By: Sasha Dhesi
With cultural diversity growing in the West, our media is slowly but surely also becoming more diverse. Minorities have carved out their spots in most forms of media, whether it be music, dance or television, but there is one part of the art world where diversity has plateaued: the modelling world.
Diversity in the modelling world is abysmal: the FashionSpot, an online fashion magazine, reported that during February’s New York Fashion Week, the shows were overwhelmingly white, at 77 percent. Of the remaining 23 percent, 8.7 percent of the models were black, 8.5 percent were Asian, 3.5 percent were Latina and the remainder were composed of other ethnicities too small in percentage to list.
Even when ethnic minorities are included, they tend to be gimmicks, something to lure consumers in by their momentary diversity only to fall back into their usual homogenous white blur the next season. More often than not, companies will throw in one non-white model and consider their job done, because apparently every ethnic group darker than “NW15” is the same. Ethnic minorities are considered a monolith that can be used at random to improve a company’s PR at the drop of a hat. Consider H&M’s recent fall campaign, which included a woman wearing a hijab. While it is a huge achievement in our current society, I found it a little too convenient that the company decided to do this now following scandal after scandal that they endured over their incorrigible working conditions in a mostly Muslim country.
And this isn’t a trend exclusive to racial minorities. Despite being over the so-called “heroin chic” of the 1990s, the modelling world is still hesitant to use anyone who doesn’t fit this waif criterion. There has been the occasional editorial where a plus-size model will be used, but once again, it tends to be a gimmick meant to reflect well on the company over actually celebrating body diversity. For the most part, companies still manage to only use women with flat stomachs and hourglass figures. The stereotypical model is still thin, white and young. Anything else must be explicitly stated: the trans model, the plus-size model, the model of colour.
You may ask, why any of this is important? Does it really matter? And my answer is yes, it does. Modelling is a big part of how we establish beauty standards, and by continually using a very specific mould, companies insinuate that there is only one “look” that is noteworthy. Even when fashion houses decide to use a minority en masse for a campaign, it tends to be in an insultingly obsessive way, like the way the fashion world is currently uncomfortably obsessed with the genitals of trans models. Although helpful in representation, the obsession does not equal celebration.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t variance in the modelling world: after all, some of the most popular supermodels have been women of colour. But they are exceptions to the rule, who often had the good luck of being in contact with the few progressive designers that are willing to hire them, which was the case for model Naomi Campbell, who credits her career to Yves St. Laurent’s willingness to use black models during the 1960s and 1970s.
Lucky for us, things are slowly changing. Although mainstream designers like Chanel and Dior stick to their blur of lily white waifs, up-and-comers like French brand Koché are making waves through their mix of high couture and sportswear, and use a mix of minorities in their shows to reflect the diversity of Paris’ underground scene, away from the Disney illusion that North Americans have come to know. And who could forget Kanye West’s Yeezy x Adidas collection, or his more recent surprise Yeezy 2 collection, both of which included an array of minorities in nude bodysuits? The rules of modelling are slowly being challenged, arguably not fast enough, but challenged just the same.
Models like Neelam Gill, Fei Fei Sun and Joan Smalls, to name a few, are examples of the elegance that is left untapped by our society because some are uncomfortable changing their notions of beauty. But to do so, minorities have to be used in shows and campaigns in a genuine manner, and not as tokens so the brand can improve its street cred, something very doable. A celebration of the beauty should be inclusive of all beauty, not just one. Once established, the fashion world can grow and change like the rest of the world.
Photo Credit: AFP Photo/Joshua Lott