Fashion’s Exclusivity and the Search For Personal Expression

Since 2008, when Vogue magazine asked Is Fashion Racist? Diversity in the runaway has not changed much. Here is a chart posted this Saturday on Jezebel after fashion week for Fall/Winter 2014. It points to the, still, lack of inclusivity of non-white models showing that around 80% of models who walked the runway were white.


Disappointing indeed, but to take it further, let’s look at how whiteness and classism are linked.

While models of color are excluded from the runaway, there have been numerous cases of stores racially profiling those who might not fit the classist stereotype of a high fashion customer.

Last year, and mostly during the holiday season, lawsuits were filed against the Barneys department store in New York City by two black customers. One case involved a young man who, after spending $349 on a Salvatore Ferragamo belt, was suspected of using a fraudulent credit card (although the credit card and identification used to purchase the belt were his) and was even followed up by the NYCPD outside the store.

Journalist and fashion critic Britt Julios responded to these incidents in her article “For fashion, if it’s all white, it’s all right,”

These are clear cut examples of racial profiling, inherent to the very fabric of the fashion world. Underlying these incidents is the idea that black people cannot possibly participate in the overpriced world of Barneys.

Another case happened with actor Robert Brown, who also filed a suit against Macy’s and the NYCPD for the same reasons, being accused of using a fraudulent credit card According to the Manhattan Supreme Court suit, Brown presented his ID to the cops but “was told that his identification was false and that he could not afford to make such an expensive purchase.”

So, regardless what comes first, not only are non-white models excluded from the fashion runway, here are examples of how non-white fashion consumers also get excluded and racially profiled beyond the runaway. This is one example of how white hegemony over other cultures goes beyond fashion week and how it intersects with classism.

Another common move has been to exclude non-white models, but culturally appropriate whatever trends are traditionally linked to marginalized groups. The most recent cultural appropriation issues I can recall were Paul Frank’s, who served “Rain Dance Refresher” cocktails in his show last fall, and ASOS who debuted a “Go Native” Navajo-inspired line.

Although the difference between appropriation and appreciation has been highlighted by writers and journalists, I am still confused as to why designers don’t care about putting in enough effort to get it right.

The hegemony of whiteness over other cultures in the runaway also extends beyond. Robin James, a philosophy professor who blogs about pop culture from critical-race-feminist perspective shared her views on classism and whiteness in fashion:

Racism and white supremacy in fashion is a huge issue—it extends beyond inclusion and privilege into cultural appropriation and beyond. Another way white supremacy manifests in fashion is in the labor issues involved in fast fashion. Everything from the systematic, global exploitation of non-Western women at just about every level in the supply chain, to the exploitative labor practices common in retail (e.g., the increasing demands on affective labor, part time, flexibilization of the retail labor force, the demand that retail workers maintain a proper “image” for the brand etc).

 But fashion is also used to critique white hegemony, “there is a more mundane sense of “fashion” as the stylistic, aesthetic choices people make in their clothing and grooming which can be compatible with feminism and racial diversity” Dr. James added, and mentioned how,

People can use fashion to contest gender norms, as a vehicle for personal expression; people can make clothing and grooming choices that subtly (or not so subtly) critique hegemony. The Afro, for example, was a political choice as well as an aesthetic one; for black women, hair is political. And hairstyling can be a way to be political. Fashion is a key everyday issue for trans* and genderqueer people, people with disabilities, fat people (and I use “fat” in solidarity with critical fat activists, i.e., as a positive not a negative term).

High fashion is still exclusive because it is too white, too classist, too sexist, and this is why a critical perspective is always welcome.  Yet fashion is also used to contest white hegemony, classism, gender norms, and as a form resistance and individual expression. This is maybe why one can love fashion remaining critical of it, and why fashion, politics, and feminism can both converge and clash.

Images via Getty

I write and philosophize about pop-culture, latin america, and intersectional feminism. Here is my twitter:

About Are You Hung Up

I am a trained philosopher but usually make a living teaching middle school or writing Spanish scripts for Youtube. I get hung up on things. So here is my writing about whatever I'm hung up on in the moment. I'm from Argentina and my style of writing might have too many run ons for you. Consider that too.
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