Body Beautiful on fashion, diversity and representation

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland is the first of its kind to examine diversity within the fashion industry. We speak to its curator about assembling Body Beautiful

Feature by Katie Goh | 06 May 2019
  • Model Halima Aden wears a look from the Max Mara Autumn Winter 2017 collection.

Fashion works in trends and there’s perhaps no bigger cultural trend at the moment than diversity. On catwalks and magazine covers, we’re seeing increasing numbers of models that don’t fit neatly into fashion’s white, cis, thin, European conventional beauty standards. While it can be frustrating to see activists' tireless hard work being packaged into bite-size commodities (hello, Topshop's ‘Femme the Future’ t-shirts), token attempts (and failures) by the fashion industry to become more inclusive is an impressive measure of how far social movements have come in recent years. However, industry trends can fade as quickly as a new pair of jeans, prompting the question: what will happen when fashion moves on to the next hot thing?

This is the question a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland is asking. Body Beautiful takes a look at the recent history of fashion and divides itself thematically into different areas: race, sexuality, age, size and disability, chosen because they are the categories covered by the Fashion Spots Diversity Report, a study dedicated to documenting what’s happening on the catwalk in terms of representation.

We chat with Body Beautiful’s curator Georgina Ripley about how she put the exhibition together, meaningful representation and how progression can regress at any moment.  

Where did the inspiration for Body Beautiful come from? 

"The main thing was the work we were doing with Edinburgh College of Art’s Diversity Network. We’ve been involved with them because they got funding to do a fashion forum which was a week of events we hosted at the Museum. It was through meeting them that the idea was planted. 

"Then after the Autumn/Winter 2017 season, reports started saying it was the most diverse catwalk in years and I thought then that this was maybe the time to bring everything together. It was also the year Edward Enninful was appointed editor-in-chief of British Vogue so it did feel a bit more like a tipping point and this time it might be a lasting, sustainable change."

How has fashion changed, in terms of diversity, over its recent history? 

"In the 80s, you had brands like Body Map who were influenced by the London club scene and magazines like The Face and i-D and Blitz. In the exhibition, we line up magazines on our wall and you can see these moments where diversity happens and then goes away again. So you have models like Naomi Campbell on a cover and then you have periods where you won’t have a black model on covers for a number of years. You’ve also got things like in the late 90s, Nick Knight's cover for Dazed and Confused magazine, which was guest edited by Alexander McQueen, and it was the fashion-able issue that had Aimee Mullins, a Paralympic sprinter on the cover. That seemed great but then it was another two decades until you had disabled models walk the catwalk at London Fashion Week."

Can you talk us through the exhibition's key themes?

"Race is interesting because it’s the one category that has made gains in terms of the Diversity Report but of course it’s much more contentious than just the statistics. As recently as 2013, Bethann Hardison, Iman and Naomi Campbell formed the Diversity Coalition to challenge racism on the runway. So there has been an upward trend but of course that has been pushed to happen. We consider the designers who go beyond racially diverse casting and those who actually explore heritage within their work. We’ve got two looks from Ashish, one was when he did a casting of all black models in 2015.

"In terms of disability, it's often called fashion’s forgotten frontier. And that’s the thing that comes out in that section. It’s down to individuals to challenge exclusion so we give examples of who they are and then we have brands like Teatum Jones whose Spring/Summer '18 collection was inspired by the Paralympic equestrian Natasha Baker and designers that incorporate disabilities into their looks and the creative and artistic possibilities of disability representation on the catwalk. 

"Within gender, we present the statistics that there is great progress happening in terms of representation of trans and non-binary models on the catwalk. Having said that, there was a huge drop from spring to autumn 2019. It’s not so much about the numbers but more the LGBTQ+ community is calling for a more diverse and meaningful representation. The designers that we’re showing are unafraid to disrupt the gender binary in fashion like Jean Paul Gaultier and Walter Van Beirendonck.

"Age and size were the two hardest sections to populate which was interesting given how long size has been a topic within the industry. Within age, we also discuss a real change in the culture around how we see age, largely down to style blogs like Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog and social media influencers. There’s been a real shift in the terminology used. Beauty magazines like Allure have abandoned the term anti-ageing, as have Dove.

"It was interesting to discover that London’s actually very poor for size, yet the UK’s plus-size retail market is worth about £6.6 billion, so there’s a huge imbalance there. We have a Chromat look they remade for us that was worn by curve model Denise Bidot to open their show in Spring/Summer '15 and that was the first time a curve model had opened a straight-sized show at New York Fashion Week." 

How does fashion balance meaningful representation with its nature as a business based around trends? 

"I’ve heard people actually take ownership and say yes, diversity is a human rights issue but it also makes good business and I don’t think the two need to be mutually exclusive. But it fails when representation is tokenistic or when representation just isn’t considered. Brands have made mistakes where they’ve done things and they haven’t had the expertise behind the scenes to realise that what they’ve done is culturally insensitive and brands are waking up to that and hiring diversity consultants and things like that. Now, with social media and being called out, it’s about how you respond and how you move forward."

What was the most surprising thing you learned curating the exhibition? 

"One thing that really did surprise me was that since Nick Knight's Dazed and Confused editorial, there really hadn’t been anything in the mainstream with disability until maybe 2015. Race was also surprising in that it seems to be cyclical with moments where there have been good examples of representation and then nothing. We’ve got the cover of Donyale Luna on British Vogue from 1966, who was the first black model to ever be on a magazine cover. But then US Vogue didn’t have another black model on the cover until 1974. You start learning that there doesn’t seem to be consistency with growth and the recognition of diversity and the importance of diversity, and I have found that quite surprising."

How do you think diversity and inclusion becomes consistent within fashion? 

"I found the most important thing is to go and speak to the people who have the tangible understanding of the themes we’re trying to represent, who are a part of marginalised groups. Everybody agrees on the fact that there has to be a change culturally and that means culturally within business because the lack of representation is self-perpetuating so if you don’t see something, it cannot be normalised. Visibility is going to be the only thing that brings about change."

For people who wouldn’t classify themselves as fashion experts, what do you hope they take away from the exhibition?

"What we’ve said is that the exhibition in itself isn’t really about fashion. It’s not really about the actual garments on display; it’s about the stories and inspiration behind it, which is why we wanted the object labels to have the voices of those designers and the models and the people who are actually involved. This is really an exhibition that connects fashion to contemporary life and an exhibition about what’s happening around you in society right now. We just want to give people a platform to use their voices and for people to come and hear about it."

Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk, National Museum of Scotland, 23 May-20 Oct, free