Very little in our world is untouched by the social construct of ‘race.’ So how does race influence the fashion system and the way we ‘fashion’ ourselves in society?
Participants and stakeholders within the fashion system–which encompasses designers, C-suite executives, educators, students, magazine editors, museum curators, the modeling industry and more–can all benefit from a dedicated, educational resource that reveals the inextricable link between ‘race,’ power, privilege and aesthetics.
The Fashion and Race and Database™ provides a roadmap for lasting change in the fashion system, as it offers lessons and resources that diversify how we understand fashion. The database is an invaluable platform for those who agree that it’s time to challenge dominant narratives and harmful practices in fashion.
This educational and supportive platform applies pressure to outdated and oppressive ways of thinking, and uplifts the stories and histories that need to be told. This takes a global effort that involves racialized participants as well as our non-racialized allies.
As a Black woman and fashion professor teaching fashion history and theory, Kimberly M. Jenkins spent years combing through resources to teach and enhance her broad range of courses, including her Fashion and Race course at Parsons School of Design. During this process (which began in 2015), she discovered that research about diverse fashion history was scattered, and dedicated research on the intersection of fashion and race was sparse. Kimberly decided to build her own library of diverse content and resources, and in 2017, The Fashion and Race Database was born. In 2020, the database expanded, and she was able to assemble a team, creating new employment and academic opportunities for fashion students and graduates.
Since then, they have collected over 1,600 research sources (books, articles, written profiles, etc.) and provided a new blueprint for bridging the gaps between fashion academia, industry and sociocultural issues–all whilst advocating for fair compensation in a system known for not paying contributors and interns. In 2021, Kimberly consolidated The Fashion and Race Database and a new educational consultancy into a company called Artis Solomon, which furthers her mission to address larger challenges and social issues in fashion through academic research.
One of our key guiding principles is sustainability. For the past two years, we attempted to operate the database and pay contributors based on generous (but infrequent) donations. Ultimately, it was a model that was unsustainable and we were forced to temporarily halt our operations. Today, we are operating under a hybrid digital subscription and sponsorship model, which largely relies on monthly and annual institutional support, and also welcomes funding from fashion brands and other companies that are aligned with our mission and values.
As a small, independent platform, the current cost for a digital subscription or sponsorship reflects the true cost needed to operate the database and for our team and contributors to survive and thrive.
We believe that very little in our world is untouched by the social construct of ‘race.’ We also acknowledge that the word ‘race’ is a pain point, depending on what part of the world you live in. When it comes to realities such as aspirational beauty standards, representation in luxury advertising, the language we use to describe one another, the way groups and individuals are treated in fashion retail environments, etc. – we have amassed hundreds of resources that explore and explain how and why this came to be. We do not share these resources to perpetuate the construct of race and stereotyping as a truth – rather, we share these resources to confront and challenge it.
The acronyms BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) have come under criticism in the past couple of years, due to the fact that, while they seem convenient to use to describe a large group of people that share similar systems of oppression, it ultimately minimizes and homogenizes specific groups. The term ‘racialized’ is more precise and powerful because it shifts the onus back onto oppressive systems – to be racialized (or assigned as part of an imagined ‘race’ with its own stereotypes) can be reductive, harmful and burdens groups of people by limiting their freedom to define themselves on their own terms.
Simply put, racialization happens to groups of people, but invites us to question the status quo; BIPOC or BAME minimizes uniqueness and (perhaps unknowingly) upholds the status quo.
All of this said, we also make room to consider and honor the pride and traditions that come from how racialized people have formed their own collective identities as a result of racialization.
In the past two centuries since ‘modern fashion’ has been established, literature, media, education and business practices have relied upon–and upheld–a centralized understanding of fashion. Specifically, fashion has been promoted and taught through a White, Euro-American lens, shaping the visual and textual language of what is considered ‘modern,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘luxurious,’ and ‘evolved.’ We see this in the ‘fashion canon,’ where fashion history books have honored White designers, magazine editors, models and tastemakers, and erased the contributions of its non-White counterparts (including the slave labor that made much of it possible). When we ‘decentralize fashion,’ we destabilize the center of authority and attention, by integrating under-represented figures and expanding the narrative of fashion history, making it more diverse.
Similarly, we also provide resources on how fashion is becoming ‘decolonized’ – an even more radical approach that illuminates the inhumane history of colonization and seeks to liberate by restoring power and traditions to those living today whose ancestors have been colonized for centuries.
In order to examine and understand the history and intersections of fashion and race from a holistic perspective, we believe that a diverse range of insights and contributions are necessary. We place writing from White and non-White scholars in conversation on the database, leaving it to our readers to survey what has been researched and written about over time. It is helpful to have access to resources authored by White scholars because they may be dedicated allies, or they may have published provocative or inaccurate work that needs to be critiqued. The latter is in fact important because it is what motivates racialized scholars and students to respond with research and writing that corrects misrepresentation and repositions authority.