They’re not alone in that. In its May 2015 issue, Vogue profiled an openly transgender model, Andreja Pejić, for the first time. Céline, this time last year, made waves when it announced that Joan Didion, literary icon and octogenarian, would be its own new “face.” Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old with Down Syndrome, walked the runway at 2015’s New York Fashion Week.
As models, those people are all, in one sense, traditional: gorgeous, in a totally unique and also totally universal way. But in another sense they are also extremely, and importantly, non-traditional: Their beauty is only part of the point. They are not merely clothes hangers who stomp and shimmy and smize. They are people, and they carry the fleshy freight of personhood. Through their stories and their histories, they inject politics into fashion. They suggest that, whatever the clothing they are helping to sell, inclusivity is the best thing to accessorize it with.
In that, certainly, they’re helping fashion to do what it has always done, which is to borrow from, and then give back to, the culture at large. In the year after Obergefell v. Hodges, the year after Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner made their various marks, the year after the Dove Men+Care ad campaign and the launch of The New York Times’ “Men’s Style” section and the launch of the TLC show I Am Jazz, the year that could well find The Danish Girl being celebrated not just by critics, but by Oscar voters—inclusivity is a fashion statement.
And that’s true far beyond the quirky echelons of high fashion. Campbell’s recently featured soup ads (inevitable hashtag: #realreallife) starring a toddler and two doting fathers. Kohl’s 2015 holiday ads featured an interracial, same-sex couple. And late last year Mattel made the heavily symbolic move of featuring a boy, for the first time, in an ad for a Barbie doll. Last year, too, found brands using social media as an excuse for ad-hoc performances of progressivism, as brands will. When the Obergefell decision was announced in June, companies from American Airlines to Bravo to FreshDirect to Jell-O to Maytag to Target came out, so to speak, with their own celebrations. (So did, unsurprisingly, Oreo, which three years earlier made waves with its “pride cookie.”)
Taken individually, these are all small steps, and limited ones. The culture of Orange Is the New Black is the same culture that finds Hasbro meeting controversy for its failure to include a Rey figurine in its Star Wars-themed Monopoly set. The culture that put Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair is the same one that found South Park mocking the impulse to celebrate her as “stunning and brave.” The Fashion Week that put Madeline Stuart on its runway is the same one that generally subscribes to the human-hanger school of models. The fashion industry that is claiming to espouse diversity and gender fluidity is the same one that holds, in other areas, terrible records when it comes to race and workers’ rights. And, again, ads being what they are, even the most progressive campaigns are implicitly cynical: They’re designed as much to sell stuff as to make a statement. They’re conflating the illusion of progress with a more palpable version.