Monday, October 22, 2007

Whitewashed Runways

In recent weeks, the lack of racial diversity in the modeling world has been the talk of the fashion community and I couldn't be happier. It's disgusting to think that we've actually gone backward in the last ten years when it comes to representing women of color on high fashion runways and in the pages and advertisements of women's magazines, but we have. Despite the fact that 30% of the US population is not white, there's a black man running for president, and black women spend more than $20 billion per year on apparel, there's a stunning absence of non-white faces in the modeling world.


Why does this matter?

First, the fashion industry sets the standards for beauty, and by not choosing non-white faces to represent their brand and style, the message they're sending is that only white women meet their standards of beauty. Girls and women are constantly reminded that they don't like "right" when they flip through magazines and rarely come across a woman who looks like them.

Second, high fashion is and has always been an elite pursuit, limited to those with the financial means to afford extremely expensive clothing and accessories, and the designers, marketers and journalists who gained access to this elite world in order to study and understand it. Models are the public face of the industry and by only using white models, it further reinforces the message that the fashion world (as producers and consumers) is closed to non-whites.

Of course, when the members of the fashion industry are questioned about the lack of non-white models, they play the blame game and insist that it's someone else: the casting directors, the magazine editors, the modeling agency... it's always someone else's fault that so few brands have non-white models representing their brand.

The question arises whether it all boils down to racism. At a recent debate on the subject among fashion insiders at the New York Public Library, one magazine editor recounted that while working on a story for Vibe magazine, Manolo Blahnik refused to loan the magazine shoes for a shoot (a very common practice among magazines). It took a personal call from supermodel Iman to Manolo himself to get the shoes. There are many stories of designers who have asked modeling agencies only to send them Caucasian girls, or designers who send models back to agencies after realizing they were given a non-white model. The default category for models is "general market," which means Caucasian or Caucasian-looking. Unless a brand specifies "African-American," "Asian," or "Latina," they're only going to get headshots of white girls. There's no reason why general market equals white, but a brand would have to specifically request a non-white model for them to be eligible for the job.

I think racism definitely plays a big role in the lack of non-white models, but it's also a systematic racism which affects the whole industry. Non-whites are under-represented at every level of the fashion hierarchy, and I think that when magazines, fashion brands, casting companies and modeling agencies begin to hire more non-whites, we're going to see more representation of non-white faces on their pages and runways.

But this doesn't explain why we had more non-white models 10 and 15 years ago than we do today. The only explanation I can come up with is that the fashion industry has a problem conflating race with trends. The New York Times article points out that "the current taste in models is for blank-faced androids who don't offer much competition to the clothes." I think it's a pretty weak argument to say that a woman of color would inevitably "compete with the clothes." 15 years ago when the trend was for more individualistic, fierce-looking models, there was far greater representation of women of color. This obviously plays into racial stereotypes, but it also suggests that the industry can't seem to separate the color of a model's skin from her "look," and that they fear that by using non-white models, the focus will be on the model's skin above all else.

The message to consumers is that, if you're lucky, your race or ethnicity will be the trend this season, but if not, don't expect us to tell you you're beautiful or included in this industry.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

i find it interesting that many of the non-white designers (e.g. phillip lim, anna sui) are more inclined to use non-white models. in the case of phillip lim and anna sui, i was rapt to see anne watanabe walk for them...
another designer who i've found is a little more diverse is marc jacobs... and i enjoy his shows more than anybody elses. to argue that the ethnicity of the model detracts from the clothes is ridiculous...

so lets hear it for more beautiful girls of all races and backgrounds.

Michelle said...

Meg, these are some really great points. I also notice that even among the non-white models, most have more "Caucasian" features; for example, the young model Chanel Iman who is African-American but relatively light-skinned. Also the use of ethnic models to model ethnic-inspired fashions is so National Geographic!

Anonymous said...

Isn't it people like you who prop up this industry and its values by buying into it so much?

laura said...

Yet another reason to have a HUGE problem with Manolo Blahnik.... I have to admit to being one of those tiresome feminists who is driven crazy by younger feinist women who spend time and resources on sexist and racist fashion. I LOVE being pretty myself, and while I don't love the Beauty Myth, etc, I do like the way I look in makeup-- so I wear it. I like pretty clothes, so I buy them. But I can't buy that young women are empowering themselves when they embrace certain trends that are just playing into male-defined ideas of what is sexy. (Like tottering on a pair of stillettos.) ESPECIALLY when they are doing this "empowering" at great expense when young women already are worse off financially then their male peers. And then, if you consider the ideals that these deisgners espouse in their business and personal lives-- HOW is it empowering to make a rich old white guy richer while wasting your money (buy some $100 shoes and invest that extra $250) and making yourself look like a male-created fantasy (a fantasy that puts you off balance and vulnerable-- NOT empowering...)

Meg said...

This is sad and there really is no excuse.

On a purely practical level (since these companies don't seem to have enough of a moral compass to care), you'd think they'd at the very least use dark-skinned models with certain color clothes. After all, they want so much for their clothes to look better -- so much so that models are often treated like walking hangers.

