The politics of nude

A frustrated search for skin-coloured underwear prompts a discussion among three women about race, privilege and shopping. By Bella Pollen. Photography by Marili Andre

Olivia von Halle silk slip, £340
Olivia von Halle silk slip, £340 | Image: Marili Andre

“If you’re going to write about white privilege from a white woman’s perspective,” Adah Parris tells me, “you have to understand it’s an issue filled with the history of being othered, with all the attendant feeling and tension that comes from that.” Parris is a storyteller and cultural strategist who explores how technology can impact our identities, cultures, economics and ecosystems. We’re drinking whisky in her Soho club, the House of St Barnabas, talking loosely around female empowerment, when the conversation segues, as conversations sometimes do, into the topic of fashion. Parris has bought a new dress for a conference she is speaking at, but it’s a dress designed to be worn with a slip. “By their description nude,” she says, “but not my complexion of nude.” 

I am ashamed to say that during the span of my shopping life, including the 13 years I spent designing and manufacturing clothes, the idea of the nude slip being a white-girl thing has never occurred to me. I understand white privilege – intellectually, at least. In almost every aspect of my life, and because of the colour of my skin, I benefit from numerous in-built advantages and opportunities not shared by others. I know too that I am often guilty of wearing this entitlement casually, as though it were a cloak of invisibility, forgetting how glaringly obvious it must be. Nevertheless, I feel defensive when the finger of unearned privilege is pointed at me. Having always believed in a correlation between hard graft and achievement, I struggle to accept that my skin is my cheat. Parris’s slip, though – such a visual and quantifiable example – brings me up short. “When you buy something that’s supposed to create the illusion of invisibility and it does the opposite,” she explains, “you feel both exposed and simultaneously not seen. It’s as though you haven’t been taken into consideration by the very industry in which you are investing your money.”

The ideal of western beauty has historically been perpetuated by the fashion industry in the design and manufacture of clothes, but over the past couple of years there does seem to have been a shift in racial bias. From film and television to advertising and retail, inclusivity has become the new priority. Parris and Janaki Ranpura, an artist working in performance and technology-based installations, are both women with strong personal style and an interest in fashion. But though they readily acknowledge Edward Enninful proactively putting women of colour on the cover of British Vogue and the host of newly launched ranges, from Fenty Beauty’s 40 shades of skin make-up to Heist hosiery, both speak of a woeful disconnect between the optics of inclusivity and the reality of the consumer experience.  

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh, the feminist and anti-racist activist, wrote White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, a paper on the “unearned assets” of white privilege. She illustrated it using 46 examples (“No 46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin”). Three decades on, how is this concept of “nude” still so representative of the bitter history of exclusion and what emotions are behind it?

Parris’s awareness of visible invisibility began in childhood. In the ’80s, she attended an all-girl convent school in London, and although she speaks highly of it, there were times when she felt othered by its rules. The uniform called for nude tights. When Adah wore black, she was reprimanded. “We were expected to wear nude, but even off-black was the wrong colour.” She references a recent Instagram video of a young black ballerina’s visceral joy at being able to wear tights and ballet shoes in her own skin tones. At ballet class, aged seven, dressed in putty pink, Parris found herself standing out even more because her leotard did not match her complexion. “The feeling of shame for your skin colour at such an early age,” she says, “runs deep.” 

Parris is a striking-looking woman with a palpable hunger to transform the conditions that create injustice and inequality. She wears a lot of bright clothes. “Colour is an expression of who I am,” she says. Nevertheless, she has lost count of the number of times she’s been stereotyped as “exotic” or told she looks “tribal”. “As a woman of colour, you sense when someone is looking at you because of your ethnicity, because there is something quite different about the way it’s done.” 

Image: Marili Andre

“There’s this thing that occurs with some white people,” Ranpura echoes a week or two later. “It’s not that they choose not to look at you, it’s that their eyes literally cannot see you. You’re not a lesser human being, you’re just not even there. This whole conversation about the implicit aggression of racism? In my experience the violence is not by aggression, it’s by erasure.”  

Ranpura is the daughter of Indian parents. She grew up in Ohio, where people habitually reminded her she was not one of them. “What’s your actual country?” they’d ask, and her response would always be “This is it, I don’t have another one.” Her supposition, when she looked at other kids, was that they looked pretty much like her. “It took me a long time to realise I considered myself white. After that I wondered what else was obvious to others that I was being stupid about.” This began a long re-education of self. A process, she notes, that divided her from the easy-going, blended person she once was. “Maybe you’re not aware,” she says, “but a confusion arises out of all the accumulated moments of otherness. When I was younger, when people didn’t look me in the eye, when I wasn’t popular with the boys, I assumed I was hideously ugly. Today, if people don’t look at me in the eye, I still have no idea whether I’m still ugly or just not of their tribe.”  

Ranpura is currently developing a camera for the blind. I’d been warned she was both brilliant and fierce. Turns out she’s funny too. “Are there really humans in that colour?” she deadpans when the subject of the dreaded nude slip comes up. Ranpura is slim, average height and a beauty. Nevertheless, she claims to find, shopping in Europe and the US a difficult, niche, hide-and-seek game. “I’ve been thinking around what it means to grow up in a culture whose physiognomy is not your own. Now I’m an adult, I’m thinking a lot of things about my body don’t come from the US. My legs are too short, my torso too big…” These “deficiencies” she blames squarely on her heritage. “Clearly intelligent people, who are trying to make profit from selling clothes, are selling to women with ‘normal’ thighs, whereas I have these Indian thighs that absolutely will not be tamed.”

