We need to have a rethink about fashion. High fashion in particular. This might seem cliché. Every season at London Fashion Week, high fashion, womenswear mainly, gets it in the neck. It is elitist, discriminatory to consumers and, at worst, irrelevant. 'Where are the non-white castings, the trans models?' 'Why are the models so thin, can this be right?'
Thinking as a cultural and literary historian I like to take a long view when it comes to these questions. Fashion has always been in conflict with the mainstream. It has always been criticised. Chances are, it would probably lose much of its allure if it were not. In the early nineteenth century, commentators objected to the detailed descriptions of closely fitting men's suits in novels. In the very magazines that promoted corsetry, medical writers were voicing their concerns about the dangers of light lacing. When short hair for women made the transition from an avant-garde European style to a British and American mainstream one, there were claims that bobbed hair was an offence against Christianity. None of these objections stopped women from wearing corsets (it took the social changes arising from World War I to do that). Nothing stopped modish ladies from queuing at barber shops to have their hair cut right up to their ears. Most of the criticism in the past, however, was anti-fashion. Its objections were on the grounds that an interest in appearance was worldly, trivial, and dangerous to society's morals. History lesson over.
These days the criticism is very different. It comes from bloggers, academics and stakeholders of smaller enterprises. It comes from consumers. It's a very different battle. And it is indeed a battle. Fashion is political. It is a reflection of the forces that affect our complicated lives. Trends might be short lived, but they are not trivial when it comes to their effects. Our bodies and our clothes play a role in the formation of how we want to appear and the social hierarchies that we live in. Unfortunately, the catwalks and editorial do not often relate to this. Even within the narrow confines of body size and shape that are the conventions of haute couture, we see predominantly white model castings. The few non-white models present will be in an 'exotic' style. It is not hard to find, in the twenty-first century, a white model 'blacked up' for an editorial.
It is a painful truth, but we would do well to understand that beauty follows power. Bodies considered 'beautiful' often represent or flatter what we think of as dominance. Beauty is a product of our colonial inheritance, Victorian racial theories, where whiteness, was, in most circumstances, placed at the top and presented as 'normal' (just as it can be in the beauty industry now). On top of this, in our current age: thinness represents a self-disciplined ideal, affluence and 'correct' femininity. Of course there are subcultures and different kinds of beauty that deviate from this so-called norm. But we also know certain types of beauty seem to get on magazine covers more than others.
Can we make the industry be more inclusive? Probably not in the short term. The fashion industry is caught up in a world-view that we as executives, designers and consumers are the bearers. Industry professionals present their decisions as if they were simply following the natural order of things, or the needs of the market. They would not be in their roles if they could not do this. Whether they are effective in convincing the public in the long term, remains to be seen.
To say that fashion and beauty are not product of politics, however, is anachronistic, naive or self-serving. In the Cultural Studies programme at Central Saint Martins on which I am a lecturer, our team offer the next generation of potential professionals and scholars new ways of thinking critically about fashion in our complex world. If high fashion is about selling a fantasy, then the industry could, at the very least, provide opportunities for expression, rather than reproductions of familiar oppressions. Fashion professionals, who seek the revenue of a digital, global economy, but resist the cultural implications of what that brings, test the loyalty of consumers. They also ignore the wealth of talent from a generation who do seem baffled by some of the editorial and casting decisions they see. Challenging the dominance of the white model, for example, in a country with a history of colonialism is an inevitable part of progress. It is about moving beyond the limitations of the past. High fashion would do well to be a part of this.
Dr Royce Mahawatte is Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins, UAL