Fashion’s Role in Racism

We are now months into the Black Lives Matter protests following the brutal murder of George Floyd. With many people around the globe joining the fight to support the #BLM movement and showing solidarity with those in our communities who continue to be oppressed and punished by systemic racism, it is important to maintain the discussion around race and the twisted and deep-rooted issues surrounding it in every aspect of life and culture.

I write this blog post as a young, white woman, doused in privilege since the beginning of my life. I have never, and will never, experience the lack of opportunity and the hurdles based on the colour of my skin, and I don’t wish to pretend otherwise. However, I wish to be the supporter of those who are fighting racism, and to hold myself responsible for learning, and sharing, the knowledge about the glaring issues that many people of colour face within an industry that I know so well. I still have much to learn, but I hope the research I have carried out for this article can provide some insight into the systemic racism within fashion.

Many fashion brands have chosen to use their platforms to show support for the BLM movement by posting the black square and giving us hope that things will begin to change for the better. Unfortunately, many of these black squares have been nothing but performative, with many fashion brands continuing to perpetuate the issue of racism, which the fashion industry seems to rest upon.

Racism is so inbuilt into fashion that sometimes it is almost undetectable, passing like water under a bridge, so naturally, and trickling down into all levels of the industry.

The lack of people of colour in leading positions and corporate board rooms of many fashion companies, and the lacking support of black-owned businesses, happens to be one of the many issues regarding racism within the industry. The lack of representation of black-owned brands is evident, only constituting 1.3% of total retail sales in the US (compared to the 88% from white-owned businesses), and with shelf-space representation of these businesses being hard to come by. “It is often about lack of access to capital,” states Aurora James (owner of Brother Vellies, a luxury accessory brand) to the New York Times. “Even getting in front of some of these retailers is really hard.”

It is not only those wishing to start a business that struggle, it seems that trying to build a career within the fashion industry in general comes with a set of prejudices and glass ceilings for black talent trying to break through. Luke Sampson talks about his experience trying to navigate the fashion industry as a mixed-race man in an article for the Esquire, discussing how his opportunities appeared far and few between, often reserved for the whiter colleagues, and knowing “with some certainty, that this was not about ability, but a direct consequence of appearance, thanks to revealing slips of drunken tongues.”

The common belief in meritocracy, where one can achieve upward social mobility through hard work and wanting something bad enough, is nothing but a myth. A myth which those of us who are white can often be blind to, because despite our hard work, skin colour was never a deciding factor in our success. Therefore, it is also our responsibility to support the fight for diversity within the fashion industry, so that people of colour have a chance to show their talent and leadership as much as their white peers. Fight for real diversity which offers equal opportunity for growth and success to everyone, instead of being nothing but a token buzzword, used by companies to hold up against criticism and to tick diversity boxes.

It is also clear, that diversity in fashion is lacking amongst the faces of it; the models. Runways are still flooded with Eurocentric beauty ideals (despite being a global minority, go figure), with designers often hiding behind the excuse of non-white models just not being part of their creative vision… “If you’re saying non-white models aren’t in your creative vision, why is your creative vision so small?” asks Jody Furlong, a model scout. Right on.

In addition to this, when black models are scouted to be in campaigns or on runways, it is not uncommon for hair and makeup artists to fall short in their knowledge, with model Anok Yai pointing out that “black models should not have to teach working professionals how to deal with our hair and skin day in day out. Educate yourself and come prepared.” She’s right, why should this be something black models need to worry about, whilst their white colleagues don’t have to think twice about it?

Even at its foundation fashion subscribes to racism, based on a time of colonialism and the oppression of non-white people. This is particularly true within fast-fashion and its exploitation of the 74 million textile workers, 80% of which are women of colour. The same workers, which in the wake of Covid-19, fast-fashion abandoned and left unpaid, with tonnes of fulfilled clothing orders plaguing the factories. The same exploited workers who most probably made that popular #feminist or #diversity t-shirt.   

This multi-level racism in fashion is only a small yet important aspect of the injustice people of colour face in their day-to-day lives, and I would like to take this opportunity to commend those fighting for the safety of people of colour, for equal opportunities, and an end to racism. Racism, which at its root has no solid footing if we decide to see ‘race’ for what it is; a made up ideology invented by philosopher Immanuel Kant, rooted in false science and eugenics, to classify people based on the colour of their skin (I recommend reading ‘How To Argue With A Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality’ by Adam Rutherford).

I felt it would be fitting, to end this article with some amazing resources I have discovered during my research, which aim to showcase black-owned businesses, and aim to address issues of representation within the fashion industry.

Design Can
The Fashion Revolution
Fair Wear Foundation
Pay Up Movement
Pause Magazine

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