Fashion's Hottest New Trend: Whiteness

After four weeks, four cities, and hundreds of shows, this go-round of fashion month is officially over. The Chanel riot gear has been packed up while Hong Kong riots rage on, and the models hop back to their model apartments to nurse their over-bleached brows and weakened nailbeds. When it was all over, I flipped through the show notes in full, and was bombarded with such a sense of glaring monotony I ended up taking a nap halfway through. The clothes were white; the make-up was “no-make-up.” In the beauty realm this season, key phrases like “carefree,” “moisturizer only!,” “naturalism,” “French and smart,” came up too many times to count.

This is good news for skincare brands, who will no doubt be featured in the next six months’ worth of “runway ready, real beauty” stories. But this “new naturalism” is, in fact, part of a larger, frankly terrifying problem with the beauty industry, and how it valorizes whiteness as a metaphor for health and intellect. My friends on Haider Ackermann’s beauty team described the models as “an army” (Marc Jacobs did too), embarking a metaphorical journey to a “new start,” as colorist Josh Wood put it, or that white is a thinking man’s color. According to the dictums of this season, it’s a brand new start—but it is in so many ways, about making everyone look the same. There was no room for room for color, not even when we talk about eyeshadow. Most of the models, once again, happened to be pretty white. We’re thinking men, after all.

It’s not inherently damaging to use the color white as a metaphor for new beginnings, and the wedding industry would have my head for saying otherwise. But when it’s combined with the military precision of all-white casts and quite often all-white clothes, as it was this fashion month, it comes with a force and foreboding, and displaces the stories not being told with this white-is-right train of thought. It’s not exactly a “new journey” that the basic tenets of about six shows, Ackermann and Chloe among them, were wigs, “real” skin palettes (but no acne allowed), and carefree French white girls. It’s not a “new start” if it’s the same basic tenets of beauty that have been pushed for for hundreds of years, you know?

Let’s examine first the poor showing of models of color on the runways this season, concurrent with the near-disappearance of trans women. The world was buzzing when Andreja was Andrej, but she was nowhere to be found on the runways this season. Hari Nef, who was one of the few trans girls to walk the New York shows, explains that there are trans women on the runway, but they don’t feel safe coming out. “This fashion week was actually one of the worst in terms of diversity,” she says. “I’m pretty sure [Isis King] and I were the only out trans girls walking the runways.” Besides that, designers like Olivier Rousteing,who were just last season lauded for their work with women of color in their campaigns, cast only one or two black girls this season. There was the dominance of #allwhitecasts, about which Lorde Inc has written thoroughly about. The Fashion Spot has just released its seasonal model diversity tallies, and the result is predictably disappointing. On top of that, this fashion week heralded the return of underage models walking in both New York and Milan. Tami Williams turned 16 just a few weeks before she walked in a sheer top for Balmain.

So after making small advances over the past couple of seasons, casting politics have now gone retrograde just like the stars, despite advocacy groups like LordeInc, the Model Alliance, and Balance Diversity working hard to change that. With the absence of more models of color, there was also a conscious lack of visibility for beauty of color on the runways. The beauty copy was full of words like “blank page,” “the declutter color,” and most direct of all, “white—the common denominator.” The wigs were uniform (“glacial blonde”) and with the notable exception of Vivienne Westwood and Dior, all of last season’s intricate eyeshadow was phased out.

I’m totally fine with the “trends” shifting towards less makeup, less shellacking. But I am very concerned with the context from which the message of “less is more” comes. Architects and designers like Corbusier have written polemics that claim white represents an “inner cleanness,” that white Ripolin represents the mastering of natural in a battle for morals and health. It’s a cleansing fantasy, and there’s little difference between it and the raw-hemmed, cream silk gowns that marched down the runways this season, on white bodies, with white illuminator on the cheekbones, to signify “a new start.” When you establish that your beauty future is cleansed of all color both in clothes and in cast from the very beginning, you set up the imagination of editorial work to be just as white and boring.

The beauty story of Spring Fashion Week 2015 is not telling us that “less is more, because you’re beautiful the way you are,” as it would have you believe. It is telling us this: “We are afraid of more, so our future will be post-race, post-color, and post-all-the-problems.” It is a very glamorized idea of the future, of intellectual ascension. (You have to be a 17-year-old, European model to really pull it off.) Even their idea of difference is whitewashed, and the celebrated makeup artists behind these beauty looks acknowledge the way they alienate the audience: they’re meant to. “It’s a fight for individuality—you want to break free from this look and be you.” says Josh Wood. I say it’s a trap.

These beauty looks from fashion month might be simple to achieve, but they have quiet consequences. Color, in art and design as in beauty and fashion, is political at the heart. The colors we use give signals as to what we’re supposed to want, and the exclusion of color is, supposedly, tied to a controlled sense of peace. These looks are afraid of being too much, and so they erase everything that makes a person’s beauty unique, and singular, and charming. To “start from zero” on a cast that is already quite blanda sends a message of absolute control of a beauty politic where women of color have no future at all. They send out white models, in white eyeliner, in white clothes, in white wigs, and call them fashionable armies. They call this beauty. They call this a trend to watch.

Image: SIPA/

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