In the Downturn, Fashion Discovers Inclusiveness

After a decade of fantastical growth, the fashion world finds itself confronted with a shift in its fortunes—magazines are folding or cutting back, iconic department stores are losing hundreds of millions of dollars, and designers send out conspicuously commercial collections in a dubious attempt to entice consumers to spend. As the economic picture deteriorates, a glaring discrepancy is beginning to emerge between the glossy images the industry uses to portray itself and the state of the external world. The fashion system is quick to react to shifts in popular mood as tastemakers search for a new editorial formula. That's how it came to pass that on one of the inaugural covers of Love, a biannual niche title launched this month by Conde Nast, Beth Ditto, the beautiful, overweight lead singer of the Gossip, poses naked, her modesty preserved by nothing more than a cover line and a froth of hot pink organza.

A year ago it would have been difficult to believe that a glossy Conde Nast title would allow a woman who looked like Ditto to work as a lowly intern, let alone selecting one as a cover model. It's clear that the times are a-changin'. Katie Grand, the editor of Love and one of the industry's most powerful stylists, is known as a champion of the avant garde, but she's never taken quite so … well, big of a risk. She explains in an editor's letter: "In a culture that debates women's weights on a daily basis as their defining feature, well, isn't it confounding and amazing to have an iconic figure in that culture who doesn't have a 25-inch waist? Everything about the way that Beth looks reminds us not of her imperfections but our own. She has self-assurance and confidence by the truckload. She is happy with who she is and the way she is. Don't we all wish that we woke up in the morning and felt like that? She has become heroic because she doesn't fit the superhero model of how a woman ought to look."

Grand's explanation has merit, and no doubt she believes in the sentiments expressed. In decades of fashion imagery, however, a woman of Ditto's size has never been seen as a viable tool to sell magazines, which, ultimately, is what a cover subject represents. But a glance at other current covers in Conde Nast's stable reveals more evidence that something special is underfoot. Vanity Fair's March issue features a recycled portrait of Barack Obama by Annie Leibovitz, who also shot Michelle Obama for Vogue's March cover, and Beyoncé stars on the magazine's April cover—black subjects rarely are chosen as the face of fashion. While, in the case of the Obamas and Beyoncé, it's clear that their status as the first couple and one of the world's biggest celebrities, respectively, led to their selection, it would be a mistake to downplay the fact that two African-American women made it to the cover of Vogue back-to-back, a task slightly less difficult than the election of an African-American president.

At this year's Grammy Awards, British sensation Adele, another plus-size singer possessed of a powerfully soulful voice, was styled by no less than Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour herself, who sent editor at large Hamish Bowles along as Adele's escort to reportedly pen a piece about the musician. And during the recent round of shows during New York Fashion Week, more models of color than ever before were in evidence on the runways, including mannequins of Latino, Asian and African heritage. Groups that have until now occupied the margins of fashion, such as models of color, or those who have been banished from the kingdom entirely, such as the overweight, are suddenly in favor. It's exciting to consider the prospect that we've made real progress, but the sudden shift also prompts concern that these groups are the flavor of the month and that a newly inclusive attitude toward standards of beauty is merely a pose to be cast aside next season in favor of something new.

Prominent New York-based casting director Anita Bitton is consistently outspoken about her belief in the need for more diverse casting, and she's fully behind Grand's initiative. She declares that "anything that challenges the status quo can often be seen to be a trend, but I think Katie expressed a longing for change in her introduction to the magazine, so more than a superficial shift, I think what we see with Love, is a powerful woman being inclusively representative, bringing all of these talents, shapes and sizes together. She is challenging our concept of what is 'acceptable' and forcing us to think outside the box."

It's easy to intuit cynical motivations on the part of the fashion industry when it comes to taking on any social responsibility. It's equally easy to take the opposite view and get caught up in the idealistic notion that our society has somehow managed to evolve past its deeply held biases in the blink of an election cycle. The truth lies somewhere in between. No doubt, President Obama's soaring rhetoric and rapid rise to power has played an important part in influencing the media's attitude toward inclusion. The idea of 'change' is real, but it's also a selling tool, and as new and old media alike struggle to stay afloat in an increasingly hostile economic environment, no editor can afford to pass up the chance to join a potentially profitable bandwagon. Putting the Obamas on magazines sells copies, while putting a famous, naked, fat woman on the cover of a new magazine generates headlines and hype.

In the end, who cares why groups who have been kept on the margins throughout fashion's history are now being allowed to enter the tent? The risk of tokenism is real, but so is the opportunity for a substantive shift in the way we see each other. Every time a model of color walks down a runway, her image is captured by a legion of photographers and beamed around the world, and the spectrum of beauty expands by another shade. Every magazine cover that features an alternative to the whitewashed, artificially altered and starved standard of beauty we've come to accept accelerates the pace of change.

Our collective psyche is at one of its lowest confidence points in modern history and the indications are that it's only going to get worse before it gets better. It's a painful moment but also an opportunity to progress on fronts that were easy to ignore in more flush times.

One hopes that consumers will voice their approval by making these issues into best sellers—a strong financial incentive is the most effective way to permanently turn the page on narrow-minded beauty ideals.