Racial discrimination in the fashion industry

Seminar Paper, 2019

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Conten

I. Introduction

II. Definitions

III. Racism in Fashion Industry

IV. Protests

V. Conclusion

VI. References

I. Introduction

What is offered in fashion industry is what is widely considered as being ‚aesthetic’. Though ‚aesthetic‘ is an elastic term, the industry is clearly drenched by western influence. The supposed internationality of the fashion industry is characterized by various forms of racial discrimination. Ongoing subject matters like racial discrimination shall be considered in a sensitive and critical way, when in reality fashion advertisements and editorials regularly lead to controversies. Luckily do campaigns and demonstrations aim for consciousness and sensibility.

This term paper will discuss different forms of racial discrimination in the fashion industry, exemplified on recent controversies. It does not claim to be complete, as racial discrimination still is an everyday occurrence in this industry and expresses itself in many facets too wide to mention. Therefore, I will focus on big fashion brands and magazines. This term paper is gender-neutral, still the industry is focused on women as a dominating target group. The goal of this term paper is to find out how racial discrimination in the fashion industry is expressed and what are the trends to fight it. Forms of racial discrimination, dominance of a white and eurocentric beauty idol, and protests against main forms of racial discrimination in the fashion industry are picked out as keywords.

II. Definitions

Racial Discrimination

Racism and racial discrimination is a global issue, therefore an international definition is significant. At the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), it is abstained from the usage of ‚racism’. The reason for that is ‚racism‘ being defined as the stigma and ideology of cultural superiority, whereas ‚racial discrimination‘ is its expression and the behavior (Bales et al. 2003: 86) . Therefore, the phenomena of racism is determined by the term ‚racial discrimination‘. According to Article 1.1,

„‚racial discrimination‘ shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life” (ICERD 1969)

This wide definition proves durable as it covers all acts of racially motivated discrimination, whether based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin (Bales et al. 2003: 25). Further, it includes indirect forms of discrimination based on prejudices against minorities, as deprecative attitudes, conscious and subconscious prejudices and disadvantages due to phenotypical attributes like skin colour and hair (Naguib 2014: 18).

Fashion Industry

‚Fashion‘ is defined as the styles of clothing and accessories that are worn at any given time by a group pf people. The fashion industry is a global enterprise applied to the business of selling and producing clothes. The term ‚fashion industry‘ embraces design, manufacturing, distribution marketing, retailing, advertising, and promotion of all types of apparel, either men’s, women’s or children’s. It includes rarified haute couture and designers fashion same as ordinary everyday clothing. The industry itself developed in Europe and America. Today it is an international and globalized one and accounts for a significant share of world economic output (Steele, Major 2018).

III. Racism in Fashion Industry

The fashion industry is characterized by western dominance, which leads to suppression and racial discrimination. Although the fashion industry serves different target groups, it does stereotype eurocentric body images and reproduces dominant power relations (Schmelzer-Ziringer 2013: 12). White bodies function as unmarked and normative centers. All bodies deviant from that are organized as marked bodies along the normative beauty idols of „being white“ (Brilling 2017: 8). Therefore, People of Colour are often chosen to illustrate deviance or to present accentuated diversity. In 2008, the Italian Vogue published ‚The Black Issue‘ as a response to the out-spoken imbalance of diversity. Franca Sozzani, the late Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Italia, featured only black models, establishing heavyweights like Naomi Campbell, but also contemporary notables like Jordan Dunn and the first black, plus-size model Toccara Jones (Newman 2017: 1). What may seem as a step forward for achieving diversity turns out to be a manifestation of the existing standards. The ‚White Is Right Ideology‘ (Glenn 2008) is reproduced by the token use of models of colour to excuse racial discrimination. Tokenism is defined as the practice of only making a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. The token model allows the designer to avoid the accusation of stereo-typing or discrimination against the minority group. In fact, tokenism does not accurately represent the people who take an interest in fashion or consume luxury fashion (Newman 2017: 1).

