Essay - Rebecca Arnold

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Fashion has always been libertarian when it comes to sexuality and gender. Designers and photographers have long explored the boundaries of what is acceptable, to create images that test social mores. However, despite the role that fashion has arguably played in enabling individuals to explore gender and sexual identities, there is still a lack of progress in representing and exploring race and ethnicity.

Why is this? Firstly, it must be remembered that the fashion industry is part of the wider culture. It responds to and takes part in the construction of social and cultural ideals at any given period. Since fashion is often adept at exposing subconscious fears and desires, it can also delve deeper into national and global attitudes. The lack of black and Asian models, for example, must therefore be set alongside, on the one hand, the relatively few top-paid Hollywood stars who are black or ethnic minority, and on the other to the tiny number of black and ethnic minority MPs.

The fashionable aesthetics created by the industry are predominantly white. Too often when black and Asian models are used, and when designers reference non-white cultures, this is primarily to promote an image of exoticism, a concept which itself was constructed by white Westerners.

In recent years there has been much discussion in the wider media about the impact of fashion’s promotion of an ideal body image, but questions of race and ethnicity tend to be glossed over. The industry often claims that commercial concerns limit the use of black models. It is hard to think of another industry where a statement of this kind would pass without comment.

It is a great pity that the fashion industry, which prides itself on breaking taboos, should remain, with a few notable exceptions, so reactionary in this respect. This is a matter not just of inclusiveness, although that is clearly the main issue, but of extending ideals of beauty, visibility and representation to the wider population, and recognising the role fashion could potentially play in challenging the overwhelmingly white ideals that still dominate.