Fashion, race and culture: a black and white issue?

The subject of racism and controversial displays of culture in the fashion world have been growing for years, is the issue still there? – Hannah Brooks investigates

As we step into 2014, racism and conflict in culture should seem like something withering away in society but the fashion industry shows us that this still exists. The fashion industry has always been a platform moving forward as seasons change. New creativity and synergetic art forms bring the industry to where it influences our society today. However, the influence the fashion industry has over the public isn’t always positive. One would think that fashion would represent diversity and culture in an encouraging light. The fashion industry has dealt with controversy recently in relation to racism demonstrated through fashion shows and campaigns as well as cultures represented unfairly in design and marketing. Ask yourself – could you name many current ethnic models? probably not…

The 80’s, time for a change…

It was in the late 80’s that coloured models came into the fashion scene. This was innovative for fashion and society as this gave coloured people a representation within the media. Supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks were appearing in fashion shows and campaigns which  wasn’t done before. This was a powerful movement, even with minimal use of coloured models, given that Caucasian women were preferred in the industry. Now as 2014 begins, has this change for equality carried forward?– arguably not. Commonly less than five coloured models are used per fashion show.  Naomi Campbell has campaigned about racism in the industry and revealed that in New York fashion week in February of 2013; six per cent models were black and nine per cent Asian. The figures show that the fashion industry has almost been stepping backwards in time with movements in equality. Fashion is a platform for representing our society and culture and with very little progress in featuring coloured models in advertising and fashion shows it leaves a dispiriting influence. 


Models Tyra Banks (left) and Naomi Campbell (right) 

“They just don’t like to have too many darker skinned models” – model, Eunice Olumide. 

Eunice Olumide is the first black Scottish supermodel currently residing in Edinburgh. When I spoke with her, she talked about racism in the fashion industry. The model explained her experience in the industry “Because I am quite dark skinned it is much more difficult because for whichever reason they just don’t like to have too many darker skinned models.” The model has had to try a lot harder in her fashion career rather than  girls of other ethnicity in the industry. Olumide explained the situation in the UK “it’s quite specific here and there’s a lot less media representations of ethnicity, I would say most magazines don’t tend to use people of colour which I learned when I was young I kind of had to go to New York a lot and other countries to get what we call editorial.” The modelling experience was different for Eunice Olumide as she essentially had to work even more for recognition due to her race. When asked about why she thinks there is a lack of coloured representation for models, Olumide communicated that “unfortunately some people (designers) like to play it safe so they don’t want to use somebody of colour just in case that might upset perspective customers or maybe they would think that customers won’t be able to identify with you.” This seems terribly unfair and sadly has visible truth to it.


Eunice Olumide posing for Monie Spring/Summer 2012 collection – featured in PaperCut magazine

What is being done to move away from this negativity? And who are the offenders?  Naomi Campbell is currently hosting a campaign to diminish racism in the fashion industry alongside former model Iman and former model agent Bethann Hardison. The activist group calling themselves “The Diversity Coalition” strides forward for equality in the industry. The group’s main goal is to tackle the bigger picture and the influence the industry does have amongst society. Naomi Campbell was interviewed by the BBC recently and talked about how younger black and Asian models have been making a point of how held back they are in the industry.  The coalition wrote letters to all the fashion councils in France, Italy, American and the UK.  The British Fashion Council’s response was “The British Fashion Council does not organise model castings for London Fashion Week as its governing body strongly asserts to all participating designers that London is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world and should consider referring this demographic in their presentations”. Evidentially British designers are failing to represent the diversity. The impact of the designer presentations lacking in diversity means that audiences and overall, society is impacted by this. It would be seen as ‘normal’ for less ethnic models to work in fashion and this reflects on culture. 



