• Former First Lady Michelle Obama wears a dress by Naeem Khan, described as a 'nude', when it's anything but. (Bloomberg, Getty Images)Source: Bloomberg, Getty Images
Trying to buy 'nude' make-up or clothing as a woman of colour can be challenging, as the fashion and cosmetic industry often define the shade as peach, beige or ivory.
Alana Schetzer

18 Apr 2017 - 2:01 PM  UPDATED 18 Apr 2017 - 2:01 PM

What does ‘nude’ coloured fashion mean? If you’re a light-skinned person, then it’s probably a term that speaks straight to you, providing you with a nude colour choice in underwear, shoes and clothing. But if you’re a woman of colour,then the pale skin shade ‘nude’ in fashion might mean something else entirely.

The colour ‘nude’ is such an accepted term in the fashion industry that when former First Lady Michelle Obama wore a gown by designer Naeem Khan in 2010, he described it as a "sterling-silver sequin, abstract floral, nude strapless gown".

But the truth is, a ‘nude’ gown on Obama would have been a warm chocolate colour and not, as Khan’s gown was, champagne in colour.

The fashion industry has a long history of racism, cultural appropriation and whitewashing. White models are dressed up as Japanese Geishas for Vogue, Native American headwear became a symbol of music festivals and traditional African patterns and fabrics get turned into ‘tribal’ trends mass produced by corporations with no links to the actual artisans.

But to what extent is the lack of flesh-toned options for women of colour the continuation of that racism? The intent behind flesh-coloured clothes and makeup is meant to be just that - nude. It’s meant to blend in and complement your skin and look seamless. And when something is advertised as ‘nude’, what that means is that the colour is some combination of peach, pink and beige.

Choice and language are important in fashion to ensure that women of colour are no longer deliberately forgotten. Nicola Smith wrote a powerful piece for online magazine My Black Matters last year about this exclusion, saying it “blatantly displays the beauty ideals that society imposes on women, particularly black women”.

“This explicit exclusion of women of colour in nude fashion. It is as obvious as saying, that this beige shade is the “norm”, and if you do not look like this, or if your complexion is not close to this you are not beautiful, you do not matter, nor are you even thought of by these huge fashion brands, and couture fashion houses,” she wrote.

Underwear, shoes, foundation and lipstick are the biggest culprits of selling ‘nude’ and ‘flesh’ colours that are hardly flattering to any woman who doesn’t have white skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. There are even skin lightening creams and lotions, which again sends the message that lighter skin is ‘better’.

But to what extent is the lack of flesh-toned options for women of colour the continuation of that racism?

Catering for all shades of nude

There are a handful of fashion and cosmetic companies that are addressing this problem and have expanded their choice of flesh tones, so they flatter more skin tones, from milky beige to dark chocolate. Designer Christian Louboutin, ballet clothes maker Mahogany Blues, shoemaker Kahmune and Nubian Skins, which sells underwear, shoes and hosiery in a wide range of nude shades, are among a steady number of companies that have embraced ‘nude’ – not as a colour but a diverse choice of shades.

There are even multiple shades available in the trusty Band-Aids, thanks to Tru-Color Bandages. The US company, which produces three distinctive shades, was created by a man who adopted three children and was frustrated by the fact that traditional adhesive bandages did not match their skin tones. These are important and positive steps in addressing fashion’s long-standing neglect of so many women.

The cosmetics industry is also slowly playing catch-up. For women of colour, especially in Australia, finding a foundation is a struggle for those with darker skin tones. Most mainstream cosmetic companies only sell shades as dark as what would suit a Caucasian person with a tan. M.A.C, who has long been a campaigner for diversity, sells almost every shade of skin imaginable in foundations, concealers and lipsticks, while Nars, Makeup Forever, Cover FX and Maybelline have expanded their choices.

But the truth is, a ‘nude’ gown on Obama would have been a warm chocolate colour and not, as Khan’s gown was, champagne in colour.

Krissy Turner, fashion coordinator for the UK’s The Telegraph, is of mixed-race heritage. In an article Turner wrote, she highlights just how important it is that all shades of skin have a matching option.

When she put on her ‘nude’ shape-wear, a friend pointed out that they wouldn’t suit being underneath the navy dress she planned to wear.

“She was right, it wasn’t, but they were in fact ‘nude’ as stated on the M&S website I bought them from, they just weren’t my nude,” she writes in her article.

“Instead they looked like ridiculous cycling shorts against my brown legs, and so the debate ended with said friend writing a lovely ‘review’ of the shorts on the site.

“I like to think she prompted M&S to change the name of the shade to what it is now known as:  almond.”

While it may still be some time before big department stores stock a wider range of nude shades, the fact that there are people and companies taking the initiative to come up with their own range of darker nude tones reveals that change is coming.

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