Open letter to the fashion industry, or: “Nude” – not actually a color.

Dear Fashion Industry,

I’ve been meaning to write ever since that big wedding that took place in London this past spring, and then as various bits and bobs of fashion flotsam and jetsam have wandered across my heat-blurred summer vision, but, well, events overcame me. Life, and your whatnot. But finally, here we are, tete-a-tete. Did you miss me, Fashion Industry? I hope so!

Now, I’m sure this isn’t usually done, but I want to open my missive with a little snippet from the American Heritage Dictionary, unabridged – to wit:

nude adj. – Having no clothing; naked.

I bring this to your attention, Fashion Industry, because I have begun to suspect that you don’t possess this important linguistic nugget of information. “Nude” means “no clothes on” — and evidence suggests that either you don’t know that, or you don’t know that people of all colors take their clothes off now and then.

No, it’s true! All over the globe, at any given time, black people, brown people, amber people (or “yellow,” if those people prefer), red people, tawny people, cafe-au-lait people, cinnamon people — all manner of people who are not pasty, pink, or beige in shade are taking off their clothes. Wandering about in the nude. Even if only between pairs of underwear.

I mention this because in the course of reading about last April’s big event, and the various flotsam and jetsam, etc, I discovered that you, the Fashion Industry, still use the word “nude” incorrectly. You still use it to mean “approximately the color of a white lady’s bum.”

Let me demonstrate, by means of that handiest of internet tools: Links.

This pair of genuinely lovely Jimmy Choo crisscross platform sandals — perfect for all of one’s summer affairs (and, you Fashion Industry, may feel free to understand the word “affairs” any old way you like!) and not exactly inexpensive at $636?

In spite of the designer’s insistence — not nude.

This mini-hat, aka: “fascinator”? (Note to non-Fashion Industry readers: Yes, that really is a thing).

In spite of the website copy — not nude.

This ensemble (the little number on the right)?

While so daring as to be charming in my books (though, I understand, not necessarily in yours) — also: not nude.

I happen to be of Caucasian extraction, and thus have some experience with the color of a white lady’s bum, and let me first note that, in fact, none of the above actually resembles the skin of any white lady I know. Just, you know, for starters.

Next: To the extent that “nude” could conceivably be a color, it would (by inference) be “the color of the person wearing it.” Thus, if you’d like to call all of the above “Caucasian nude,” I’d be willing to roll with it, though, as I say, I don’t know any Caucasians the color of that hat (except my mother, after an afternoon of vigorous gardening, who really does get a bit pink, but really, should we base an entire color scheme on one white lady’s tendency to overheat?).

I understand: The Fashion Industry is an industry. It was constructed and conceived to make people money, and there is a tendency to market industries to the broadest possible swath of humans with money, and the understanding of nearly everyone in positions of power in all of the image-heavy industries has long been that this can only mean using white people to do the marketing.

Most models are white. Most designers are white. Most magazine editors are white. That’s the way it goes, I suppose, until someone figures out that white people are, in fact, just smart enough to be sold things worn, designed, and/or described by non-white people. That day will come. I appreciate the occasional spasmodic efforts to bring more models of color to catwalks, but I don’t expect real integration until the rest of society has gotten rather more integrated itself.

But we could make a small start with “nude.”

As a lady who enjoys shopping for Fashion Items, I can tell you: Ladies who enjoy shopping for Fashion Items will buy any freakishly-named color under the sun. You don’t need to make us feel that we’re buying something white-lady-skin-colored to get us to do so. We’ll buy ecru, toasted coconut, buff, chamois, palest rose, taupe, beige, palest pink, biscuit, mushroom, fawn (ooh, I particularly like fawn), oatmeal, sand, on and on.

Really. I promise.

But, on the other hand, every time you define nude as “Caucasian,” you’re telling a whole lot of people that their naked skin is mistaken. Is wrong.

And not only does that suck, it’s probably costing you some dollars, son. If you don’t want to consider social advancement, you could at least consider your own bottom line.

