Story: Nam Thi
Fashion has long reinforced traditional standards of beauty, but it has also witnessed ground-breaking steps toward greater inclusion.
Historically, fashion was designed exclusively for the wealthy and slim of the Western world. The fashion hierarchy became more pronounced and far-reaching as imperialism grew in power, exemplified by figures such as Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution, along with increasingly complex class struggles, that fashion became more widely accessible. Still, on the runway and in the advertising world, the expression of aesthetic values has traditionally remained limited to a select few.
Racial discrimination is the most sensitive and painful issue in the fashion industry. Historically, skin tones other than white were seldom seen in fashion campaigns. Donyale Luna was the first Black woman to grace the cover of British Vogue in March 1966, but her face was partly hidden due to the editor’s request that her racial identity be concealed. It wasn’t until eight years later that model Beverly Johnson appeared in a beauty shot on the cover of American Vogue. The image was a groundbreaking milestone in the fashion industry, but progress remained slow. Even the iconic Black supermodel Naomi Campbell had a difficult time getting her face on the cover of French Vogue in 1988, despite having previously been the muse of many famous designers. It took a threat from Yves Saint Laurent himself to withdraw advertising from the publication to finally land Campbell her first cover.
As for Asian models, the road to inclusion has been even longer. Chinese model Du Juan was the first Asian to appear on the cover of French Vogue in 2005, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier. However, she had to share the spotlight with her co-star, Australian model Gemma Ward. It took another eight years for Fei Fei Sun to become the first Asian model to feature as a standalone on the cover of Vogue Italia in 2013.
At each of these stages, models of color were still seen as something of a novelty. And yet, their trailblazing paths truly opened up new frontiers. Today, it is not uncommon for a Black supermodel to become the most powerful figure in the fashion world, while models of color appear on every catwalk and brands constantly look to the East for both inspiration and market opportunities.
Meanwhile, the struggle for gender equality and feminism has never cooled in the fashion industry. Although women have always been at the forefront of creativity in this field, they have historically been forced to conform to societal norms.
It was not until 1926 that the legendary Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel shocked the world by firing the first shot for feminism. Coco Chanel freed women’s hands with the 2.55 bag and, by cutting dresses short and incorporating men’s dress codes into women’s designs, delivered a new and liberated beauty ideal with the iconic little black dress.
Another fashion revolution took place in 1966 when Yves Saint Laurent introduced his Le Smoking tuxedo for women. The controversial design sparked an era of minimalist and androgynous looks in fashion that continues to this day and which many credit with helping to empower women.
The LGBTQ+ community has also long been engaged in a struggle for a greater presence in the fashion industry. Today, there are a plethora of fashion statements affirming gender liberation and designs that blur all gender borders. Gender discrimination in fashion is gradually fading, with artists such as Billy Porter, Harry Styles and Jaden Smith freely wearing women’s clothing and a new generation of nonbinary models on the rise.
MILESTONES FOR AGE AND BODY TYPE
Thin has been in throughout most of modern fashion history, but in recent years a growing variety of body sizes are also appearing on covers and runways.
In 2016, plus-sized model Ashley Graham graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue for the first time ever. She was featured on the cover of British Vogue in January 2017 and has walked for major labels such as Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors and Christian Soriano in runway shows.
The age barrier was also broken in 2018 when Saint Laurent’s Creative Director Anthony Vaccarello chose Betty Catroux, then 73, as the face of its campaign. In addition, 18 middle-aged models were chosen to perform and appear in 11 fashion advertising campaigns. Among them was Amber Valletta, a 44-year-old supermodel who continued to appear in seven consecutive campaigns, garnering positive feedback from the global fashion world.
These milestones have foreshadowed a new era in the fashion industry, where diversity, equity, and inclusiveness have finally moved into the spotlight.