There are times when the fashion industry should be applauded: when it champions the rights of minority groups, promotes AIDS awareness, makes a stance on the fur trade, fast fashion and the use – way ahead of the curve – of BAM and (more recently) plus-sized models and those with physical and mental disabilities. Fashion can be a pedestal for the promotion of causes that matter.
At other times, fashion seems – at best – at a loss on how to deal with any of the above and – at worst – as though these issues (these people) are anathema to a vision of beauty and trendiness it promotes.
Winnie Harlow, the well known African-American model who has the skin condition vitiligo, is one of the rare examples of someone for whom a ‘disability’ (and colour) has become – in a commercial sense – an upside in the fashion world.
She has skin that draws attention to her uniqueness and that leads to pertinent dialogues about [her] colour, and perceptions of beauty in the 21st Century. She deserves her success.
Fashion has supported the marginalized because those who are into fashion have often been marginalised themselves. Designers (and many models) dress up as a way to confront their insecurities and to give form to their creative tendencies. Designers see beauty where it is starved, partly because of the potential in such places and also because they were once starved themselves.
But the fashion industry moulds creative potential and tendencies to its own ends. While fashion itself may strive to give voice and face to the marginalised, the industry trades on idiosyncracy for idealised visions of beauty.
At best (as with Winnie Harlow) fashion is able to champion new takes on what form this vision should take. This is not the same as accepting that which is not beautiful (which fashion will never be able to do, and shouldn’t – beauty is not a sin) but it creates a positive sense of aspiration for those who don’t naturally fit in.
There are ‘ugly’ fashion trends of course – much to the ire and delight of the populist press, who avoid – like many do with modernist art – asking questions about how the designs are attempting to challenge the boundaries of contemporary understanding, while highly sexualised images (which promote idealised and male-centric versions of the female form) go unchallenged.
There are limits placed on designers too – the shadowy places from which they create have to be branded, commodified into something that will sell (with a smile) rather than make a difference to the way we see the world and others, and make us want to change that world.