Anyhoo, thanks for all the details on the frocks and hats at William’s and Kate’s big day, not to mention all the lovely stuff that’s comes out in the meantime! Man, that satellite thing on that one lady’s head — whew! Something else.

Hugs and kisses,

Emily

44 comments for “Open letter to the fashion industry, or: “Nude” – not actually a color.

  1. SgtPiddles
    July 25, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Wow. As far as fashion references are concerned, I was only familiar with the word being used in makeup to mean.. well, a lack of makeup (“smok” eye” paired with “nude lip,” for example). As you note, this is as stupid as it is racist.

  2. Esti
    July 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    It suddenly occurred to me in reading this post (which was great, btw!) that while I’ve heard the argument against “nude” as a descriptor of clothing before, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the same argument made about “tan”. It seems like that word shares many of the same problems — does it just not get talked about because we’re all still fighting an uphill battle on the more obvious nude issue?

  3. DP
    July 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Esti:
    It suddenly occurred to me in reading this post (which was great, btw!) that while I’ve heard the argument against “nude” as a descriptor of clothing before, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the same argument made about “tan”.It seems like that word shares many of the same problems — does it just not get talked about because we’re all still fighting an uphill battle on the more obvious nude issue?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tan_%28color%29

    The nude thing is pretty annoying. Although I feel like somewhere, I saw a series of stockings in various hues, all dubbed “nude.”

    Progress, I suppose, of a sort.

  4. Manju
    July 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    You’d think designers would want nude to be the new black. This way you could wear nude after Labour Day.

  5. FashionablyEvil
    July 25, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Esti, some hosiery lines have a color called “Suntan.”

    DP–that wikipedia entry has some great shades of brown that I never knew existed: rufous, wenge, fulvous, and sinopia. Oh J. Crew catalog writers…

  6. July 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Caucasian only accurately describes people who live near the Caucasus Mountains. And, thanks to Wikipedia, I can report that the Caucasus Mountains are a mountain system in Eurasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region.

    So it divides Europe from Asia, yes, but most white people originate from nowhere near it.

  7. July 25, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Ugh, I hate this too. It reminds me of the crayon that used to be called “flesh” and was a peachy color – as though, you know, human flesh only came in one color. Such stark examples of clear centering of whiteness as the “norm” and anything else as “other”, and yet so many people obviously didn’t even think twice about it.

    And as a very pale white person, I also found it wryly amusing that these stupid things didn’t even come close to approximating my skin tone and wondered who the, say, four people in the world were who *did* represent these colors. “Peaches and cream complexion” doesn’t generally mean someone is ACTUALLY the color of a peach…

  8. samanthab
    July 25, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Esti, the etymology of the word “tan” originates in a descriptor for the color of a dye used for leather. The use of it in reference to sun-exposed Caucasian skin came much later. I think it gets difficult to object to its use to describe a color when the use of it to describe human skin is secondary. That’s my take anyway.

  9. Pestilence
    July 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Using ‘Nude’ to describe a colour is a fairly recent thing, and it’s done for one reason only: because of it’s connotations. Beige is synonymous with boring, wheat sounds dull and ecru and fawn can be anything from barely off-white to nearly sepia tones depending on who you speak to. Nude doesn’t make people think of a colour; it makes them think of sex, regardless of what colour their skin is. That’s why it’s especially popular in the shoe world. Whilst it’s a bit silly, it’s just a name – it’s nowhere near as bad as the make-up world offering hundreds of shades of foundation for Caucasian skin but two or three covering everyone darker.

  10. Pestilence
    July 25, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Alison:
    Ugh, I hate this too. It reminds me of the crayon that used to be called “flesh” and was a peachy color – as though, you know, human flesh only came in one color.

    Flesh is the stuff under the skin, and it really does only come in one colour.

  11. Esti
    July 25, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Thanks, all — I didn’t know whether tan originated from leather processing or from suntan (I’ve seen hose called that, too, FashionablyEvil), but given the ambiguity, I can see why nude is an easier target for raising consciousness.

  12. July 25, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    This reminds me of a post on microaggressions, where an art teacher asked the class something along the lines of, “Who needs skin colored paint? It’s here. Who needs other colors, like blue or brown?”