I've seen waaaaaay to many models with my light skin in colors that make them look like they're going to vomit. The days of the "yellow" trend should have been all about the darker complexions because, let's face it, most yellows aren't easily worn by pale ladies like myself.

Kelly said...

I mostly ignore the so-called fashion industry and couture crap. Who and what they model doesn't interest me, it doesn't influence my buying decisions or how I view people. If we could just focus on more important issues, images, advertising, then we'd all be better off. Anyone who's life (NOT career) is seriously influenced by fashion shows and fashion week needs to wake up and see that there is a hell of a lot more out there to the world. Get over this already!

Teek said...

Kelly - You don't think that fashion shows/couture designers affect our culture's pervasive images and advertising?

Anonymous said...

I like fashion, but runway shows don't affect my perception of beauty. I don't buy into what many people buy into about beauty or fashion. I'm not stupid enough to. I don't dye my gray hair, for instance, because fashion tells me to. I don't ever plan to have plastic surgery. I've got wrinkles, but I earned them. And I certainly don't think scrawny, bloodless-looking women or bloodless, effeminate men are the standard of beauty, no matter what fashion says. I'm not a hater. I just don't find those looks attractive, and no one's going to tell me otherwise. I'm beautiful because I'm strong, smart, creative, fun, generous, and it shows in how I carry myself. I find that kind of beauty beautiful in other people, too.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I'm Asian (above). I don't need stupid fashion to tell me whether I'm attractive.

Ayomide said...

Even though I am in the fashion industry I don't allow it to tell me how to dress, or make me feel less than a women because I am not represented in fashion magazines or on the runway. (I'm african american with natural hair) Truthfully, I don't even follow what is going on expect for school or to help me design but I don't allow the opinion of the industry to rule my thoughts on beauty for me personally.
I wish women would wake up and stop allowing others to tell them how ugly or beautiful they are. We are all beautiful because we are created by the creator.

Anonymous said...

Much ado about nothing, if you ask me. Trends come and go, so who cares if the current look is eastern-european blonde, fair girl? A few years before, there were so many brazilians it was hard to count them. Then, the trend switched to moon-faced baby doll-like girls. Now it's android-looking blondes. Maybe Posh spice has something to do with that? Anyway, who cares. Eventually, maybe the trend will be more 'ethnic' (your words, not mine), but I fail to see how that's so important. Once again, the USA are overreacting way too much about some illusory racial threat...

MLL said...

Well, keep in mind that many of these fashion companies are European. Europeans are not as open to people of other colors as Americans can be. I think the whole issue is tied with the immigration phenomenon in Europe. 10 or 15 years ago you did not see as many people of color as you see today, in Europe. People did not worry about immigration that much. Right now, we (I live in the U.S. but I am European) are getting lots of immigration from Africa and in Spain, from Africa and South America. Being a person of color has gone from being "exotic" (because there were very few of them) to being perceived as someone who's coming from a third world country. There is a paranoia about color (and closing of borders) that did not exist before, and perhaps it has carried on to the world of fashion. I mean, if you see a person of color in the USA or in the UK, that person may or may not have a certain good income, however, most people of color in other European countries (Germany, Italy) are most likely poor, as they are recent immigrants. The people who buy magazines and clothes in Italy or Germany or Spain would not relate to a black or Asian model. That's my perspective, as an European living in the U.S.

Olivia said...

Although non-caucasian girls were in the minority at the runway shows, i still saw enough of them there to make an impact. Having all the models look the same is BORING. However, that's what many of the disigners were going for. They wanted that clone like minimal look They didn't want any personality or vibrancy in their models.

But, let's not pretend that the fashion industy has ever even come close to trying to be PC. If we want to start picking apart the ethnicity of the girls, then why don't we get into the fact that they are all stick thin and emaciated looking (even the ones in Milan now that they have a weight rule). Talk about demeaning to women! The industy is telling us that the only way we can be beautiful is if we starve ourselves, weakening ourselves to be waifs among the men. Also, you'll never see a model who's not towering over all "normal" girls.

Do I like the negative messages that are being sent on the runway? No. Are they going to change? No. And it's not my business to make them or complain about it. I don't think the world should be white washed into being PC. It takes all the colour and flavour out of life. Being Politically Correct has its place and time. The workplace, yes. The runway, no. If you don't like it, don't watch it, don't buy it, end of story.

Besides, give it a few seasons and the runwys will be covered with a wider varity of ethnicities again. (i completely agree with the anonymous comment 2 before mine)

Lastly, the runway itself is more of an artistic vision than an advertizing campaign. I wouldn't criticize Gauguin about only painting Tahitian women, so why would I criticize fashion designers about the models they choose for the runway. It's their story to tell, and not my place to correct them on their political correctness.

The Tsipa said...

This reminds me of something that happened when I was in high school: I was at the career counselors office, waiting for an appointment, and I leafed through a U.S. Army brochure. I was surprised that I felt almost as though I didn't understand what the brochure was saying, that it didn't sink in, until I realized that all the photos were of black people (I am white). I was amazed at what it felt like, even for a few seconds, to be shown that I was not who the message was for.