The diversity coalation – Naomi Campbell, Bethann Hardison and Iman


“It’s about talent” – Eunice Olumide

An argument against the current display of diversity in British fashion is that there are not a lot of coloured people living in the UK. According to the 2011 census 7 per cent of the population is Asian or Asian British and 3 per cent of the population is black or black British. In response to this ratio in the interview with Eunice Olumide she said that “, you could say that but, as a ratio, if you break it down it’s pretty much the same, it’s not really about that it’s about talent” which points towards how artists that deserve recognition could be held back because of their culture. In the British Fashion Council’s response to the coalition they state how London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. This is true, although Britain as a whole is not home to a great number of coloured people; London is where fashion and media are produced.   

Fashion crossing cultures…

Culture and the fashion industry go hand in hand. Designers look to our surrounding and society for inspiration. Collections are becoming more ambitious and beautiful as seasons go on but it is when the fashion industry delves into cultural appropriation that the industry potentially becomes guilty of derogatory influence. Fashion is visual culture and it constructs our world, when it becomes offensive to traditional practices, art and religion it is an incredible risk. ‘Borrowing’ from cultures is so easy to do in any creative industry though it should be handled ever so carefully. There is a very fine line between appreciating a culture and insulting one, and it has been crossed… In the past couple of years, retailers in the fashion industry have sparked some negative controversy in offending cultures and religions.

So how about socks? They can’t be offensive – right? Think again…Urban Outfitters is a trendy; fashion forward retailer that has a target market of young students at an influential age. The brand released socks which had printed on them, Lord Ganesh. The president of the Universal Society for Hinduism responded with “Lord Ganesh was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines and not to be wrapped around one’s foot”. The reaction is an example of how even fashion can harm ancient religious practices. The accessory was immediately removed from the site.    


The Rodarte designer fashion brand similarly fell into controversy after showcasing their fall 2013 line. The collection included ancient Australian aboriginal prints in their designs. The Mullavey sisters, behind the brand were caught under fire as Megan Davis, member of The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues said that the collection was “completely insensitive to aboriginal art and spirituality and land and how they are “inextricably linked” causing an uproar. The fashion house responded to the complaints with “we deeply respect and admire the work of other artists” defending themselves in that it was more of an appreciation of the ancient artwork transferred into fashion. Although looking at these designs and their relation to ancient culture it is a step too far and the designers could have considered the possibility of offence.



A look from the Rodarte Fall’13 show – an example of the relations to Aboriginal art in the spotted design

Sexualising historic arts is more often seen as inappropriate and a great example of cultural appropriation. It can be especially carried on with Eastern cultures in Western fashion. In 2012, American lingerie brand Victoria Secret released a ‘sexy’ geisha outfit consisting of a bodice, fan and hairpiece. The lingerie was deemed as distasteful and the brand pulled it from production. The outfit was part of a collection called ‘Go East’ which included oriental floral patterns, which are taken into fashion constantly without harm or offense which is an example of taking from a culture positively. The ‘geisha’ costume though, caused controversy as it eroticised ancient Asian culture for Western consumers. It was essentially racist to Eastern women. The sparse garment, featured in the picture of model Candice Swanepoel on Victoria Secrets homepage was marketed at young women to buy into mirroring the Asian culture sexually.  Victoria Secret ‘Sexy Geisha’ outfit

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The biggest offender to cultural appropriation recently has been Chanel. This is surprising as it has had a positive influence on fashion for many years, a classic designer though the pre-fall 2014 ‘Mertiers D’Art; presentation held in Dallas was called as an obscene representation of Native American culture. The models who closed the show, walked out in a large ‘fashionable white’ Native American headdresses. The ancient culture of American Indians was never deemed appropriate for future high fashion accessorising. Chanel issues a statement “We deeply apologise if it has been misinterpreted or seen as offensive as it was really meant to be a tribute to the beauty of craftsmanship”.  Karl Lagerfeld’s intentions were to portray the art, strength and courage of Native Americans though this was a high risk that was not carefully considered. In the past year, Native American headdresses have slipped into a trend, Victoria Secret apologised for putting supermodel Karlie Kloss one with underwear down the runway, immediately sexualising the culture. Since then Lana Del Rey wore a similar headdress in her music video ‘Ride’ which there for brought headdresses alike into teenage fashion in 2013 and even for Halloween costumes which is an offence in cultural appropriation.