  13. oldlady
    July 25, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Manju:
    You’d think designers would want nude to be the new black. This way you could wear nude after Labour Day.

    Thanks for this.

  14. oldlady
    July 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    whoops! Thanks!

  15. tinfoil hattie
    July 25, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Using ‘Nude’ to describe a colour is a fairly recent thing,

    I’ve seen it used to describe pantyhose colors since the 70s.

    This post reminds me: Why are adhesive bandages (i.e., Band-Aid brand) all that ugly beigey color? Because only beigey people want their bandages to be inconspicuous? It’s the seemingly “small” things that keep reminding me: No, we’re not exactly “post-racial,” are we? Not at all.

  16. Asinknits
    July 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    I fully support bandaids with pictures or cartoons on them. I like to have something to smile at when I have been dumb enough to give myself a first world injury. Anyway, bandaid colour does not look anything like my skintone despite my whiteness.

  17. July 25, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    @tinfoil hattie–I’ve often wondered the same thing about Band-Aids…I worked at a summer camp for 4 years w/ 60 girls, 90% African American. I resolved to just spend the extra couple of bucks to get the Band-Aids w/ characters on them for that reason.

  18. Emily Hauser
    July 25, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Asinknits:
    I fully support bandaids with pictures or cartoons on them. I like to have something to smile at when I have been dumb enough to give myself a first world injury. Anyway, bandaid colour does not look anything like my skintone despite my whiteness.

    Or possibly these! To give your injury that element of both whimsy and artistic greatness. http://www.medibadge.com/Eric-Carle-Very-Series-Bandages-P5060C48.aspx

  19. Li
    July 25, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    I would pay good cash money for bandaids with Tom Selleck on them.

  20. Kite
    July 25, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Yes! “Skin-tone” as a word also grates my cheese.

    Just a note: If you’re going to use Caucasian, it’s actually a scientific descriptor of a very wide grouping of people extending from Europe as far as India. So, a very wide range of skin tones, including black. Northern European skin =/= Caucasian skin.

  21. Jules
    July 25, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    If ‘nude’ can’t be a shade of color, how about ‘blush’? Are you going to argue that it’s not a color too?

  22. July 26, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Jules:
    If ‘nude’ can’t be a shade of color, how about ‘blush’? Are you going to argue that it’s not a color too?

    Soon, we shall attack all colours!  Next on the list: magenta!  Indigo’s in the top 10; chartreuse isn’t, but we’re watching it.

    Oh wait: “nude”, “blush”, “tan”, “flesh”, and others I can’t recall off-hand, are all colours that require the assumption of a particular type of skin tone.  What ever could it be?

  23. Li
    July 26, 2011 at 1:43 am

    You will prise magenta out of my cold, dead hands.

    XtinaS: Soon, we shall attack all colours!  Next on the list: magenta!  Indigo’s in the top 10; chartreuse isn’t, but we’re watching it.

    Oh wait: “nude”, “blush”, “tan”, “flesh”, and others I can’t recall off-hand, are all colours that require the assumption of a particular type of skin tone.  What ever could it be?

  24. Marrrg
    July 26, 2011 at 3:39 am

    I think it is innocent and natural that when you use the terms nude and skin color, usually the person is referring to their own color skin. If I were talking to one of my brown friends, and they said, oh, I got these new skin color shoes- I would imagine she meant brown. Not everyone’s brain (me included) works that well to think of the most PC way to describe a color. I’m not saying it isn’t wrong, I am just saying it is unfair to assign negative intent to those using the terms. As far as bandaids go, they are trying to market to an approximate skin color. They make the band aids the color they think will work the best for most consumers. They are not intentionally being racist. They are just trying to make money. Just like how all women’s shirts are made to fit a B cup. They are just trying to market to the widest consumer base, not discriminate against those of us who are an F cup.

  25. Cactus Wren
    July 26, 2011 at 3:57 am

    Reminds me of the last Australian Open but one, when Venus Williams played in a tennis-ball-colored dress worn over brown briefs the same beautiful color as her skin. There were of course the requisite pseudo-shocked gasps (“It looks as though she’s wearing nothing under her dress!”), but also a number of uses of the descriptors “flesh-toned”, “skin-toned”, and even “nude”.

