Wrapping up earlier this Friday, New York Fashion week brought in models, editors, and debutantes alike to catwalk the city’s official and non-official stages. The real trends to watch, of course, are what aesthetics (i.e., the fashion industry’s principles) will be proffered for the upcoming seasons. Nowhere am I more curious than where these aesthetic choices concern ethnic diversity. Readers of this blog are no strangers to the idea that the high fashion industry’s choice in models has an effect on beauty culture: that is, what is deemed presently beautiful influences and is influenced by designer presentations at fashion week(s). This beauty culture, in it’s valuation of social capital, has actual behavioral and experienced outcomes in day to day life. Despite how removed high fashion may seem, these images appear in magazines as pronouncements on the season’s sartorial, cosmetic, and hairstyling expectations. Being included or left out in contemporary trend reports has real consequences for women around the world.
(Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images North America)
While designers have shown increased aptitude and sensitivity towards diversity — the industry has shifted from overwhelming majority “conventional beauty,” (see white, Eurasian) towards greater inclusion where race, religion, gender, ability, and even experience of trauma are concerned — there is still a glaringly erroneous rate of misinterpretation about what constitutes authentic inclusion.
Personally, my approach is somewhat reducto ad colonialism — a question of luxury capitalism in a post colonial world. I imagine the purpose of inclusion in fashion shows is for the world of luxury design (see also, excess) to acknowledge that high fashion is borne from, and supported by, the dividends of colonization and slavery profits — that in France, Britain, Italy, the United States where these immensely well financed fashion parades occur, there has been some sort of dialogue towards assimilation that goes, “If you would only wear our clothes, accept our fashions and respectability…,” you could be French/British/Italian(not as much)/American.
Therefore, when these presentations are cast so as to suggest that black people, people of color, and other “non conventional beauties” have no business wearing these clothes, it serves to insult quite viscerally: exclusion from the beauty party is very hurtful and in a post colonial context, the exclusion serves as a societal betrayal.
The redoubling of this insult is the fashion world’s tendency to take the physical stylings of this exclusion from beauty norming (ongoing present tense here, because history has shown us norms regularly shift to facilitate society’s needs for women to fill this mold or the other) and present them recycled and somehow undiscovered. For example, locs, cornrows, braids, and natural curls have been excluded from respectability and beauty norms. But when these styles are rendered culturally acceptable via their presence on a white person they are not just respectable, but artistic, cutting edge and hip.
Examples of this unfortunate ignorance last week included Kylie Jenner wearing a du-rag at the Jonathan Simkhi show, and Marc Jacobs’s featuring models with multi-colored locs. Although the locs were almost too cartoonish to take seriously, his stinging, uninformed response to criticisms of appropriation lacked no such ambivalence:
“All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their hair in any particular style or manner — funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race — I see people.”
There’s no need for excessive judgement here. People do the best they know how with the information that is available to them. Jacobs is outraged because he doesn’t understand how privilege, respectability and aesthetics work together, and maybe he fears that not having access to the use of other cultures aesthetic expressions would hurt his work and ultimately his livelihood.
Alongside other misinformed attempts progress, there is the lest mentioned and deeply frightening trend that resembles a half hearted attempt at reaching for a falling item while simultaneously realizing such savior is not truly desired. Inclusion has been overly simplified to mean skin color when the fact is that political phenotype has never been this simple. Rather, authentic inclusion would have to look at bone structure, ethnicity, nationality, body type,hair type, and many other subtle factors. Plainly: though absolutely stunning, I do not feel included at the sight of light skinned black women, Dominican women, and East African women, the women who the fashion industry has charged with diversifying the runways. I want to know that the black every woman of America, those who have been raped of so much beauty throughout this nation’s, will finally have the chance at being the beauty included, incorporated into widened norms, or even,the beauty ideal.
So when Kanye West tweeted an open casting call for “multiracial women only,” I’ll be the first to admit, I bristled, having jumped to colorist conclusions. West’s call seems to have lacked specificity, but Mr. West defended himself,“How do you word the idea that you want all variations of black? How do you word that exactly?” Maybe African-descended? I can understand the desire to be especially savvy and linguistically obtuse in his circumstance.
What became apparent, was that West had a beautiful Pan-African rainbow in mind. There were women of wide Pantone range, all seeming to have had at least 12.5% African ancestry, by indication of the aforementioned ethnic indicators.
Tim Gunn may have been right about it the collection looking like stretch undergarments, but personally, I like the style of stretch undergarments. It’s practical, permissive, sporty, and muted.
Walking for the finale was fairly brown singer, Teyana Taylor, who has had massive popularity since the release of West’s music video for “Fade” (wherein she dances around an old school gym, reminiscent of a slightly more urbane Flashdance). Tweets and time told, the Yeezy season 4 show, was a respectful nod to African descended women of all shades, and a fairly permissive range of shapes, if not all sizes.
Then, there was Collina Strada’s presentation, which handled the use of difference so deftly, as to show no fear, only celebration, in not just the suggestion of African ethnicity, but the saturation of African ethnicity. Designer Hillary Taymour’s decision to cast only black models seems to exemplify what I imagine would be a “post” racial ideal. She preferred deeper tones of brown, and coarse hair. Blackness wasn’t explicitly part of the text, but it is hard to miss that the brown skin glazed iridescent, brought out the best in the clothes’ color palette and earthy glamour cum futuristic vibe. Black people are beautiful, it just seemed so evident, a simple, but wholly accepted premise of the show. Gender difference, while not erased in the styling is lessened. Men wear ruffles, draped fabrics, and the occasional dress, while women were dressed in boxy separates.
So it can be done, and not only by black designers, but also by well meaning tasteful white designers who have disabused themselves of antiquated notions of inclusion. There’s much to be desired, but alas, there were diversity standouts that challenged shallow notions of inclusivity at this year’s New York Fashion Week.