Tokenism in the Fashion Industry

by Lindsay Wong

It’s 2021, but racism is still prominent around the world and has pervaded many industries, including fashion. In the fashion industry, marginalized communities are underrepresented, silenced and tokenized.

Tokenism is the practice of making a symbolic effort to represent groups by doing something in particular. In the context of minority communities, companies recruit people from these communities simply to show or display that they are diverse. Such companies that engage in tokenism are not actually genuine in their efforts to be diverse. This has been an industry norm for decades, but now people are stepping up and demanding change.

Fashion brands have sustained Eurocentric standards of beauty throughout history. These include light eyes, a thin figure, fair skin, straight hair. Brands have used these beauty standards to promote and market products, largely leaving other underrepresented beauty standards (like people of color) out of the picture. From magazine spreads to runways to billboards to advertisements, there has been very limited space for people of color as they do not fit the pre-existing Eurocentric narrative. As a result, marginalized communities are underrepresented in an industry that does not cater to them nor does it give them space to thrive. As a result, people of color are taught that their physical appearance is inadequate through continuous media consumption of Eurocentricism, leading to self-consciousness and alienation.

The fashion industry has a history of being racially insensitive. It’s no surprise considering the lack of racial diversity in fashion. In 2018, H&M’s campaign was criticized because it depicted a Black boy wearing a jumper that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” which seems to have racist implications. Similarly, the next year, Gucci had to withdraw a balaclava design because it resembled blackface. These kinds of controversies happen more often than we think as many companies and brands are ignorant towards racially sensitive issues and there is a lack of comprehensive research into such issues.



The fashion industry has traditionally tokenized and silenced marginalized voices. There are barriers in place preventing people of color from obtaining leadership and decision-making roles. These roles are almost exclusively reserved for white people. The structure of the fashion industry suppresses fair representation for people of color, many of whom are from low-income families, who are underpaid in entry-level roles. People of color working in the industry are often taken for granted and hired as a mere act of tokenism – the company hiring them can appear to be inclusive, even though it may not be genuine. These individuals are often willing to put up with it because they are passionate about fashion and the companies can take advantage of them by underpaying them.

When treated as tokens, people of color are “conditioned to be complacent out of fear,” as stated by Shelby Hyde, a journalist who has first-hand experience of this in the industry. People of color are regularly subjected to microaggressions and subtle racist comments that are more often than not brushed under the rug. They are allowed to be in the industry as long as they do not voice their opinions or concerns, effectively silencing any and all first-hand accounts of racism. Brands gain from tokenism because it enhances their brand image – many customers are not aware that brands are not being genuine in their efforts. It is an easy way for companies to engage in corporate social responsibility without having to directly support the communities they are tokenizing. As long as customers can see that people of color are being represented on some level, most will dismiss claims of not being inclusive and assume that companies are doing their part to achieve diversity in the industry. Clearly, this is certainly not the case – companies just want to create an illusion of diversity.

In the past decade, notable figures in the fashion industry are taking initiative to bring about positive change. Accomplished supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman, as well as activist Bethann Hardison, founded the Diversity Coalition, aiming to name designers that exclusively cast white models in attempts to hold them accountable. They wrote to Chanel, Saint Laurent and Robert Cavalli and demanded for change. Although the Diversity Coalition did gain some media attention, it was ultimately forgotten, demonstrating how marginalized voices are continually silenced. Nevertheless, notable figures continue to advocate.

With time, brands are making attempts to be more inclusive and diverse. Chanel, Gucci, and H&M have incorporated initiatives to encourage hiring of people from marginalized communities. They have created more space for them as designers, photographers, stylists and creative directors, thereby granting them more visibility in the industry. Tommy Hilfiger is particularly notable for making their brand more accessible to disabled people. Tommy Hilfiger launched their Adaptive collection, targeted to modify mainstream apparel to make them more adaptive. This collection provides ease and comfort to customers with disabilities and positions the brand as one that genuinely wants to be inclusive.

In light of the 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, people and ex-employees of fashion brands shed light on how companies have been insensitive towards marginalized communities. One example is Glossier, where employees of color felt unsafe when situations of blackface occurred in the shops. Ex-employees admitted to being forced to tolerate microaggressions and racist behavior towards them. Even though Glossier outwardly donated $1 million USD to racial justice causes, employees of color still felt like they were silenced. The BLM movement has also given more visibility to Black-owned brands. Recognizing the industry’s history of racism, people are making a more conscious effort to support Black creatives within the industry.

Although the fashion industry has come a long way in terms of representing marginalized communities, more can still be done to be genuinely inclusive. Structural changes within the industry would make people from marginalized groups feel safe and give them more visibility. Brands can provide more representation for them behind the scenes and on the runways. They can discourage acts of microaggression in the workplace and foster a more inclusive culture that emphasizes diversity without putting anyone down. It will be exciting to see how the industry evolves and changes for the better, particularly how people of color can be more accurately represented so that they have a strong voice.