  26. samanthab
    July 26, 2011 at 5:08 am

    Kite, Caucasian is no longer considered useful as a scientific descriptor in the field that made the term mainstream, anthropology. The term is still used regularly in medicine, and it’s used to convey whiteness. It’s not really a scientific term in any sense, though, so I question the notion that there’s a “correct” and “scientific” usage for it. It is a word that’s historically loaded, but to my mind that’s a *good* reason for using it. It’s an openly fraught word. To use the word “European” in exchange for “white” also suggests that “European-“ness is homogeneous to a degree it really isn’t either. What should go without saying here is that any term used to convey “race” is going to be arbitrary because race is a social construct.

  27. July 26, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Jules:
    If ‘nude’ can’t be a shade of color, how about ‘blush’? Are you going to argue that it’s not a color too?

    it’s a colour now? i thought it was a verb.

    my favourite bandaids have sculls and crossbones on them. i also have blue ones and white ones. i can’t remember the last time i saw them in that computer-beige colour, which resembles the skin colour of no one i’ve ever met.

  28. July 26, 2011 at 6:08 am

    oh to be able to edit one’s comments! of course i meant skulls, not “sculls”. can you tell i’m an x-files fan? *cough*

  29. July 26, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Jules: If ‘nude’ can’t be a shade of color, how about ‘blush’? Are you going to argue that it’s not a color too?

    I always figured “blush” was okay because it’s most often referred to as a range of colors in oranges and peaches and pinks and reds and violets, covering most people’s skintones including mine and other people of color, whereas nude is always the same beige.

  30. July 26, 2011 at 8:58 am

    When it comes to color I usually associate “Blush” with wine. *hic*

  31. July 26, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Marrrg: Not everyone’s brain (me included) works that well to think of the most PC way to describe a color.

    Except the fashion industry has huge numbers of marketers whose job it is to think of names for colors. Why is it so important to give the benefit of a doubt here? It may not be intentional racism, but it’s still racism.

  32. Emily Hauser
    July 26, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Marrrg:
    I think it is innocent and natural that when you use the terms nude and skin color, usually the person is referring to their own color skin.If I were talking to one of my brown friends, and they said, oh, I got these new skin color shoes- I would imagine she meant brown. Not everyone’s brain (me included) works that well to think of the most PC way to describe a color.I’m not saying it isn’t wrong, I am just saying it is unfair to assign negative intent to those using the terms.As far as bandaids go, they are trying to market to an approximate skin color.They make the band aids the color they think will work the best for most consumers.They are not intentionally being racist. They are just trying to make money. Just like how all women’s shirts are made to fit a B cup.They are just trying to market to the widest consumer base, not discriminate against those of us who are an F cup.

    Well in a way, much of what you say here is my point. Discrimination and privilege don’t have to be intentional to be damaging — in fact, in a way, it’s almost worse when they’re unthinking, because it’s much harder to show someone what they’ve done when they had no intention of doing it.

    There’s a reason that study after study has shown that when African-American children are asked to choose between a white doll and a black doll, to say which one is “good” and which one is “bad,” they identify the black dolls as the “bad” dolls, the white ones as the “good” ones. That reason certainly doesn’t begin and end with the fashion industry’s wildly, unthinkingly inaccurate use of the word “nude,” that wild, inaccurate use doesn’t help, and serves to spotlight the larger issue.

  33. Emily Hauser
    July 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

    samanthab:
    Kite, Caucasian is no longer considered useful as a scientific descriptor in the field that made the term mainstream, anthropology. The term is still used regularly in medicine, and it’s used to convey whiteness. It’s not really a scientific term in any sense, though, so I question the notion that there’s a “correct” and “scientific” usage for it. It is a word that’s historically loaded, but to my mind that’s a *good* reason for using it. It’s an openly fraught word. To use the word “European” in exchange for “white” also suggests that “European-”ness is homogeneous to a degree it really isn’t either. What should go without saying here is that any term used to convey “race” is going to be arbitrary because race is a social construct.

