on slim, youthful bodies – not on 50 year-olds.” We don’t want catwalks to reflect who we are, but what we could be.
Disability is not an accessory, gender-fluidity is not an embrace of androgyny, and people of colour are not a backdrop to ‘exoticise’ the latest prêt-a-porter offering
Naturally, these perceptions can change. We’ve already seen how easy it was when Twiggy inspired a global trend shift from coveting a curvaceous figure towards a more svelte frame in the 1960s. ‘Trend’. Here we must take caution that efforts to promote diversity are not cast as mere “aesthetic flourish” – a trend to be forgotten next season. Disability is not an accessory, gender-fluidity is not an embrace of androgyny, and people of colour are not a backdrop to ‘exoticise’ the latest prêt-a-porter offering.
Persistence is the only answer; the fashion community cannot be satisfied with a few viral victories. If it continues sewing this new spirit of inclusiveness into every collection, however, we will soon achieve a landscape where diversity is no longer celebrated for its presence or berated for a lack thereof – it’s just there.