Racism in Fashion: Lack Of Diversity Echoes Underwhelming Media Representation Of Women Of Color


A staggering 82% of models at this season’s New York Fashion Week were white, which makes it easy to say that high fashion doesn’t appreciate women of color. But Kerry Washington’s lead role in the smash hit Scandal marks the first black woman to head a network drama in close to four decades. So is this dearth of diversity a symptom of racism in fashion or a reflection of media representations of women of color today?

According to the Jezebel analysis of diversity in the latest New York Fashion Week, out of the 4,479 spots in the Fall-Winter shows, 776 were cast to models of color with Asian models receiving the majority of these spots (9.1%), followed by African American models (6%) and Latina models (2%) — and a dubious other ethnicities category raking in 12 spots (.2%). As Jezebel notes, “Casting directors have told [Jezebel] in the past that there's a belief on the part of some designers that bright spring colors look better on non-white skin tones than fall and winter hues.”

But take a peek at the Fall 2013 lines of Ralph Rucci, which features African-American models in deep and bright purple tones as well as creamy white ensembles, or David Tlale, who's metallic-heavy offerings were also donned on darker skin. It’s hard to then make the leap to why the winter whites featured in BCBG Max Azria, Helmut Lang and Tommy Hilfiger couldn’t have featured more models of various skin tones.

Turn to more commercial faces of fashion houses with big names and you see the adorable Jennifer Lawrence modeling for Miss Dior and the striking Tilda Swinton at the fronting Chanel. Kate Upton just covered the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue for the second year in a row with Beyonce being the last woman of color to cover the magazine in 2007. 

This however says less about a particular fashion house and more about the consciousness of people who affect media portrayals of women. The last thing that should be advocated are quotas — but it should come as no coincidence that some of the most dramatic and interesting portrayals of women of color in media spring from other women of color. The video that portrayed Miu Miu’s new line as donned by Gabrielle Union, Alfre Woodard, and others is directed by Sundance winner Ava DuVernay. Shonda Rhimes created powerful, multi-dimensional female characters of color, like Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy and Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope in Scandal.

It would be lovely to one day see fashion powerhouse Calvin Klein take a page from another successful commerical brand J. Crew and cast a more diverse array of models in its show. For now maybe the best way to encourage more diverse faces is rather than to fight for the few narrow avenues where spots are open, instead create new ones. Rather than assume that competition means there are winners and losers, agree that success of one Latina or Asian model can mean greater exposure to allow for the success of more.