    Thanks for this! I kept kind of wanting to say: “I know that, but… but… it’s the box I have to tick on all the forms!”

  34. tinfoil hattie
    July 26, 2011 at 10:37 am

    They make the band aids the color they think will work the best for most consumers. They are not intentionally being racist.

    Huh. So most people in the world have beigey skin? That’s what “work(s) the best for most consumers”?

    Rethink. Check privilege.

    Meanwhile, YES! Character bandages for ALL! (Except then we get into the why-aren’t-there-more-women-and-girl-character-bandages question. Sigh. Just take the cold towel and be DONE with it.)

  35. July 26, 2011 at 10:55 am

    They make the band aids the color they think will work the best for most consumers. They are not intentionally being racist.

    Show me some stats that support the idea that white folks are more accident-prone than other skin types, and *maybe* I’ll buy this reasoning. Until then, as hattie said, check privilege.

  36. Emily Hauser
    July 26, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Meanwhile, YES!Character bandages for ALL!(Except then we get into the why-aren’t-there-more-women-and-girl-character-bandages question.Sigh. Just take the cold towel and be DONE with it.)

    Plz to be checking the Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar bandages I linked to, above. Done and dusted! :: wipes hands ::

  37. Mr. Elaine
    July 26, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Am I the only one that was bothered by the weird singling out of “amber people (or “yellow,” if those people prefer)”? As a yellow person who identifies as such (you know, in that reclamation sort of way, as we people of color are prone to do and whatnot), I would appreciate some sort of clarification as to the decision behind that. Because it comes off as an unnecessary euphemism that only highlights that particular form of othering.

  38. Emily L. Hauser
    July 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    I’m so sorry I don’t even know how this is going to look with the messed up HTML! I was responding to you, Mr. Elaine when the power went out 2 hrs ago & for some reason neither of the smartphones in my house will let me sign in…! And the quoting of your comment is also all messed up but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to set it right.

    Sooo for now I’ll just say: I’m very sorry. The “amber” thing is rooted in a joke with a dear “yellow” friend, but of course you aren’t in my head and don’t know that. Bottom line, it was meant as a small jab at the entire color “scheme,” so to speak. I’m sorry that wasn’t clear, and I’m certainly sorry to have contributed to a sense of othering. That was not my intent, and I’m sorry that was the result.

    Mr. Elaine:
    Am I the only one that was bothered by the weird singling out of “amber people (or “yellow,” if those people prefer)”? As a yellow person who identifies as such (you know, in that reclamation sort of way, as we people of color are prone to do and whatnot), I would appreciate some sort of clarification as to the decision behind that. Because it comes off as an unnecessary euphemism that only highlights that particular form of othering.

  39. sabrina
    July 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    it isn’t even white skin that “nude” is supposed to represent. It’s tanned white skin. I don’t have skin that dark and so their “nude” effect doesn’t work on me either. What I’d like to see is that bra makers start using a variety of shades if they want “nude”. That way no matter what one’s skin color, the nude effect will still work.

  40. July 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure most “nude” bandages don’t match anyone’s skin tone.

    …And don’t get me started on how hard it is for me to find tights that match my skin.

  41. Marrrg
    July 26, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Andie: Show me some stats that support the idea that white folks are more accident-prone than other skin types, and *maybe* I’ll buy this reasoning. Until then, as hattie said, check privilege.

    There are more white people then brown people in the US- the primary market for Band-aids. They do sell clear ones, by the way. Now I sound like a band-aid spokes person. But yeah, I see no good reason why they should not sell brown ones too. But you have to admit, those aren’t going to match every brown person either. How far should the company have to go? Sell different boxes of bandaids for every possible skin color? That just isn’t practical. I think them coming up with clear ones was pretty thoughtful, actually.

  42. August 3, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Just stumbled across an entire section of an online store called “Shop Nude” http://www.threadsence.com/shop-nude-c-364.html?page=all&sort=20a

    …filled with entirely beige and off-white items. sigh.

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