The whirring of the old industrial sewing machine was a familiar sound of my childhood. My grandmother was a seamstress who worked in the factory by day and at home in the evenings. During the week, I would spend hours after school in front of this machine as she turned bundles of cut fabric pieces into garments. It was here that my love of clothing was born and I would often fill this time drawing countless women in colourful ensembles. On special occasions, she would even create dresses for my dolls and I. As I grew older, this appreciation for beautifully crafted pieces developed into a fascination of the transformative power of clothing to elevate one’s look, mood and even their presence. I knew then that I wanted to be a part of this fashion world where I could create beautiful things for all people, but instead, I ended up staying away from it for many years.
As a black and overweight teenager in the 90’s, I was increasingly aware of how much I didn’t fit into the fashion industry. I devoured all the popular fashion magazines, but the lack of representation of women of colour or women above single-digit sizing was a constant silent reminder that I would never be ‘one of them.’ Coupled with the language around obtaining these narrow beauty standards,
“I felt that I was more than just invisible, I was the complete opposite of everything idolised in fashion. I was ugly.”
Despite my knowledge, intelligence or talents, the physical representation of myself spoke before I ever uttered a word and it said, ‘I don’t belong here.’ I never articulated these feelings out loud, but I carried these thoughts, internalising them as a measure of my worth as a human being.
The fashion industry has a long European heritage and up until recent years, has focused heavily on the work of western designers and brands. The lack of racial diversity on the catwalks, in editorials and advertisements, have led many to describe the industry as a domain reserved for the white and rich. These visual representations of exclusion have signified the larger problem of the lack of diverse people working behind the scenes. In fact, less than 1% of minority ethnic people are at the helm of a brand. However, studies have shown that the incorporation of diversity and inclusive practice into the workplace have resulted in companies that perform better, have higher financial returns and increased innovative and creative problem-solving skills.
Similarly, there are substantial opportunities for growth in the area of plus-size clothing yet the majority of brands still only go up to a size 16 UK with the luxury brands often capping at a size 10/12 UK. Even the modern brands who are leading the way in sustainability and technology have failed to expand their sizing beyond the ‘normal’ range of slim sizes. With the majority of women in the UK wearing at least a size 16 UK, it is clear that the idolisation of a single body type does not make good business sense.
Despite many well-documented cases of the harm these narrow ideals do to the self-image and self-esteem of both men and women, the expectations of the industry have not changed much. In response, there has been a surge of marginal groups that cater to these “niche” segments. The ideal world in fashion, however, is still one where women of colour and plus-size women do not exist.
Whether you are a follower of fashion or not, clothing and dress are an important aspect of identity. Our visual image signifies to others who we are. When we feel a lack of representation, this increases feelings of exclusion and a lack of belonging. The need to belong is a basic need for all humankind. When faced with a lack of acknowledgement, it carries an emotional blow, a reaction that speaks volumes for its significance in everyday lives.
American psychologists have described the effects of this as the ‘invisibility syndrome’;
the internal struggle that our abilities, talents and personality are not recognised or valued because of our physical representations. The studies around this concept have been limited to racial experiences, but I think they can be applied more broadly. This is not to say that the people in the fashion industry have deliberately excluded groups of people, as all of us naturally gravitate to and positively regard others who are like us. Instead, this further demonstrates how crucial it is to make diversity and inclusion a priority in all aspects of the fashion industry. Especially since this untapped market represents billions of pounds!
It was several years until I returned to the fashion industry. Eventually, the joy I gained from the creation of fashion, overrode my insecurities. The fashion world is an adventurous place full of imagination and experimentation. By focusing on innovation, craftsmanship, and great design for all, there is tremendous potential for fashion to empower and celebrate the beauty in our differences.