the unbearable whiteness of wealth
By YANA LYSENKO
Fashion is art, but it is also a commodity. As an expressive form of capitalism, it depends on sales, which leads to creative decisions that, while still interesting, fundamentally must appeal to a target audience. But who exactly is this target audience? Today’s Western fashion powerhouses have not outright declared that everything they do is for the rich white woman, but within the marketing and design of their white imaginations, we almost forget about any realm of diversity within the predominantly whitewashed fashion world.
The oppressive fashion industry founded itself upon a racist and classist society; one that, with an increased fight for diversity and equal representation, still refuses to change itself. It exists as a historical legacy of the whitewashed early 20th century depictions of wealth. European high fashion of the 20th century started (and continues) to exist primarily for the bourgeois white woman — the only woman who could initially care about looking modern.
The boom of European commoditized art inspired by the new textile industry and the new European obsession with photography as a mechanical art, marked the turn of the 20th century, especially in Paris. Suddenly, fashion became something that allowed for expression of wealth, power and taste through clothing. The bourgeois woman was unchallenged in her fashion choices, her clothing incomparable in quality, cut and design.
Designers had the freedom to play with material artistic expression, but beyond the studio, in the consumer’s world, expensive clothing existed to separate the wealthy woman from the working-class simplicity surrounding her. The Victorian woman, the female silhouette and the Gibson Girl were gone. The flapper was coming.
The ’20s may have marked a revolution in fashion — a fashion that progressively would grow to incorporate the non-aristocratic woman — but it still sought to honor only the woman who could afford to be a walking art exhibit. The cutting-edge of clothing, of short skirts and sequins, built itself as an industry that would again acknowledge only the wealthy European upper class as it had in the fashions before it. Today’s high fashion, in its artistic sense, has not changed. The styles have changed and the models have changed, but the fashion labels still dictate what Western culture deems fashionable and with these assertions, they stubbornly refuse to move beyond wealth and white supremacy.
Obviously, marketing to the rich white woman with images of rich white women has been a successful strategy, as companies like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Burberry have attested to with their multimillion dollar profits. The system works for them so, economically speaking, they see no need to change it. The mainstream fashion industry — and by that, I mean the fashion that projects itself in Fashion Week, popular magazines like Vogue, and every corporate clothing advertisement — is still hopelessly white. Runway critics extensively complain about the height and weight of runway models as issues that promote unhealthy behavior in young girls. While important, the emphasis on these discussions overshadows the other critical problem: That a tiny percentage of fashion media features any women of color.
Until just a couple of years ago, it was rare to find even one black model on the runway. In 2008, Jourdan Dunn became the first black model to walk a Prada runway in over 10 years. There’s little encouragement now, in 2014, when models of color in a show can still be counted on one hand. White models made up 79 percent of the runway shows at New York Fashion Week with similar statistics in Milan, Paris and London. In fact, since 2010, the Fashion Week representation of black runway models alone has dropped from eight percent to six percent. It’s difficult to say that the issue of equal racial representation is improving when even impersonal statistics show a clear step backwards. Fashion label Jacquemus was praised by media at Paris Fashion Week this season for its fun-loving, quintessentially French style. Vogue described the Spring 2015 Ready-to-Wear collection as an “inclusive and unpretentious fashion moment filled with collective memory and fun.” A bold statement to make considering that not a single woman of color was featured in the collection.
Maybe Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair don’t consider it their place to comment on the problems with Fashion Week in terms of its blatant inequality and refusal to change the system. Yet they’re perfectly comfortable addressing issues of model age, weight and height. In 2012, US Vogue editor Anna Wintour wrote a letter that was featured in the magazine declaring that they would now impose strict rules to ensure model safety and health. By this she means that no model under 16 years old would be featured in any issue of Vogue and that they would guarantee what she calls “the responsibility of fostering a climate where a vital and healthy physique is lauded and encouraged.” She also added that these new rules would help Vogue work toward “empowering women of all shapes, sizes and ages.” Model age and health was a problem to fashion media, and controversies about underage model employment still persist, yet the difference here is that the industry worldwide is making an effort to eliminate the issue. We can’t say they’re doing the same about racial inequality and misrepresentation when no initiative has been taken to project models of color.
Perhaps this is because there has been no public outcry on it, or because we are so hesitant to criticize designers, as if they are the prophets of all future style and aesthetics. Black supermodel Joan Smalls has responded to this, saying: “People hide behind the word aesthetic. They say, ‘Well, it’s just that designer’s aesthetic.’ But when you see 18 seasons in a row and not one single model outside a certain skin color … ?” Such justifications are why there still is no unified social movement to break out of the racism in fashion. When we find companies still employing the “token girl” strategy and refusing to hire more than two or three models of color for runways or publications, it’s clear that something is preventing the fashion industry from marketing people of color in fashion to the public.
The lack of representation in marketing, either on the runway or printed in a magazine, depends largely on the way the Western world sees buying power. American women, for example, actually control most of the market economy, accounting for 85 percent of all consumer purchases (including products labeled as “targeted for men”). On the other hand, black consumers in America contribute only eight percent to the American market economy, and Hispanics, roughly one percent more. This buying power grows every year as minority consumers spend and earn more, but the marketing has not changed to address this increasing influence. Nielsen, a consumer analysis news company, published these statistics, also adding: “While 81 percent of blacks believe that products advertised using black media are more relevant to them, only three percent (2.24 billion) of 75 billion dollars spent on television, magazine, Internet and radio advertising was with media focused specifically on black audiences.” There’s a clear correlation between racial media representation for marketing and increased sales by that racial group. In other words, when white media projects only white people, sales are higher for white people, and since the majority of the fashion world is white, there is no break from the bourgeois tradition of racial purity in fashion consumerism. When designers speak of a so-called “aesthetic” and exclusively feature white women for this aesthetic, they are projecting their own fantasies of only white women wearing these clothes. Refusing to feature women of color represents these companies’ fear of alienating the white woman and appealing to a demographic different from what they have deemed exclusively necessary to their profits.