This month, British Vogue unveiled a new cover featuring a hijab-wearing model for the first time in the magazine’s history. Captioned ‘New Frontiers’, the image displays a group of models of various races and body sizes, dressed in military-style uniforms of khakis and beige. The cover makes a clear statement: in an industry plagued by image issues, fashion is fighting back.
As Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful explained, the cover was intended to signal a new era in fashion, following concerns raised about safety and diversity in the modelling industry through campaigns such as #MeToo. In his Editor’s Letter, Enninful wrote: ‘‘At the world’s great design houses, at photographic studios, at fashion weeks and in the offices of magazines such as mine at Vogue, crucial questions have been asked about working practices, safety and respect.’’ This statement echoes similar demands made by industry figures throughout the past months, which have called on photographers, editors, casting directors and agencies to implement more inclusive and ethical practices in their casting and treatment of models.
These calls for inclusivity are powerful, but they ignore a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to driving change—the voices of the models themselves. Over the past year, a number of models have spoken out against harmful and outdated practices, using their platforms to address the uglier side of the modelling industry: a lack of diversity, poor working conditions, sexual abuse, body-shaming and mental health issues.
So how exactly are these models speaking back to transform the world of fashion? The answer is, of course, online. The advent of social media has transformed the way we interact with fashion models. Gone are the days when a model was a voiceless face on the page; we now expect a two-way conversation. That conversation is changing an industry, allowing models to champion racial and body-shape inclusivity, call out sexual misconduct, and demand better working conditions.
The Size-Zero Debate
Concerns about the wider effects of fashion’s fixation on size zero are nothing new, but more recently, voices within the industry have opened up about how this promotion of a certain body image is damaging to the models themselves.
Last year, model Ulrikke Hoyer caused an outcry when she shared a post on Instagram complaining of body-shaming and poor treatment by Louis Vuitton. The model, who is a UK size 6, claimed that she was told she was ‘very bloated’ and should drink only water for 24 hours prior to a catwalk appearance for Louis Vuitton in April 2017. The post went viral, causing many to consider the effects of fashion’s scrutiny of young women’s bodies.
This account was not an isolated incident. Last year, campaign group The Model Alliance found multiple stories of models being instructed by their agencies to lose weight or undergo plastic surgery, with the threat of being dropped if they refused. In an industry powered by appearances, it’s unsurprising that agencies have an opinion on how the models they represent should look. But, as The Model Alliance argued, these demands shouldn’t compromise a model’s health, safety or mental well-being.
Luckily, stories like this are beginning to have an impact. From October 2017, French Law requires models to produce medical certificates as evidence that they are healthy for work. Meanwhile, London Fashion Week has established The Model Zone, a space for models to rest, access healthy food and drink, and speak to independent nutrition advisors in between their busy catwalk schedules.
Models and #MeToo
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and revelations of sexual harassment in multiple industries, models united at the end of last year to share stories of abuse on social media. The model and activist Cameron Russel led the call for change, posting anonymous stories on her Instagram feed to spotlight the exploitation of vulnerable young women.
The model wrote: “We need a way to begin breaking the silence while remaining protected. We are not talking about one, five, or even twenty men. We are talking about a culture of exploitation and it must stop. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE YOUR STORY ANONYMOUSLY, DIRECT MESSAGE ME and I will post your words. If you would like to share publicly use the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse so the industry can see the size and scope of this problem.”
She also called on advertisers and magazines to stop hiring known perpetrators of abuse, and for agencies to take greater measures to safeguard their talent. Many other models joined Russell in sharing their stories and demanding respect in the fashion industry.
Thanks to the models who have come forward with accounts of abuse and harassment, changes are being made. In February, New York Fashion Week granted models cubicles and private changing areas for the first time, amid concerns about invasive photography and a lack of privacy spurred on by #MeToo.
The Diversity Movement
The current drive towards inclusivity in fashion appears to be unstoppable. But as an incident in 2017 reveals, in which the black and transgender model Munroe Bergdorf was sacked by L’Oréal after she posted a Facebook comment criticising white privilege, inclusivity means celebrating diverse opinions as well as appearances.
After the huge backlash against L’Oréal incited by Bergdorf’s posts, she was chosen by rival brand Illamasqua as the face of a campaign celebrating gender fluidity. In a statement, Illamasqua explained: “Munroe embodies diversity and individuality; she is not scared to be truly herself. But Munroe doesn’t just stop there. She speaks out about the issues that affect not just her but the rest of our generation, seeking to improve the society we live in.”
While recent inclusive editorials at major magazines, including this month’s Vogue cover, represent huge progress in solving fashion’s diversity problem, there are still steps to be taken. Research published by the Guardian this week suggested that only 9.3% of the covers of bestselling magazines in 2017 featured a person of colour. Meanwhile, there is still limited representation for plus-sized and older women, both on the page and the catwalk.
Although there is still a way to go until we reach full fashion diversity, the positive reception of campaigns which showcase models of different ethnicities, ages, body types and gender identities reveals the appetite we have for a more representative runway. As the Vogue cover emphasises, the future of modelling is inclusive, healthy and empowered—and it looks beautiful.
Author Rachel Frances on Twitter: @rachelfrances_
All images via Instagram