The pantheon of fashion has long been reserved for a select few — the tall, the slender, the predominantly white. It's a world that has often projected a singular, narrow ideal of beauty, echoing through the glossy pages of fashion magazines, across runways, and within the hallowed halls of design houses.

Yet, like a textile being skillfully woven on a loom, change is threading through the fabric of the industry. The last few years have seen a palpable shift in the representation and inclusion of diverse bodies, races, and identities in the world of fashion. Diversity, it seems, is finally having its moment.

However, even as we celebrate this progress, it is essential to acknowledge that there is still much work to do. Despite strides towards a more inclusive industry, systemic barriers and biases remain, revealing that the path to true diversity is far from smooth or linear.

Diverse Bodies on the Runway

Perhaps the most visible area of progress is the increased representation of diverse body types on runways and in ad campaigns. From models like Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday who advocate for body positivity, to brands like Universal Standard and Fenty that offer inclusive sizing, the industry is slowly broadening its definition of beauty.

Victoria’s Secret, a brand historically known for its narrow portrayal of femininity, has rebranded with a commitment to diversity and inclusivity. The introduction of their "VS Collective" in 2021 replaced the infamous "Angels" with a group of diverse women spanning various sizes, ages, and backgrounds.

Yet, despite these developments, plus-size representation still lags. A report from The Fashion Spot found that out of the 7,608 models who walked at the Spring 2020 fashion shows, only 86 were plus-size. Moreover, clothing options for plus-size consumers continue to be limited, often relegated to separate collections or labels, perpetuating a sense of 'otherness' rather than inclusivity.

Increasing Racial and Ethnic Representation

The fashion industry is also becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. The Spring 2020 runway season was the most racially diverse ever, with nearly 40% of the models being people of color, according to a report by The Fashion Spot. A growing number of brands are appointing models of color as their faces, and designers of color are steadily gaining recognition.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) launched the Black Advisory Board in 2021 to create systemic change within the fashion system. The initiative's purpose is to provide opportunities and resources to Black designers and professionals, signaling an industry-wide commitment to racial equity.

Yet, despite these advances, racism and cultural appropriation persist within the industry. Many fashion houses have faced criticism for lack of diversity within their leadership or for appropriating elements of different cultures without proper credit or understanding. The need for fashion to embrace, not just represent, diverse cultures is clear.

Representation of Gender Diversity

The rise of gender-fluid fashion represents another important step toward diversity. Brands like Telfar, Eckhaus Latta, and Gucci have blurred traditional gender boundaries, crafting collections that eschew the binary.

The industry is also slowly opening up to trans and non-binary models. In 2017, Teddy Quinlivan, a high-profile fashion model, publicly announced that she is transgender, raising visibility and sparking important conversations about inclusivity in fashion.

Still, the industry has a long way to go. Many brands still adhere to outdated notions of gender in their collections and marketing, often relegating gender-neutral offerings to limited capsule collections. Additionally, trans models continue to face discrimination and tokenization.

Accessibility in Fashion

Perhaps the least recognized aspect of diversity in fashion is accessibility. Adaptive clothing, designed for people with disabilities, has been a significantly overlooked and underserved market. Brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Zappos have begun to address this, creating collections that focus on adjustable seams, magnetic buttons, and wheelchair-friendly designs.

Nonetheless, adaptive fashion remains largely uncharted territory, a niche rather than a norm. The majority of fashion brands continue to cater to a presumed 'able-bodied' customer, inadvertently excluding a significant portion of the population.

A Path Forward

The progress in the fashion industry is encouraging but incomplete. To truly embody diversity, the industry must confront its systemic biases and move beyond tokenistic inclusion.

Inclusion shouldn’t be just a seasonal trend or a marketing tactic. It needs to be woven into the very structure of the industry, from design rooms to boardrooms. Fashion education, too, plays a crucial role in fostering diverse talent and ideas. Design schools need to nurture a diverse student body and equip them with an inclusive design philosophy.

Brands must strive for diversity in their leadership and decision-making roles. Having diverse voices at the table can ensure varied perspectives and decrease the likelihood of cultural insensitivity or misrepresentation.

Consumers, too, wield significant power. By supporting brands that prioritize diversity and holding others accountable, consumers can help steer the fashion industry towards greater inclusivity.

Diversity in fashion is more than just a mix of different faces on the runway. It's about reflecting the myriad realities and experiences of humanity. It's about dismantling narrow beauty ideals and acknowledging that style doesn't come in a one-size-fits-all package. The industry has started to sketch this vision, but the masterpiece of true diversity is yet to be fully realized.

July 13, 2023 — Trendstack CS