Women of Color – Fashion’s Forgotten

I stumbled upon my wife’s Fall 2014 edition of Style.com at breakfast today. Why they would put out a “Fall” edition in April is beyond me, but that’s the fashion world, I guess. That kind of illogic may also explain why I can’t buy a decent coat in the late winter, and why I can’t find a cozy warm sweatshirt in the summer, even in San Diego, where it’s 60-80F (16-27C), pretty much year round.

Still, there’s online shopping. And for a guy, that’s enough. For a guy, there seem to be plenty of clothes available, and plenty of model diversity. For a woman though…

I counted 150 women in the first half of the massive Style.com magazine. Maybe some of those women were duplicated (they all looked the same to me), but I tried to eliminate duplications at least on the same two page spread.

Of those women, I counted a mere 12 women of color. That’s under 10%. I’m being generous here, too. Four of them had headshots only, and were buried at the bottom of a page together like they were outcasts.

I’m also lumping all women of color together, I’m talking about anyone who looked vaguely non-white.

One of the ads actually had a single Caucasian woman and two women of color standing together, as if to say, “Hey, we’re trying!” Well. I do appreciate that one designer. Thanks. Sort of. The rainbow coalition thing is a little awkward, and feels like a 90’s Benneton ad. Can’t designers just hire a more diverse set of women? They don’t all have to be piled into every ad.

I was prompted  to do my little counting exercise after watching this perceptive TED Talk by Cameron Russell from 2012. I wanted to see if things have changed at all in the industry over the last few months. I didn’t have much hope. Apparently “little exercise” is exactly what the industry has done with promoting diversity.

This is shameful. I really wonder who these people are making these model hiring decisions. In the movies, they’re depicted as bossy gay men or bossy old women, but I think the reality is far more disturbing. These executives are likely racists, probably white, probably men, and probably straight. Ninety percent of the women I saw in that magazine had the following characteristics:

Young – to the point of being disturbing. Seriously, pedophiles need to work in other industries, like maybe oil refining or cardboard manufacturing. Something to keep them away from young people.
Skinny – bony knees seem to be favored. I wonder how they can sell these clothes to women who have healthy BMIs, let alone average Americans? They must have no idea how the clothes might look on themselves from these photos.
White – while 90% were Caucasian, they were all also extremely pale. Tans are so 80’s, apparently, and these runway models looked very New York. Seasonal Affective Disorder anyone? Vitamin D might help.

Stark – most seemed pissed off to be looking at the camera.
Sad – action shots seem to be old-school. The new stuff feels very clinical, with the women holding their arms to their sides, dejected, like they are waiting for a bus because they lost the keys to their bike lock. Oh, and a bully stole their backpack.
Bored – I can understand this, it’s not exactly a thought-provoking job, and I figure many of them are just as intelligent as other people, they just don’t get to exercise those brain cells much at work.

Makeup & Hair
The blatant racism annoys me the most, but the hair and makeup designs seemed the most spooky to me, because everyone looked like clones from Orphan Black (though none seemed as talented or sexy as Tatiana Maslany). Some single-page ads deliberately tried to get women who appeared identical, and made the more-so. Most of the ads used predefined looks that the makeup and hair artists probably pressed on with stamps, and the end result stripped away any individuality the women had, making them all look the same, within these basic categories:
Perfect skin girl – by far the most popular look for younger models, skin nearly white as paper, all pigmentation variations, blemishes, and imperfections removed, to the point of her looking like a blown-up plastic bag. Hair often long, straight, and stern.
Strung-out woman – the modern equivalent of sex kitten, this effect adds bags around the eyes and frazzled hair, making the woman look like she was just beaten by her abusive boyfriend and kicked out of the house because she smoked all his meth.
Vampire woman – this is a merger of the two common designs above. Perfect skin woman with slightly darker lips, who looks strung out because she hasn’t had enough O-negative in the last week.

Look, I understand they want to sell their clothes, but this type of treatment of people just isn’t healthy for the industry or our world culture. Both the United States and Europe have become a mishmash of cultures, looks, desires, and business styles. While corporate systems work hard to come to grips with the new reality, it seems like the fashion industry is content to live in the 1950’s.

The sad thing is, all they have to do is invite more people into the fold. It’s kind of easy. Which makes the reluctance to change all the more annoying.