Until recently, the fashion term ‘nude’ only referred to a white person’s skin – but this is changing. Libby Banks looks at how a new generation of style writers is challenging the status quo.

For anyone familiar with fashion magazines, the term ‘nude’ – referring to a colour rather than a state of undress – is often part of the established vocabulary. Used synonymously with ‘flesh-toned’, it is an adjective liberally applied to anything off-white to champagne, blush and rose. When Beyoncé came to the Met Ball in a peach Givenchy gown, when Michelle Obama wore beige to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and when Kim Kardashian wore a pale-pink bodysuit, style publications repeatedly described their outfits as ‘nude’ or ‘flesh-coloured’. The problem? The tone of flesh in question clearly referenced pale-white skin, rather than the skin of the women wearing the clothes.

Up until 2015, the dictionary defined ‘nude’ as relating to nakedness or ‘having the colour of a white person’s skin'

Nude is often a blind spot for fashion writers, perhaps in part because it is given credence by respected organisations. Pantone, the world-renowned authority on colour, has a ‘nude’ shade (a pale pink), which adds an acceptable gloss to the term’s use. Up until 2015, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined the word ‘nude’ as relating to nakedness or "having the colour of a white person's skin."

For anyone whose complexion falls outside the description of fair (itself a problematic term), ‘nude’ underwear, ‘nude’ lipsticks and ‘nude’ heels have remained elusive concepts.

The narrow interpretation of ‘nude’ is an issue from which even Kim Kardashian is not exempt, as underscored by a last-minute dress tweak for the Cannes red carpet in May. "We had to try to darken the nude mesh dress under the silver layer, because it was too light to match my skin tone," Kardashian explained on her website in reference to a gown by designer Lan Yu Couture. "We had just two hours before we left for Cannes, so we put Earl Grey tea bags in a sink and put the dress in for about 30 minutes to dye it."

Skin deep

But a new generation of fashion and beauty retailers is updating their definition of ‘nude’ and capitalising on a market neglected by traditional brands. “The realisation that nude wasn't inclusive came about when I was watching the 2012 Olympics. Gabby Douglas was competing and wearing a wrap that didn't match her skin tone. It was the first time that it really hit home that this was a problem”, explains Catalina Girald, CEO of US lingerie brand Naja.

Naja launched its Nude For All line, encompassing seven shades, in May 2016. “We called the collection Nude For All, because we believe that is how nude should be defined,” Girald explained. “Instead of naming the different colours, we named each shade as Nude 01, Nude 02, Nude 03 and so on to highlight our wish for nude not mean any particular colour, but a range. Each woman should have a nude that matches her skin.”

Mahogany Blues, which also launched this year, makes dance apparel in a range of skin tones for dancers who would previously have to buy lighter outfits and dye them. “We've had a great response from people who just appreciate the fact that there is a company out there that's working to redefine ‘nude’ by creating nude garments that cater to darker skin tones,” said founder Whitney Bracey. “We've had a very small amount of negativity but that's to be expected when you are changing a standard that people don't realise is a problem.”

In July 2016 FleshTone.net was launched by Australia-based lawyer and dancer Tayo Ade. The aim was to create a single online destination to access the new generation of brands widening the definition of ‘nude’. Described by Ade as the Amazon for nude products, Flesh Tone offers products from nail polish and dance shoes to plasters and Lego toys.

Removing the division between ‘white’ and ‘everyone else’ doesn’t just make ethical sense, but financial sense too

It is perhaps surprising that redefining ‘nude’ is confined mostly to start-up businesses. Minority groups are set to make up more than half of the US population by 2050, according to the US Census Bureau, so removing the division between ‘white’ and ‘everyone else’ doesn’t just make ethical sense, but financial sense too.

Many mainstream fashion publications have taken note too. “The word ‘nude’ has been left behind by a fashion industry which today champions diversity across the catwalks, magazines and big budget ad campaigns”, says Julia Hobbs, Vogue’s fashion news editor. “In 2016, the idea that there could be a single skin tone attributed to the word ‘nude’ feels entirely obsolete.” It’s a view echoed by Charlotte Moore, editor of InStyle magazine: “As a fashion brand we are very careful about how we use the word nude or flesh-coloured”.

Beyond the pale

But, as a quick search online will verify, the pale-skinned use of the term persists. The language of fashion has form in this regard. Feathers, fringing, beadwork and animal prints are frequently summed up as ‘tribal’; ‘exotic’ tends to reference anywhere that’s not North America and Europe; and ‘oriental’ is a catchall term that lumps together more than half of the human population. Valentino’s spring/summer 2016 show was reportedly inspired by ‘primitive’ and ‘wild’ Africa, leading to accusations of cultural appropriation. More controversially, Dolce & Gabbana’s spring/summer 2013 collection was widely criticised for its use of blackamoor imagery in a show that did not feature a single black model in almost 100 looks.

The fashion industry is not the problem, but its attitudes are symptomatic of wider cultural issues often based on ignorance rather than racism, argues Bracey: “I think like many of us, the fashion industry is using terms that it has been conditioned to use without realising that it is insensitive. With knowledge and awareness comes understanding.”

This shift in understanding is evidenced beyond the realm of fashion. Last year, after an online campaign, Merriam Webster’s definition of ‘nude’ altered to “having a colour that matches the wearer's skin tones” or “giving the appearance of nudity”. And a bill was signed into law by Barack Obama in May 2016, replacing the terms ‘oriental’ and ‘negro’ with ‘Asian-American’ and ‘African-American’ in US federal laws.

Change happens gradually, and the new generation of ‘nude’ brands is just the start, says Bracey. “The more that people talk about these things and shed light on them, then more people will know that it's actually not OK. I’d love to see nude defined as a colour that falls within the spectrum of human skin colours.”

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