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!
There is so much to unpack here! I have a tough time believing people are genuine when they insist that they don’t understand why representation matters.
First, I’d never heard of eye tape and gah. I hate that it is a “thing”. I grew up in Chicago (*in* the city…the rough bits!). In my college English class, we were discussing media and there was one other black girl in my class. The discussion didn’t resonate with either us and through further discussion, we surmised that it was because we did not see people who looked like us. I didn’t (couldn’t?) look at the Kate Moss’ and think, “why don’t I look like that”? BUT, that doesn’t mean there were no issues. In the black community, “thickness” is praised much more than thinness. And I was a RAIL! And being so straight up-and-down skinny was tough. We grew up exclaiming how skinny girls “needed to eat a cheeseburger”. And then my daughter became a teen. And she had a REAL struggle with people implying that she didn’t eat or worse, purged, because she was so thin — at 5’8″ she’s about 110 lbs — but it’s just biology.
I don’t know when things will actually improve. After many years with a lack of representation, now, when black women are showed in commercials, shows, etc, she’s the “sassy black woman”. And that pisses me off in whole different way. Or the fact that most black women they choose are biracial – lighter brown skin, “nice” curly hair…
And do NOT even get me started on the “where are you from” (or worse, “what are you?”) ridiculousness. As if you didn’t understand the question. Or why I should be okay with being called African-American. I was born in America. My parents were. My grandparents were. My great-grandparents were. Soooo are you “European-American”? No. You are white. I am black.
Hi there, thanks for your comment and OMG SO YES to the stereotyping annoyance. Thank you for expressing all the small things that I’ve just learned to ignore and clearly forgot about when I was writing the blog post. Whether that’s being too thin, too fat, the sassy black woman, the nerdy chinese girl with the glasses … and yes “what are you?” How about a human, just like you?!
I have a BFA in graphic design from a woman’s college, which at the time I attended was 98% female and at least 51% women of color. In the fashion illustration class we took turns modelling for different assignments. The instructor (short, round, and white) told the class that we were wrong in drawing what we saw — short, round, etc.– because it wasn’t what our future employers wanted, which was tall and thin.
A lot goes into a photo shoot to make a model to appear ‘perfect’ and the solution to your problems. This ‘social engineering’ (actually taught in my classes) is the basis for a lot of advertisements.
I share this to say that colleges are often guided to produce a particular type of student the hiring companies want. Corporations know which colleges and programs are compliant. I learned this when I worked as a graphic designer and marketing manager. Interviews can be unnerving, especially when you know why the conversation is steered towards what you learned in class. Exclusion, unfortunately, is taught and expected, sometimes along with diversity and inclusion from where I graduated. Profit for the employer is the ingrained lesson.
There are famous models, fashion designers, and fashion journalists who are tackling this issue from the inside, but that is only cause for us to chip away at the outside more so the wall comes down faster.
The online sewing community is in a position to change the fashion and beauty industry because we (I just learned to sew) are short, round, rail thin, of color, and can share on multiple platforms that clothes are beautiful on all bodies.
Dear Pamela, thank you for your comment and firstly, congratulations on learning to sew and on finding the Sewcialists!
Secondly, thank you for the insight into the industry. What you say is depressing but I must admit I am in no way surprised. As recently as 6 months ago I went to a series of fashion illustration classes just for fun. Mostly because I wanted to be able to draw better the clothes I wanted to make. Anyway the class was taught by a person of colour, and she went through the 8 (or is it 9?) head method as is standard. In all of my croquis she extended the legs to make them “a bit more fashiony”. Looking back it gives me a (hollow) laugh – if nothing else it was interesting to see another of the fantasy techniques being blatantly employed.
The person who taught me to sew studied fashion design for three years. When she and I talked about me starting on new pieces for myself she mentioned doing a 10-head method. She’s shorter than me, possibly 5 feet tall.
I remember in my advertising class that the instructor said that fashion and style are two different things. Fashion comes and goes, style is long-term. I feel that it’s individual, too. We rarely talk about how we express ourselves with clothing, wearing a lot of the same thing for years. It’s our signature.
I think representation is good and just this week was pleased to see a magazine I subscribe to using a model who has scaring. Under our skin we are all human and should be valued. We are also all different. It’s not just our external appearance that may show that. As sewists we need to be kind, and rather than just embracing diversity and inclusion we should be embracing individuality. Who ever we are, wherever we come from, whatever our beliefs are, whatever inspires us. Etc.
While I may fit into some pre set categories. I hate to be defined by it. I am me. Sewing and creating has helped me find my identity, self awareness, confidence.
Yes I think kindness and acceptance is the key – of ourselves and of others. I’m so grateful to the Sewcialists for being a platform for all voices, whether we fit into pre set categories or not! Happy sewing!
I grew up in Australia too (I’m still here), but I was White, Skinny and Tall; sadly, I’m no longer skinny.
I was still ‘othered’, as I have red hair – for years people informed me that my red hair meant that I had a bad temper. That seems to have gone now as the number of non European migrants increased. Why pick on me, when you can have a go at people who look REALLY different?
And yet, I still don’t feel like I belong. I might be white, but beauty articles in magazines don’t show redheads – apparently only blondes, brunettes and a token POC can display makeup. Fashion articles go on about everyone looking good in a white shirt or a red coat – which is patently wrong. Their idea of ‘nude’ is my idea of an impossible tan. Concealer is never pale enough.
If I go into a department store and have a makeover I’m very careful who I pick, as they tend to just reproduce what suits themselves. For some unknown reason, southern European women really like working as makeup artists, and the colours that suit them look as disastrous on me as they would, say, on a person of Chinese ancestry.
What am I trying to say? People are blind to the existence or reality of anyone not like themselves. Maybe those Italian makeup artists started working in the field because they couldn’t get anyone to sell them foundation that wasn’t too pale, but many haven’t yet made the jump to the idea that there is an infinite variety out there. One of my earliest memories is wanting to be normal. Eventually I realised that the last thing I wanted to be was normal.
We’re all amazing, and NONE of us are normal, and that’s WONDERFUL!
Oh yes I remember the redhead thing and how being “ginger” also made you othered. I totally hear you on the nude colouring – other people’s idea of neutrals and camel colour is my idea of looking like a blob all in one colour. And I’ve never been able to buy make up the correct colour so I never wear make up! The underlying tones are always too pink regardless of how yellow they are and I share your pain on the make up artist fiascos.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and reminding us that there are so many of us that don’t fit fashion marketing’s definition of normal – as you say none of us are “normal” and it’s a good thing we’re not! For me it took a lot of getting older to make peace with not looking “normal”!