The December Vogue with Adwoa Aboah on its cover
Fashion has begun to pay attention to the issue of diversity. Fashion students at major colleges seem to be routinely engaged in projects which deal with diversity; some of these projects are good, some are a little trite, but they all point to a significant effort being made by trainers to educate a new generation of fashion professionals to think differently. The appointment of a new Chief Editor at Vogue UK, Edward Enninful, who has been quite vocal about diversity, signals that changes are afoot, though so far, as pointed out by Jacynth Basset in her brilliant podcast we have seen 'established' diversity, meaning that the faces featured in December Vogue, the first edited by Ghanaian born Enninful and focused on a celebration of Britishness, were very much part of the establishment - Naomi Campbell, Victoria Beckham, the Mayor of London, Salman Rushdie. And Adwoa Aboah, British model of the moment, with a Ghanaian connection.
We need be aware that diversity is not about ticking boxes and having a superficial make over. Diversity can truly come about by changing people's mind sets and by acknowledging that fashion is truly global, an industry and a creative expression of different cultures and societies perceived to be on an equal footing. In the light of what global capitalist expansion is about this equality is often no more than wishful thinking.
But there is another aspect that needs to be considered, that of perceptions of beauty and beauty standards, something that is very relevant to modelling.
A recent article in the Business of Fashion discussed the rise of Indian models on the international scene. This is clearly tied, says the author, to the growth of the fashion industry in a country such as India, where there is an economically powerful middle class and a strong demand for luxury goods. Yet at some point, in the original version of the article, the author wrote, infelicitously, that Indian models though not the tallest or prettiest of girls are nevertheless achieving international success. The article was later amended changing that ambiguous word choice to "the tallest or prettiest by Western -centric standards of beauty", which had apparently been edited out.
Article in the business of fashionIt was an omission that clearly changed the import of the article, which was meant to be celebratory, but which ended up sounding dismissive of Indian models.
In my view this incident points to an important misconception about models and about beauty. The ideal model type has been set as reflecting an undifferentiated Northern European blueprint. Models should be tall, slender and fair skinned. Even when they are not Caucasian, an approximation of this ideal is required. That is, black and Asian models, according to this standard, should conform as far as possible to the given ideal: tall and slender and with a complexion that is not too dark. It is a bit like having a Barbie doll with a lighter or darker complexion but still fundamentally a Barbie doll, when in fact we really do not want any Barbie doll at all.
I keep on meeting on sets gorgeous models who are not regarded as 'models' but as general 'talent' because they may be a little shorter than what is considered the average model height. I even recently did a shoot which I thought was extremely progressive, from the brief given, until I saw what the client had specified on the mood board. The mood board referred to me as 'real woman' (being older than average) and my body would not be seen at all. One of the young women modelling for this brand, a very beautiful girl, was also referred to as 'real woman' as she was slightly shorter than the standard model height, though she was very slender. All the other models were acknowledged as 'models' as they conformed to the standard. It was a very subtle way of differentiating and reinforcing a stereotype. I said nothing about it, I was just glad to be involved in some way, but to me it was very revealing of how entrenched certain ways of thinking are. The client believed they were very forward thinking for having two 'real' women appearing in the commercial. This allowed them to tick a box (by the way there were no curvy models at this shoot, I wonder how they would have been referred to. Also all the models including the 'real' women, were Caucasian).
with beautiful model Davinya CooperIt is this box ticking attitude that makes me cringe. I did not participate in the still photography, only in the filming; the other 'real woman' was involved in the stills, so in what way was she less of a model than the others? The answer is: because she was atypical, just like, in my own way, I am. It's not the height or the size or the ethnicity that makes a model. It is the attitude which some do some do not possess.
I look forward to a day when diversity becomes so normal that it is no longer necessary to focus on details of skin colour and body size .