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a new exhibition celebrates inclusion on the catwalk

'Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk' shows the importance of diversity in the fashion industry.

by Brittany Natale
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17 June 2019, 12:05am

From left to right: Model Halima Aden wears a look from the Max Mara Autumn Winter 2017 collection. Image © REXShutterstock, Model Denise Bidot wears a look from the Chromat Spring Summer 2015 collection. © Chromat, For his ready-to-wear, Spring/Summer 2015 fashion show, Ashish cast only black models. © Chris Moore Catwalking 

Although diversity and inclusivity have become increasingly integrated into fashion, as a whole, the industry still has a long way to go. The recently opened Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk, on view now through October 20 at the National Museum of Scotland, explores fashion’s evolution, and how it is challenging antiquated beauty ideals while also embracing inclusivity and diversity. The exhibit, which is curated by Georgina Ripley, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Fashion and Textiles, features work by fashion photographers and designers, interviews from key players in the industry, audiovisuals, and more. Included is also the work of students from the Edinburgh College of Art’s Diversity Network, which provide a glimpse into the minds of fashion’s upcoming next generation of designers.

i-D recently spoke with Ripley on the importance of inclusivity in fashion, social media as a form of advocacy, how the industry is evolving and the importance of sustaining this movement, as well as some of the most pivotal moments in fashion that are featured in this exhibition:

Did you come across anything surprising or unexpected while doing research or preparation for the show?
What really stood out was how New York Fashion Week is leading the way. For the themes of age and size in particular, it proved more difficult to identify European brands who were consistently engaging with these narratives in their collections and model castings. And the statistics, provided by The Fashion Spot each season, can be misleading – spring/summer 2019, for example, had the most size-inclusive catwalks in history, with 54 curve model castings. However, this was out of 7,431 total castings, and only 5 of those 54 were cast outside of New York, with only 1 of those 5 in London — a significant imbalance, on reflection that the UK plus-size retail market is worth £6.6 billion. Equally, 32 of those 49 castings in New York were split across just three brands renowned for advocating for body positivity and inclusivity — Christian Siriano, Chromat and Savage x Fenty.

It was also educational seeing how underrepresented disability is in fashion — from Aimee Mullins’ cover for Dazed & Confused in 1998 and her catwalk debut for Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 99 Paris fashion show, it was almost two decades before Kelly Knox and Jack Eyers became the first disabled models to walk the catwalk at London Fashion Week.

Sinead Burke
Sinéad Burke, wearing a custom Burberry trench coat. Photographed by Tim Walker for BoF. Copyright Tim Walker.

How has fashion changed over the years? What do you think have been some of the most pivotal fashion or runway moments?
The exhibition captures diverse voices and different perspectives on the fashion industry, and both Iain R. Webb, former fashion editor for BLITZ magazine in the 1980s and now professor of fashion at Kingston School of Art, and Chris Moore, who has been a catwalk photographer across six decades, have noted how the industry used to be more naturally diverse in the 1980s in particular. You had designers like Jean Paul Gaultier — who always employed models of various shapes, sizes and skin colours, while transcending presumed boundaries of gender or sexuality — and BodyMap, whose catwalks reflected their world around them, and it didn’t feel forced.

Historically, the catwalks have dictated narrow ideals of beauty, so moments that stand out are those that challenge those ideals and champion alternative paradigms of beauty — Alexander McQueen’s casting of Aimee Mullins, for example, or Rick Owens’s Spring/Summer 2014 show modelled on 40 dancers in a stepping performance. Or Opening Ceremony’s spring/summer 2019 show where the models and performers were entirely comprised of LGBTQIA+ individuals, as was most of the crew.

How did the idea for the exhibit come about?
We had been working closely with Edinburgh College of Art, and specifically their Diversity Network — an initiative founded in 2011 to challenge the fashion industry’s dependence on unhealthy body ideals and to teach the students, as future stakeholders in the industry, the importance of celebrating diversity in their approach to design. That had planted the seed of an idea, and then after the Autumn/Winter 2017 season there were reports that we were seeing some of the most inclusive catwalks in history. Then Edward Enninful was appointed Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue in a landmark move for Condé Nast. Altogether, it felt like a moment that might be becoming more of a movement, and that merited further exploration in an exhibition format.

How do you feel the fashion industry will evolve in the future, in terms of runway, editorial, and beyond?
There is a lot of conversation currently around whether fashion’s current focus on diversity and inclusivity is a trend. But what feels different this time is the power that the individual has, using platforms like social media to advocate for inclusivity — and consumers are increasingly using their voices, asking to see themselves represented. At a time when LGBTQIA+ are increasingly under threat worldwide, high profile non-binary and transgender models in the spotlight are helping to change beauty standards; while lifestyle blogs and body positivity activists on social media are democratising the fashion landscape, creating new role models. Hopefully, this influence will continue as an upward trend in diverse representation on the catwalk, in editorial and advertising.

Why do you think it is crucial for there to be diversity reflected throughout the fashion industry? Do you feel the industry, although it has come a long way, still has a way to go?
The fashion history has routinely been criticised for promoting rigid body ideals, and in many ways — as the one industry we all must interact with — it has a social responsibility, and a unique platform, to challenge our perception of and dependence on rigid body and beauty standards. Like most industries it does have a way to go — and in order to create lasting, sustainable change, it needs to be informed by authentic voices. As Sinéad Burke has said, she often asks, "Who is not in the Room?"

This article originally appeared on i-D US.