The final look from the Chanel ‘Mertiers D’Art show in Dallas

Some popular culture trends sway to or sway away from cultural appropriation depending on personal response. Bindis; the Southern Asian forehead decoration for women come from a religious significance as where bindis are worn, between the eyebrows, coming from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. A jewel is placed to represent wisdom, energy and strength. It was in the 90’s that Gwen Stefani began to wear bindi’s, beginning a trend amongst young girls. Celebrities are still catching onto Indian beauty practices as Selena Gomez  recently wore a bindi, Indian jewellery and clothing in her ‘Come and get it’ video and performances.  The movement of bindis into Western popular culture represents the tradition as sensual and sometimes quirky rather than religious which can be argued as wrong. It comes down to – is wearing bindis in Western culture offensive? It is arguable that it can be but also up to perspective. I personally believe Bindis give a sense of female empowerment and beauty.



Gwen Stefani in the 90’s

McQueen and the Highland Rape – proactive controversy or courageous cultural reflection?

Fashion thrives off dramatic expositions, whether they are deemed positive or negative.  There is evidence for a lot of aesthetically poor displays of culture though it takes confidence from a designer to go outside the ‘rules’ and create something significantly powerful. The most famous designer for doing this was Alexander McQueen. He would deconstruct fashion beautifully, making outstanding garments. McQueen represented British fashion in a different light, most prominently with his Scottish inspired collection ‘highland rape’ Autumn/Winter 1995. Though the name was questionable, the designs and dishevelled appearance of the models represented ancient Scottish history and bravery. The cuts and patterns all of traditional Scottish style was constructed in a contemporary fashion for the time. The show was indeed controversial but McQueen; of Scottish routes he handled the cultural reflections of the collection courageously.



A look from the McQueen ‘Highland Rape’ show featuring a tartan dress taken from Scottish tradition

The majority of designers still tend to steer away from risky output but some have stepped out to make a change. Rick Owens Spring 2014 show made history when the audience were positively startled as the designer showcased a rare production. Instead of the models wearing the garments being ultimately Caucasian, thin and traditionally beautiful the women in the show were of complete diversity. The show included a step dance team, of all races and particularly fuller sizes. They danced ferociously with fearful expressions on their faces. The show kicked back at our society and out of the fashion industry’s norm for a collection show, brought the most positive and striking display of equality the industry has seen in a long time. This kind of positive display in the industry is incredibly influential to society in ways it should be. Diversity and acceptance in the media is productive to especially younger audiences. Our media is known for enhancing insecurities with particularly, teenage girls. Our industry hides the truth from us with airbrushing, lack of diversity in fashion, and inappropriate representation of culture but the kind of celebration of beauty the Rick Owens show attempted to improve the situation of almost violence to cultures in our society.

Rick Owens Show, Spring Summer 2014, Paris Fashion Week, France - 26 Sep 2013

A still of the Rick Owens show

So is the fashion industry moving forwards? The fashion industry had certainly let us down in its lack of diversity and controversial displays. Though it isn’t just as black and white as that, because of course it is always changing and there are examples of positive displays of equality. Though it is disappointing that it is more difficult to approach the subject of whether it is doing right or wrong. Consuming, illustrating art, creating are all elements that make us happy. Whether you are the target market or you are displaying your own ideas to the world.  The ideological side behind fashion has always been slower.  Offending cultures and races isn’t what fashion should represent and thankfully that is only a part of it that can be changed. Recent campaigns and movements do show that with time there can be changes. It was last year that the continual racism was brought to light by Naomi Campbell, the awareness should bring positive steps. Though to look back through the past 100 years fashion has come tremendous steps further considering coloured people weren’t even entitled to full human rights last century.  Culture and race in fashion I do hope though continues to develop for the better and moulds our society assertively. The issue is clearly a complex one and not a black and white affair. What I am sure of is that culture and race in fashion has the potential to develop and mould society.

Hannah Brooks


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