This Black Fashion Scholar Thinks You Should Care More About What Happens on the Runway
Last week, the fashion gods descended on Manhattan. New York Fashion Week is a biannual, beautiful eight days of hectic reveals, reviews, and indifference.
But, as always, NYFW wasn't just about gushing over the brilliance of Rebecca Minkoff or Tracy Reese. The event is often marred with controversy, particularly as it relates to the pool of models selected. Most attendees are fixated on the mixed prints and gorgeous orange hues dominating catwalks, but the plight for models of color continued this season. As of this writing, the final numbers aren’t in but, if Jezebel’s statistics from last season are any indication, there were less than 800 models of color chosen for the more than 4,000 slots available.
As much as I love surveying NYFW for trends and reporting from the front row of my favorite design houses, I can never reconcile my love for the industry with its continual exclusion of women that look like me.
As a cultural studies scholar, I use fashion as a lens to interrogate power, privilege, and racism. I examine the business and representation of fashion as a way to study racial trends like tokenism, interest convergence, and the construction and performance of race.
So last week, as usual, I found myself stuck between love and hate.
Some fashion icons seem to feel the same way. Supermodel Bethann Hardison — with the support of Iman and Naomi Campbell — penned a letter earlier this month to the governing bodies of the four largest fashion weeks: New York, Paris, London, and Milan, taking them to task for the “decision to use basically all white models” season after season.
“No matter the intention, the result is racism," they wrote.
Other fashion insiders, including Robin Givhan — the first fashion journalist to nab a Pulitzer Prize — agree with the coalition of disgruntled models.
Yet, there are surely people viewing this post and wondering how or why any of this matters. Maybe you’re unconcerned with these acts of resistance and calls for accountability in fashion because you think the industry is frivolous, elitist, and unworthy of attention.
I get it.
The fashion world is polarizing. For some it evokes images of snobbish fashion directors, designers, and magazine editors offering their best The Devil Wears Prada impersonations. For others, fashion is a world so separate from their own that it has no relevance. It seems trivial to be concerned with $3000 handbags and $20,000 gowns when the rent is due and that check still hasn’t cleared. However, fashion matters, no matter your level of interest in Fashion Week, models, or Nordstrom.
As a scholar who studies fashion, I encounter criticism regularly. I had to confront this perpetual issue when I wrote about the forgotten legacy of Donyale Luna, the first black American supermodel, for Clutch magazine.
One commenter summarized the main critique by questioning why thinking about black models was "so important." They wrote: “I also think this obsession with models fits nicely into women’s obsession with their looks, sometimes at the expense of more important things like talent, intelligence and skill.”
These responses are common because most critics don’t realize that fashion is a social institution. It is a mirrors and reinforces society's -isms and -phobias — from racism to transphobia.
Fashion can be used a platform to subvert or reinforce racism, depending on who’s sitting at the top of the structure. The whitewashing of the fashion world is the reason cultural appropriation — or the pilfering of cultural customs without permission or attribution — continues to flourish. The erasure of people of color in executive positions in the industry is the reason Dolce & Gabbana can release an entire line of Aunt Jemima-esque clothing and accessories seemingly without pushback from within the corporation.
Fashion scholars serve as watchdogs. We provide the historical and social context needed to address inequities in the fashion world. We contact designers and executives and call public attention to the legion of issues facing the fashion world. We hold that world accountable .
I’ve heard it a million times: fashion doesn’t matter; you should be examining race in politics, not race representation in fashion. The reality is fashion is influential, even for people who shop at thrift stores.
A look at fashion’s origins reveals its imprint in modern society. In Fashion: An Introduction, scholar Joanne Finkelstein finds that American fashion was initially a class-marker, used to distinguish between those with higher and lower economic statuses. This is continually reproduced as the fashion elites dictate each year what “acceptable” attire is. The fashion industry dictates what clothing connotes what status.
You may not peruse fashion closets at or sit in the front row at Michael Kors, but fashion impacts us all. Fashion is defined by Susan B. Kaiser, a cultural studies scholar, as the “collective ways of making connections with others and, at the same time, marking differences.”
The difference aspect is poignant.
What a person wears is often incorrectly associated with their character. A man in a suit is perceived much differently than a teenager in a hoodie, jeans, and sneakers — unless that man is Mark Zuckerberg.
Meanwhile, in a sexist holdover, women’s clothing is often deemed a reflection of "morality." Women in short skirts must be "dressing provocatively" to "lure men," while women in longer skirts are considered "respectable."
Clothing is political. It can be an act of resistance, as Dr. Tanisha Ford, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst recounts in an article on the women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It can also be a marker of privilege, as when those in higher economic classes can afford Abercrombie and J.Crew sweaters, while those without disposable income may purchase knockoffs at WalMart.
Fashion matters because it can have a negative or positive impact on both the macro and micro level. Thinner models and sleeker silhouettes on catwalks, billboards, and magazines have been linked to higher rates of eating disorders. The reality is women between the ages of 18 and 34 have a 1% chance of being as thin as a supermodel, but the proliferation of these bodies as models in advertising and runway shows suggests this standard as ordinary.
A social institution that influences body image, clothing standards, economies, and beauty ideals is worth examining. It's not frivolous,and it's not a biannual conversation — we experience the reach of fashion every day, and it matters deeply — whether we consider it or not.