Every morning, women all across the world stare into their mirrors and engage in the daily ritual of making up their faces, driven by the imperative to meet some arcane aesthetic ideal. Despite generations of women’s empowerment, it oft seems we haven’t travelled too far from the fairy tale world of Snow White, a world where women measured their self-worth by gazing at their own reflection in the mirror and wondering: “Magic mirror on the wall/ Who’s the fairest of them all?” Sadly, time and again, they’d be doomed to come away with the notion that it wasn’t them. This was largely because they did not conform to some artificial construct of what constituted true beauty.
Throughout its long history, the fashion industry has undergone many changes, but sadly, until only comparatively recently, it persistently peddled a fairly homogeneous idea of true feminine beauty – a tall, thin, fair-skinned young woman. Take a look, for instance, at Chanel’s habitual choice of showstoppers for decades…
Since the early ’90s, Karl Lagerfeld, the brand’s creative director, has chosen a ‘Chanel bride’ to close most of the brand’s couture shows. The favoured model walks down the aisle in a white gown, accompanied by the creative director himself. Over the years, only the most celebrated models of the day have received this prestigious honour, but a cursory glance at the roster soon reveals they have far more in common…
The tone was set right from the start. When Claudia Schiffer, the actress and supermodel, became the first Chanel bride in 1991, she pretty much set the template. Indeed, from then until 2017, when Lily-Rose Depp – the teenage daughter of Johnny Depp – closed proceedings, almost every single ‘bride’ was fair-skinned, waif-thin and toweringly tall.
However, some 14 years ago, just as the Internet became a global phenomenon, a number of ugly truths about the supposedly glamorous fashion industry began to trickle into the public domain. An early example was the size-zero scandal that came to light after Luisel Ramos, a perilously thin Uruguayan model, died in August 2006 after being on a diet of lettuce leaves and Diet Coke. Soon after, another model – Brazil-born Ana Carolina Reston – died. With her weight at the time of her death reported as being just 40kg, this fuelled growing concerns that models were literally starving themselves to death to conform to a dangerous archetype.
So intense was the backlash that many leading modelling agencies publicly committed to observing far more stringent guidelines. One of the most important developments came courtesy of fashion powerhouses LVMH and Kering, the companies behind such leading labels as Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Gucci, who jointly pledged to never again use anorexic or underweight models.
This, however, did not mean the fashion industry had suddenly become all-inclusive overnight. Far from it. Indeed, huge tranches of the global population – including anyone of African, Indian or Asian origin – were still hugely under-represented on the world’s catwalks and billboards. As statistical proof of this, a 2017 survey by one British newspaper showed that less than 10 percent of the country’s most popular publications had ever had a non-white cover star.
Thankfully, since then, there have been at least a few signs that a genuine change is afoot. The 2017 Most Beautiful People List – an annual staple of People, a New York-based celebrity gossip magazine – was only 60 percent white, something of an improvement from 27 years earlier when it was 76 percent white. Tellingly, the number of older people in its 2017 rankings was also up, with 19 percent of its nominees aged 45-54 compared to just 4 percent in 1990.
Perhaps following lead of the mainstream media trends, a number of high-fashion brands now also seem far more keen to celebrate diversity. According to the fashion industry’s own statistics, the Spring-Summer 2018 fashion campaigns were the most inclusive ever seen – with women of colour now accounting for 34 percent of all the featured models, a 1.2 percent increase on the 2017 figure.
Perhaps most significantly of all, after more than a quarter of a century of fair-skinned ‘brides’, in 2018, Sudanese-Australian Akech Bior became the first ever woman of colour to be Chanel’s chosen showstopper. As if working in tandem, soon afterwards, Versace announced its most extensive ever line-up of models. This saw the brand parade an ethnically-diverse collection of 54 models across a range of media, all under a banner that simply said: “Symbolize Inclusivity”.
Since then, a number of other labels have also made a conspicuous effort to embrace diversity, with older models, plus-sized models, gender-neutral models and disabled models all getting a chance to shine. Among the highlights was the launch of Tommy Adaptive, Tommy Hilfiger’s disability-friendly line, which saw Jeremy Campbell, the US Paralympian, co-opted as the brand’s new ambassador.
Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, meanwhile, dispensed with generations of acquired industry wisdom by dumping blemish-free supermodels in favour of ‘real’ women – across a broad range of body types, sizes, shapes and skin tones – as the new faces of its products.
Inevitably, though, a question mark remains as to whether this really is a Damascene conversion to the cause of diversity or a bit of opportunistic bandwagon-hopping. So, unstoppable torrent of change or the fleeting indulgence of a passing fad? The fashion industry is no stranger to either. But, at least, the very desirability of diversity is now well established enough to give any future Magic Mirror a little pause for thought before it trots out some trite insights into the desirable assets that a 21st century woman really requires.