Forms of racial discrimination will be exemplified on the US-Vogue from March 2017. The magazine, though themed as diversity issue, caused criticism for misinterpreting the actual concept of ‚diversity‘. Its cover shows six diverse models, which in fact have been whitewashed to appear with almost identical skin tones (Geels 2017). ‚Whitewashing’ is the common practice of lighting or digitally altering pictures of women of colour in such way to make dark skin appear whiter. The result and the message of this practice is: women of colour, whatever their skin shade, are not light enough because they are not white (Phoenix 2014: 99).

In fact, this cover represents a throughout phenomena in the industry: Racial characteristics are minimized. Dominant beauty standard have positioned and continue to position black girls and women as less feminine, and less human if they posses darker skin and African hair texture and facial features (Jha 2016). A black model’s aesthetic requires to visually fit within the white beauty standards. Justin Peery, model agent, explains that often black models being featured in the fashion business have unique features for African-Americans. „They really look like white girls being painted black. That is beauty to the industry’s perspective“ (St. Philip 2019). Black girls are shown as white girls with large eyes, oval faces and straightened hair. Diversity and to be non-white is to be relegated to a ‚special issue‘, while the regular edition remains white (Gopal 2008).

In the main editorial of the Vogue’s Diversity Issue, the American model Karlie Kloss was styled as a geisha. The pictures were featuring a sumo wrestler, showed Kloss carrying a basket of cherry blossoms or wearing a long crown of black hair (Evans 2017). White people who cast in non-white roles is a widely known form of racial discrimination. The origin of this, named „Blackfacing“, lies in the American Minstrel Show, when white people were styled as black people and caricatured or imitated them in a deprecative way. Compared to the Minstrel Show, fashion editorials like these do not try to caricature, for it is intentioned as aesthetic illustration. The industry’s fantasy is built upon the assumption of producing something beautiful instead of ugly, which therefore could not be seen as racial discrimination (Brilling 2017: 8). Nevertheless, replacing People of Colour by casting white people for the same role does affect the representation of diversity.

Vogue and Karlie Kloss have also been criticized for cultural appropriation. Titled as homage, designer and photographer do use inspirations from different cultures and forget or ignore to name their source of inspiration (Brilling 2017: 9). The fashion industry is notorious for profiting from the co-option and reproduction of cultural dress from across the world. The problematic aspect is the fact that people of these cultures are oppressed, while their cultures are consumed. It is the outcome of power structure, (Hoskins 2014: 137f), for the cultural dress is declared as trend and fabulous the moment it is offered to the western target group (Brilling 2017: 9).

Karlie Kloss as a geisha does demonstrate the common practice of featuring racial stereotypes. Stereotyping sets in whenever the fashion industry tries to produce a ‚tribal‘ imaginery. Another facet is the continuing predilection for portraying People of Colour as akin to animals (Hoskins 2014: 131). In August 2009, Harper’s Bazaar magazine published the editorial ‚Wild Things‘ with Naomi Campbell running with a cheetah or riding on elephants and crocodiles. This form of portraying ‚exotic‘ people is produced as marked contrast to white models and goes hand in hand with referring to colonialism and exploitation (ebd. 131f). For the same reason, an H&M advertisement from January 2018 led to international reproaches. The advertisement showed a black boy model wearing a hoodie with the writing ‚The Coolest Monkey In The Jungle‘, whereas a white boy wore a sweater with ‚Survival Expert‘ (Rudgard 2018). Consumers were outraged about the negative connotations of culture the advertisement implied and asked H&M to take responsibility (Kjaersgaard 2018: 11).

One recent example for the problem of using stereotypes was seen in Dolce § Gabbana. In November 2018, Dolce & Gabbana displeased the whole Chinese country by an stereotyping advertisement. The video series called ‚Eating with Chopsticks‘ show a Chinese woman struggling to eat pizza and pasta with chopsticks, while a voice tells her what to do (Wilkinson 2018). Dolce and Gabbana were criticized for the stereotypical way of portraying Chinese people.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Racial discrimination in the fashion industry
FH Campus Vienna - University of Applied Sciences
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Racism, Racial Discrimination, White Beauty Idol, Eurocentrism, Eurocentric Beauty Idol, Fashion, Fashion Industry, Discrimination, Whitewashing, Cultural Appropiation, Beauty, Western Dominance
Quote paper
Eva Wilhelm (Author), 2019, Racial discrimination in the fashion industry, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/465446


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