Diversification in Fashion

Danni Diana tackles the issue of the fashion industry's homogenity

Words: Danni Diana

When the conversation turns to diversity in fashion, I’m never sure whether to roll my eyes, or roll my eyes back further than slavery. Not because it’s a boring or unimportant issue – it’s neither. It’s just that such talk is hardly new, and despite various campaigns to transform the industry towards a more representative one, the overall picture has remained pretty much the same since the 50s. 

With a slew of recent ad campaigns and fashion shows (including the much-hyped NYFW) one could be forgiven for hoping that change is afoot. Of course, how much of this is a harbinger of actual progress – as opposed to trendy tokenism (or in some cases transparent appropriation) – depends on what aspect of the industry you’re looking at, and what kind of diversity you’re talking about.

Take for example, the humble derriere. A few decades ago, before this brave new world of twerking and booty worship, tiny, 12-year-old-boy butts were where it was at. And like all such ideals, the small butt was more than just a random aesthetic – its value showed a lot about social power relations. The small butt – by contrast to black body types viewed as undesirable and freakish – was an ideal that spoke of the value of white bodies. The best example of this dynamic? The intro dialogue to Baby Got Back (that’s the song sampled in Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’, kids) where two white girls freak out over a black girl’s ass. In terms of class, the small butt was an ideal that spoke of affluence, of celebrity culture and suburban consumerism alike – accessible to those with enough money and time to invest in Jane Fonda and designer jeans. In terms of gender, it was an ideal that spoke to women, that laid out a set of aesthetics they had to work to attain to avoid being deemed less worthy within a society where their value was largely measured by their bodies.

The fashion industry is one of the most powerful cultural and economic forces out there. Whether we’re talking gender, race, class or body type, the fashion industry is instrumental in sustaining social hierarchies by dictating what is both normal (what we should be like) and ideal (what we should aspire to be like). So in this sense, the importance of diverse representation goes without saying. After all, everybody deserves to have their identities validated and celebrated – especially if those identities are that which are otherwise marginalised.

Some up-and-coming designers are doing some exciting things for trans visibility and disability awareness on the runways – and receiving considerable media coverage for their efforts – the skinny, white able-bodied mold is still predominant within the publications and brands that wield the lion’s share of the industry’s power.

Fast-forward from Sir Mix-a-Lot’s heyday to the present, to the times of Kim Kardashian. At a surface level, Kardashian seems to be revolutionising mainstream ideals in that bigger, curvier bums and thighs are now considered sexy. But much of the underlying skinny butt politics remain, in a different form.  Let’s take the race aspect. While Kardashian’s butt may be more stereotypically “ethnic” in proportions, she is still a white woman. And what does it say when we can only see black body types as desirable when a white woman mimics them? It still sends the same old skinny-butt message that whiteness is more desirable. Similarly, in terms of feminist politics, Kardashian’s butt, being no less idealised than Fonda’s, serves much the same purpose as its less meaty counterpart: to place women’s value on their bodies and motivate them towards attaining the ideal. Class-wise, Kardashian’s ideal is still one of affluence, celebrity, and consumer culture – just swap out the Fonda tapes with BootyCamp and you get the picture.  So what we see here is how even though diversity has been achieved in terms of what body types are considered beautiful, the underlying mechanics are still such that serve to reinforce the oppressive organising forces of white, capitalist patriarchy. 

Those leading the debate about diversity in fashion and celebrity culture at large have been concerned with questions of whether or not such diversity will amount to long term inclusivity within the industry versus go down as just another branding tool for a time where social justice issues are trendier than ever. Little consideration has been given to whether or not said industry inclusivity is something to be desired – or rather, that with the power to yield meaningful change within society at large.

The positive effects of increased visibility for minorities (or, in many cases, the majority) is well-documented. It would be a mistake to confuse greater degrees of inclusivity within an industry whose very locus of power and profit is the ability to exclude, with the transformation of the industry towards one that can sustain itself via more inclusive means. After all, if all identities and aesthetics are desirable, permissible, normal, beautiful and cool (all codewords for powerful), wherein lies the fashion industry’s bargaining power? To be told what is ‘in’ by default creates a message as to what is ‘out’. Which is why, even if beauty standards are indeed evolving to incorporate more variety, it is still norms and ideals that are exclusionary.

So, should we not press for more inclusivity within the industry just because the industry itself is that which by design leads to the very exclusion and marginalization we seek to eradicate? Of course not. Even relatively small changes within a closed system still yield positive benefits. But if what the diversity movement desires is to harness fashion as a tool for lasting social change – where all identities and bodies can be seen and celebrated as valuable, regardless of race, class, gender, size or ability – then we need to look beyond the limits of just Fashion-As-Industry.

Like all creative arts, fashion has real transformative potential provided it’s backed by the right consciousness. A consciousness that may be lacking in the industry-at-large but one that is still alive at ground level. Fashion as self-expression, fashion as celebration of identity, fashion as subversion, as activism, as political statement – these are all ways in which fashion can be used to ignite social change. What’s left for future generations is to see that potential and exploit it wisely.