Factor fashion into the discussion and a Venn diagram pops up whose overlap of body dysmorphia and self-loathing many women share. But for every white woman annoyed that the market is not catering for her perceived shape, there be might be a woman of colour feeling the same, but attributing it not to economic or design factors, but to their ethnicity. It’s a huge psychological difference. “The most insidious thing about racism,” Ranpura says, “is that you have a suspicion that something else might be going on that is not obvious. My self-doubt, my questioning, is part and parcel of that.” 

I too grew up in a country that was not my own, but as an English girl in Manhattan, no one told me I wasn’t one of them. I never had to look at others in terms of tribes. I think back on the role models of my childhood: Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Eartha Kitt. I don’t remember being aware of their colour, just that they were the people my parents were listening to. Such is the power of entitlement, I saw no reason why I too couldn’t belong to “black is beautiful”. Conversely, Ranpura struggles to recall a single Indian or black role model from her childhood. “The ideal of beauty was always a Scandinavian-type blonde like yourself, and not just in the west. See chemical hair-straightening and all those Bollywood actresses whitening their skin.” I accuse her of having a thing about blondes, and she cheerfully agrees. “Absolutely. If I saw you in a shop, I’d think of you as part of the shitty power culture that has made a lot of my life unhappy. I’m not saying it’s justified, but there are so many categories of human I expect you to relate to before me, despite the fact that we have a lot in common and are clearly going to be friends.”

So is there a right and wrong way to market everyday inclusivity? How would Parris react, for instance, if she spotted a looming billboard in Oxford Circus: We make great jeans for people of colour? “I’d be horrified,” she says. Even though someone is seeing you, respecting your spend? Giving you exactly what you say you want? I press. “But I don’t want it like that. I don’t want to be singled out again. I just want the normal jeans-people to be making jeans for me. Likewise, I don’t want to go into Superdrug and find my shade of foundation on a ‘people of colour’ shelf. Inclusion is about behaviour.”

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Within the fashion industry, conversation about race has prompted a period of intense self-analysis: Gucci has been simultaneously lauded for its inclusive programme and then castigated for appropriation. Ditto Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. But then it’s hard to follow any road through fashion without arriving at the door of cultural appropriation. A few years ago, when Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts staged a display of Monet’s La Japonaise alongside “Kimono Wednesdays”, it drew accusations of orientalism from Asian-American and white women. In Japan, however, the kimono industry is in decline and actively seeking out a market overseas. Japanese-Americans counter-protested the kimono furore, accusing Asian-Americans of having no right to dictate the nature and intent of racism. 

My view – perhaps because I’m white, perhaps because I’ve always made my living in the arts – is that much of creativity, whether in fashion, painting, music, food, has always been embroidered out of borrowed threads. I like how cultures and people are fused in this way because isn’t that what we want? For society to be fused? “Well, sure,” Ranpura says, “adding creativity to make another thing, I strongly support, but imitating it, not so much.” 

Parris’s view is that the debate between appropriation versus appreciation is absolutely linked to privilege. “It’s not just about ‘borrowing’ the kimono or the bindi,” she argues. “People who were repressed and subjugated even to this day for some of the markers of their cultural identity now have to see those same markers rebranded as trendy or, worse, being used in a blasé or comical way.” She steers me towards Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair, an exploration of the history and significance of black hair. “Afro hair is a genetic marker of a person’s ethnicity,” says Parris. “It has spiritual connotations. It’s linked to our belief systems, our very sense of being. So when you are constantly told that your hair is not professional, for it to be suddenly ‘OK’ and celebrated when non people of colour sport the same style, feels, at the very least, disrespectful.”

There are, of course, bigger racial disadvantages out there beyond the world of beauty and fashion. Education, the judicial system, access to wealth, higher-value homes – each pushing the horizon of equal opportunity further out of reach. Given how much nuance and emotion is hidden within the folds of white privilege, it can be hard, as a white person, not to feel frozen into inaction. Move either way, and there’s risk – for a misspoken opinion, a misguided sense of activism, for perpetuating the power structure we have designed and built. I’m aware of the pitfalls of writing about race and identity – of having too little understanding of the issue, of falling into the classic trap of listening but not hearing. Surely, though, making no effort to understand is worse. 

Perhaps we should take our cues from those brave enough to take a stand. One facet of Parris’s work is about creating environments where innovation is impacted by the inclusion of diverse voices as part of the design process. “When you’re trying to solve large-scale problems,” she says, “do so with people who have different experience, knowledge and ways of understanding than you.”   

This has been a humbling discussion. I was unaware of many of the issues shared with me by these two women simply because their experiences are so outside the sphere of my own. One of my privileges is that race does not have to be part of my everyday life. It’s not present in my every transaction and encounter. I’m beginning to see that, in order to have any kind of understanding of what it means to be black in today’s society, I have to first think about what it means to be white.

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