The lack of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in fashion is a thing. If you’re interested in the online sewing community, you’ll know the D&I issue has been increasing in profile in recent months. The upset, irritation, and anger from feeling excluded is palpable.
I haven’t contributed to the discussion thus far as I have felt like a fraud. Despite being able to legitimately use the hashtag “person of colour who sews” (#pocwhosews) or “sew in colour” (“sewincolour“). But today I’m going to talk about my personal experience as I think D&I is an important part of the ethical fashion and sewing conversation.
Attitudes to Diversity and Inclusion
At this point in time, the two big issues that fashion and sewing have in common comes to D&I in representation in media (e.g. magazine covers) and a size-range limitation. What you see is not representative of the diverse cross-section of society in which we live. Fashion just hasn’t kept up with the reality of the changed world! I wonder if this is just continuation of the old because it is what has been done and what’s worked for a number of years. Or is it because the notion of marketing as a fantasy that people want to buy-into remains unchanged? And yet neither have the traditional “ideals” of beauty.
There’s an episode of Wardrobe Crisis podcast with Sass Brown on clothing ethics which covers about a bit about the attitude problem in fashion, which prompted me to write this blog post. In the podcast, they discuss that resistance appears to be due to decision-makers believing magazines won’t sell if there was anyone that looked like something else but the white supermodel or celebrity-type figures that grace the covers. I would challenge with, “If you haven’t tried, how would you even know?” Then there’s the whole irritating elitist thing that comes hand-in-hand with a lot of sustainable fashion marketing … but that’s another story. I wrote about that on the Sewcialist blog here if you’re interested and it seemed to touch a nerve.
To be completely honest, I find myself stuck in a weird place when it comes to this D&I conversation, in terms of whether I’m qualified to even have an opinion. Here’s why:
The Need to Look Western
My formative years were in a small town of 1000 people in rural Australia. It was the 1990s and Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen were the most gorgeous things on earth. Or at least that’s what the glossies had you believe.
There was limited ethnic diversity in my town; you could count the families on one hand. In an effort to “fit in” and look more western, I would do stuff like put a clothespin to my nose to try and get it to grow taller. Then when I travelled to Asia as a teenager, I unintentionally found validation in my belief at the time that the western kind of beauty was the “right” kind of beauty. The eye tape fad is a good example of this. Beauty and skin care shops were selling thin, curved bits of sticky tape; the sole purpose was to give you an artificial eyelid (you can google “eye tape before and after“). Instead of having a single shallow eyelid, the tape created a double eyelid so you could look more western. Hurrah! Suddenly you could use the magazine eye make-up tutorials which were designed for western eyes. As an aside, I was speaking to a person of colour in her 20’s just a few weeks ago and I noticed that she was wearing eye tape. Another validation of how beauty ideals haven’t changed in a long long time.
It’s hard to shake off what you grew up with
As a teenager, coming to terms with the fact that I was never going to look like the fashiony type with the “cool girl” vibes seen in marketing was hard to accept. Realising that fashion and lifestyle marketing, in general, is a fantasy that needed to be ignored (for the sake of my self-esteem) took years! It probably didn’t consciously happen until I started sewing my clothes and therefore having more control over what I wore.
Not seeing myself represented in marketing and media means it is even harder to shake off the traditional notions of beauty – white, skinny, tall – despite knowing that the approach is intrinsically flawed. Interestingly, when I look at marketing and media even now, I don’t find myself actively searching for or preferring to look at a person South East Asian roots over whoever is actually there. It simply doesn’t generate any reaction or emotion from me other than surprise, if there is diversity to be found.
I don’t identify with any of the big groups that are underrepresented (though I do empathise)
If we assume for a moment that white, skinny, and tall is what is traditionally considered beautiful, then there is one criterion I do meet – skinny. The need for extended sizing does not apply to me. But guess what? Skinny bodies come in different shapes as well and no bodice ever fits me either in RTW or in sewing patterns. I need to do a small bust adjustment on every single pattern. There are many many tutorials on bust adjustments which simply say “do the opposite of a full bust adjustment”. If you haven’t been shown what to do, it really doesn’t help. In that sense, I consider this kind of comment to be tokenism and is something I have found frustrating in the past. But at the same time, I think if everyone tried to write instructions to please absolutely everybody then someone would always be left out. Maybe it’s best to leave things like instructions to the bare minimum? I don’t know.
My appearance as a person of colour still causes me an identity issue. People ask me all the time where I’m from, particularly when I open my mouth and they hear my accent. I always say Australia, because that is where I grew up and I see myself as Australian. The end. But, you can imagine that reply results in confused looks in many cases, and the follow-up question is always oh but you look …or but what is your heritage … and so on. Let me ask you – if I was white, would you still ask me that? Why does it matter to you anyway that I look different? Why are you making a point of it? Whilst there is no malice intended in 99% of cases, I think it is unconscious stereotyping and assumptions that immediately has me on the defensive.
Why does diversity matter to those who don’t necessarily feel under-represented?
OK, so I have an identity crisis but I’m not annoyed at being under-represented in media. But, there are so many people that don’t fit the mould in a huge range of ways and don’t feel included. Here’s a super scary statistic: 91% of women in the US feel dissatisfied with their bodies (source: Sass Brown via Wardrobe Crisis). That’s so much more than enough to do something about it! (And I’m not referring to just tokenism so the box can be ticked).
Dear Fashion …. it is women who got you where you are. Without us women you wouldn’t be rich and successful. It is we, she, THE WOMEN who keep you in business. We are your workforce and your market.
Clare Press, Open Letter to Fashion (written for International Women’s Day 2019)
It’s time to make fashion and clothes work for everybody. There’s nothing wrong with bodies; it is the clothes that need to need change. That bodies are different needs to be made much more visible and I’m grateful for this Sewcialist blog and everyone else who has spoken up to effect change. At least what has always been great about sewing is that if you can sew then you know that a pattern is not drafted for you. But you can sort out the fit and improve your body positivity just a little bit – you just need to know how to do it.
Kate is a former guest editor of the Sewcialists. An import to the Netherlands via the UK, she thinks sustainable fashion and sewing should be accessible to everybody. Follow her blog over at Time to Sew for more sustainability chat!