February 22, 2010

Diversity on the NYFW Runway - Jezebel Reports

(Christian Siriano opened and closed his show with a black model, Sessilee Lopez — and was one of only seven designers to choose to give a coveted opening or closing nod to a model of color)

One of the central questions/issues of my dissertation on Native fashion has to do with presenting diverse concepts of beauty. I spend two chapters wading through this complicated topic.

It all began with an article by Rayna Green in 1988.

While the majority of her musings focused on body size rather other phenotypical attributes such as skin color, she made an important point: Many various perceptions pertaining to size and beauty exist but were being ignored by the fashion industry, which sought a culturally hegemonic ‘look.’ Two decades later, this situation, I contend, continues to exist today.

In my dissertation, I proposed that Native designers of high fashion (along with their models), who are armed with a traditional concept of 'beauty' (i.e. one that extends from tribal epistemologies), have the potential to offer other options for displaying 'beauty' and can subvert globalized notions of the fashioned beauty: the thin and pale-skinned young European-looking female. Some Native designers have been more successful than others at getting diversity on the runway, with the biggest 'hurdle' being the need to 'fit in' in order to 'make it.' In other words, some Native models feel pressured to shrink their body size in order to fit into the small sample sizes used on the runways, and sometimes Native designers hire pale-skinned models to relay to potential buyers that their garments are made for everyone (which is very important in sustaining their fashion businesses). This situation isn't an easy one to discuss - but it is incredibly important.

Jezebel just published their fantastic and comprehensive review of diversity on the runways for New York Fashion Week, and they reported that this year was less diverse than last year, with only 18% of spots in show lineups booked by models of color. The overall impression they derived from the shows was that "what's gonna big for fall is being a white person. (Also: fur.)"

They have this to say:

The importance of this issue can hardly be overstated. The United States is only around 75% white, and according to the Census Bureau's most recent figures, New York City is only 44% white. And many of the least-diverse labels, like Calvin Klein, Diesel, and Donna Karan, are international brands. Wouldn't they want their potential customers to recognize their own forms of beauty in their runway shows? The aesthetic standards set by the fashion industry affect all of our lives. Making a sample size that models don't have to die of anorexia to get into seems to be a real head-scratcher for some designers, but validating the beauty of models who meet every one of the industry's other restrictive standards, and also happen to be non-white, should be a no-brainer.

Readers responded, suggesting the following:
1) prejudiced forces, and preexisting paradigms, in the industry are largely responsible for a disparity in total number of models of color and that the model population is a reflection of what designers want,
2) societal factors influence designers to hire an overwhelmingly white cast for their shows,
3) the images presented on the runway appear in popular magazines and infiltrate and affect our everyday lives (and have particular affect on youth).

Did you get all that? Let's recap: a preexisting framework exists which champions the 'thin and pale' for fashion models, and these standards, along with societal forces (i.e. what regular folks like us 'aspire'), influence the designers' visions and executions for their shows. These shows, in turn, affect our daily lives and shape our self-perceptions and definitions of beauty.

Well isn't that food for thought.