I can, obviously, only imagine what it must be like for non-whites to be confronted on an almost constant basis with the simple message that they don't really exist. I am ashamed.

Ana said...

Heatherette and CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg use plenty of non-white models not to mention non-white designers Anna Sui, Kimora Lee Simmons and Tracey Reese. Their arguments are bogus. As a black woman, I've made the decision not to spend on lines that don't use black models. If they don't think their clothes look good on black models, it surely isn't going to look good on me. That's precisely why my YSL Tribute shoe fund went to DvF luggage. I'm disappointed about the Manolo Blahnik. Frankly, if they don't want to loan Vibe shoes, they shouldn't give them the free advertising.

Anonymous said...

Runway models are not anywhere near as beautiful as they were in the heyday of the 80s early 90s. Linda Evangelista, Iman, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell--those ladies were supermodels, with beautiful faces and bodies. Now it's all of these ugly white women with butterfaces and man bodies. I am a white woman. I see plenty of white women that actually look like women, and yet we are not represented on the runway. No real woman is represented by the runway. Those models might as well be a species unto their own.

That being said, I would love to see more Indian woman on the runways--they are so beautiful. Or more hispanic women, or more asian women, or more middle eastern. Why must it always be black vs white?

Anonymous said...

This is exactly why I have no love for the fashion industry. What are they implying: that women of color don't have the money to spend on their clothes, or shoes? all the more reason to support designers of color, and shun the ones who don't care to have women of color, especially black women on the runways, but black women get no love anyway, unless she's Oprah or Condolezza Rice....

Anonymous said...

And I'm fed up with a bunch of pepople who have on contact with anyone outside of their cliques telling me what looks good or what the standard of beauty should be. I'm sorry, but looking like a pasty heroin addict isn't beautiful too much of anyone, if you ask me. If that's the case, then why do white men get tans, breast and butt implants, lip implants, ect? Need I say more???

Anonymous said...

oops, I meant to say women, what would a man get breast and butt implants for, unless he were a drag queen....

Erin said...

thank you so much for a thoughtful foray into one of the ugly parts of a beauty industry. It seems that this has a lot to with ethnocentrism... when I was in South America this summer every billboard and ad I saw featured white models... many of them blonde. Beauty need not be defined so narrowly, but I guess if I have to change everything about myself, I'll buy a lot of products!

Anonymous said...

What does this say about the women they choose.

They are looking for a cheap, nameless faceless non-person who can qualify as female.

This is a serious problem for women in general.

Black men are usually the first to shriek in horror at a sister holding a vogue mag because their worst nightmare is for black women to lose their curvaceousness, but these "white" women of america i feel are the ones who lose the most when those walking hangers come down the runnway.

It sets the standard for what beauty is for them, not the rest of us really.

Ive always loved high fashion but i am thankful that im not a "white" whatever white is, woman.

I think these "white" women need to dump that word and find their ethnicity, nobody is just "white" like a blank piece of paper with nothing to say/do/give.

African american women are stuck with the "attitude" thing that we are supposed to be, Asian women are constantly annoyed by what they are supposed to be, Hispanic women are quickly getting a bad rap as well.

I don't actually buy things by the big fashion houses, because they aren't trying to sell to me, im a size 8 caramel Hershey kiss and if they don't beg me for my money they wont get it, and my advice is that all the girls out there that are white chocolate and vanilla cream size 12 should say the same thing- send them an email that says-

im not a size 0-2 and thus your "model" does not give me any idea of how your clothing would look on my body, until your models look more like women and less like 12 year old boys, you wont get a dime from me

---
anyway why would ladies expect a lot of guys who are competing with them for the affections of men, to make you look good? lol

Anonymous said...

What will end up happening is that women who appear to be, tall, thin, with no breasts or bum, with pale skin, and with blond hair aged about 14 becomes the thing a man seeks like she is a car

- but then he fully expects that she will have
no personality, no opinions, nothing that is more than skin deep, she is a purchase and thus she will do as she is told, and when he goes away on business she will occupy her time with maintaining her gaunt appearance because she knows that if she gains a little weight or starts to look less like a trophy he will replace her with another, and the next time he will see to it that the girl is a bit younger so she lasts longer, but since she is not the woman he truly loves or admires, since she is a status symbol and not a real person with whom he shares his dreams he will find that elsewhere.

That is what is being sold to men all over the world- the image that one day they may be rich enough to afford a woman who is an expensive way to transfer your property to the next generation.

Caucasian women and men have been sold this evil soul draining scam and the time has come for total rejection of it. What is happening has less to do with the rest of the world and more to do with maintaining a level of fear within WASP society,

The empty women on the catwalk represent not so much a race as they do a mindset- "this is what we want you to be, a drone"

They can add black and indian and every other kind if they want but nothing says nothing like tall, blond and thin.

These girls need not burn their bra's these girls need not a bra at all. What is on the catwalk now is a pure reflection of how those designers view their customers- with disdain and disrespect