Breaking Through the Fashion Barrier: The Rise of Inclusivity
The 1966 March issue of Vogue UK is perhaps the publication’s most important edition to date. Its cover featured the face of Donyale Luna wearing thick, Twiggy-esque eye makeup, her hand gracefully resting across her cheek. Luna, a 20-year-old woman from Detroit, is the first woman of color to take the cover of Vogue and one of the first black international supermodels. While it took 70 years for Vogue UK and an additional eight years for American Vogue to accomplish this, it undoubtedly marked a major turning point in the fashion industry. Her career trajectory paved the way for future models of color such as Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks. Today, Luna’s legacy is apparent as the fashion industry begins to move toward inclusivity. Brands have learned that clothing should be designed with real women in mind, as well as be visually inclusive of the many bodies from which the industry draws inspiration.
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Since Luna’s cover, stand out fashion publications and brands have reevaluated their barriers beyond race, incorporating women of all shapes, sizes, genders, sexual orientations, and ages, both on and off the runway. With its popularity among many major international brands, street casting certainly serves as the prime example; fashion is no longer limited to the white, tall, and thin women of the world. Instead, fashion literally steps out and onto the street, finding authentic individuals to manifest the brand’s aesthetic. While certain high-fashion brands can feel indigestible and foreign, these brands can connect more successfully with new audiences through the faces and the bodies that wear the their clothing.
Beyond this method of casting, there are now model management companies like No Agency, and Oldushka that specifically represent models who break the traditional model mold. For these types of agencies such as Oldushka, who will not sign a model that is less than 45 years old, the less stereotypical and more intriguing the model, the better. This forward-looking vision makes the fashion industry more accessible, relatable, as well as more important and culturally-driven than ever before. It gives those who were formerly excluded from the conversation a powerful voice and influence that reaches beyond just fashion—a perfect example is the artist Maia Ruth Lee, who walked in Eckhaus Latta’s Spring 2018 show with a very pregnant belly.
Another more far-reaching example is Winnie Harlow, a woman of color and also with prominent vitiligo. Her rapid success as both a model and public figure speaks to her undeniable beauty and to audiences’ larger need for more diversity in the industry. Her fanbase is loyal and vast (a subtle 2.6M followers sits pointedly on her Instagram profile), and what is perhaps even more attractive than her striking appearance is her shameless self-love— a trait that, unlike certain fashions, will never go out of style. Her voice and the message she represents is just one within a larger worldwide discussion.
Paralleling the idea that fashion should be inclusive of the individuals for whom it exists, many brands are starting to view the needs of their consumers in a new light. The rise of high-end comfort-focused apparel like the head-to-toe knitwear of Lauren Manoogian and the voluminous muu-muu-turned-jumpsuits of Black Crane creates a new space for women to participate in the fashion conversation without losing sense of wearability. Athleisure, which similarly normalizes the comfort of activewear into garments that are considered daywear, takes into account the many women, bodies, and lifestyles of the world. While couture, avant-garde, and other less wearable fashions are here to stay, there is nevertheless a new air of body-positivity and a recognized need for women to feel comfortable in the clothes that adorn their skin.
In recent years, this understanding for the need of body-positivity and inclusivity in fashion has weighed more among younger designers and brands that show at New York Fashion Week than in Europe; five plus-sized women walked the runway for Christian Siriano’s Spring 2017 collection, and Chromat’s Spring 2018 show more recently made anti-chafing thigh bands a desirable, highly functional, and extremely body-positive accessory. For models of color, The Fashion Spot’s Fall 2018 Diversity Report showed that the percentage of models of color on the runway reached an all time high of 36.9%, and every runway show included at least two models of color. While impressive, the idea of having just two models of color among 40 or more looks feels passive and lackluster. Are these brands thoughtfully casting a diverse range of models to establish a more inclusive industry, or are they simply trying to keep up with the times? If the latter is true, brands not only miss a major opportunity to improve the very industry they are immersed in, but also bypass a larger, honest audience. On that note, Siriano has continually emphasized the importance of including woman of all sizes and ethnicities on the runway for the obvious but often forgotten reason that there is more than just one consumer.
A major driving factor for the increasing inclusivity of all women and bodies in fashion, besides the handful of enlightened designers like Siriano, is social media. Platforms like Instagram and Twitter give individuals space to voice their opinions, encourage new, otherwise impossible connections, and foster the formation of like-minded communities online. The success of websites dedicated to celebrating plus-sized women, women of color, and gender-variant individuals in fashion publicizes the significance of these communities. With that, it is no longer acceptable to overlook these groups when they are so publicly visible and so clearly a part of the conversation.
The rise of social media brings to light the many different consumers and participants in the ever-changing fashion industry, sparking a much needed shift toward establishing a more inclusive narrative. The faces and bodies of the women that represent collections at Fashion Weeks around the world should reflect the individuals for whom these garments were designed— and even more so, the clothing these brands make should celebrate the beauty of that very diversity. The emergence of athleisure parallels a larger need for women to have clothing options that make them feel comfortable in their bodies both physically and emotionally, which is perhaps the first step in this shift towards a more inclusive industry. By setting visual boundaries through ignorant and homogenous castings, brands limit themselves from the possibility of reaching a broader, new audience and the potential to engage in a further-reaching cultural conversation. To transcend the limits of material goods and to make long-lasting impressions on both modern culture and fashion history, clothing needs to serve a larger audience and be represented by an accurate, diverse group of women. We have come a long way since Donyale Luna’s debut in 1966, but there is undoubtedly much further to go.