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the Race Problem is Fashion's problem

The murder of George Floyd by a police officer has triggered a resurgence of the global Black Lives Matter movement, with calls for an all-encompassing revolution louder than ever. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson and Eric Garner are but a few of high-profile police killings in recent years, with countless others that are less known. Since Floyd’s death, thousands have gathered across the world to protest against the ongoing racial injustices characterising white supremacist societies today.

Much attention has been directed onto individuals to lend support to the cause, but major corporations have received mounting pressure to also engage. In fashion, not all were quick to do so. This may have been to avoid marginalising their customer base, or in the belief that fashion shouldn’t involve itself in politics. Fashion has frequently been envisioned as transcendent beyond corporeal matters such as race. As Karl Lagerfeld once said, ‘Fashion is fashion, not politics.’ But fashion is inherently political, and has a unique professional and moral obligation to address racism.


The Politics of Fashion

The political dimensions of fashion exist for many reasons. The body itself is a highly contested site for politics. Since politics goes far beyond governments and its associated organisations, the very existence of the body in society permits it to be acted upon by political forces, and influence them in return. It is through dress that this politicised body is situated within the social world. Although its proximity to the body means dress is incredibly intimate and private, it does not just belong to us. It belongs social world too, along with its multitude of problems.

Office Politics

Growing attention has been drawn to endless accounts of discrimination occurring in the workplace, from the hiring process right through to corporate culture. Fashion, like many other industries, has consistently denied Black voices in powerful spaces. None of the official Haute Couture houses are headed by a Black designer or director. Even if we extent to the rest of high-fashion, Balmain and Louis Vuitton are the only luxury brands with a Black Creative Director. In fact, of all the top Fortune 500 companies, there are just four Black CEOs – one being Jide Zeitlin, who joined fashion company Tapestry in 2019.

Culture Politics

Fashion has a complex relationship with culture, in that it both inspires and takes inspiration. Fashion design has long profited from Black culture, history and craftsmanship, while consistently denying collaboration or credit to Black artists. Sometimes, this relationship has strayed well beyond the grey area of ‘appreciation’ versus ‘appropriation.’ From Gucci’s balaclava sweaters to Prada’s shocking key-rings, the fashion industry has been called out numerous times for overtly offensive designs 'inspired' by racist stereotypes, cultural differences and problematic historical tropes.

Beauty Politics

In any society, the dominant culture dictates what is considered beautiful; in a white supremacist society, ‘whiteness’ is packaged as the popular ideal of beauty. Fashion has inherited, and in turn reproduces, this oppressive white standard of beauty. Historically, such discrimination has manifested in the absence of Black models in magazines, the racist framing of advertisements for hair and beauty products, and widespread social pressures to conform to beauty ideals through body modification and adornment.

Versace fall 2020. Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

The emergence of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement in the late 1960s and 70s successfully challenged the degradation of ‘Blackness’ in popular culture, and instead celebrated Black style and identity. But while there are more Black models, influencers and celebrities working in fashion today, the dissemination of their image is not equal with their white counterparts in frequency or prevalence. Those who do manage to break into these spaces often face discrimination, unequal pay, cultural tensions and racist micro-aggressions.

The fashion industry plays a fundamental role in maintaining racist systems of oppression. It follows that fashion will be key to dismantling these systems. While most brands are now finally speaking out on social media, genuine change requires more than platitudes and performative activism. The real changes will not be taking place on Instagram feeds, but within head offices, education, media channels and the Black communities themselves. The fashion industry must take a long, hard look at itself. It won’t be pretty, but it is necessary.

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