For the most part, the tales of toxicity in fashion aren’t new. Many of them are based on things done brazenly and in public—a Vogue cover that positioned LeBron James as the brute King Kong to Gisele Bündchen’s blond damsel, Prada lining its boutique windows with figures that evoked Sambo stereotypes. Prominent fashion people are regularly and credibly accused of racism, sexual harassment, labor abuses, and beyond. If fashion as an industry is about the audacious celebration of social dominance, the thinking went, then how could anyone be shocked that it’s a terrible business to work in?
What’s new is everything else: the collective rage sweeping the country, the support for those within the industry who speak up, the fear that those at the top seem to feel. People with little power can imagine better workplaces and lives well within their grasp. It is now not quite so fashionable to be fabulously and unaccountably rich.
But in fashion, envisioning a path forward is particularly complicated. The veneration of whiteness and wealth isn’t merely incidental to the global fashion business, but central to its vision and embedded in its practices, from who gets hired to how things get marketed. Luxury fashion is built on the emotional scaffolding of human aspiration—what happens to the industry when everyone gets sick of worshipping rich white people?
Long before the manufacturing and marketing of clothing became a multibillion-dollar industry, clothing was used to signal status. “Distinguishing clothing has always been important in large-scale societies,” Katalin Medvedev, an international-dress and fashion researcher at the University of Georgia, told me. As societies became less agrarian and more centralized, people started to think of clothing as a way to show their jobs, their social status, their position within the community. In ancient Egypt, for example, female servants wore modest sheaths and plain hairstyles, while noblewomen enjoyed makeup, jewelry, perfume, wigs, and gowns detailed with gold thread. Some examples of early sartorial hierarchies are still visible: Catholic nuns and low-level priests dress simply and identically, humbling themselves and eschewing their personal identities in service of God; papal regalia is heavily embroidered and richly hued, the dress of a man singular in his religious authority. The fashion industry, according to Medvedev, is that basic idea of identity through dress, taken to the logical extreme of capitalism.
It’s a straighter line than it might seem from ancient nobility and religious leaders to globe-trotting social-media influencers raking in millions of dollars a year from fashion endorsements. As the second Industrial Revolution infused capital into the expanding European upper class in the late 19th and early 20th century, fine clothiers and luggage-makers—Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Gucci—sprang up in Britain, France, and Italy to supply the burgeoning aristocracy with the accoutrements of their everyday lives. That meant sharp outerwear for military officers, trunks for international travel via steamship, and fine leather saddles for equestrians. As Europe’s colonial power spread around the world, so did those brands and the aesthetic ideals of the wealthy white Europeans who patronized them.