Nude, adj.: see ‘white’
I don’t read the fashion pages, but in this case there was a link on the front page of the Guardian website to one of their fashion features, and it caught my eye. The headline said something like “Nude shades for summer”, and was accompanied by a shot of a model in a sort of drapey pink cardigan-like thing.
I’ve encountered items of clothing marked ‘nude’, usually in the underwear section. They are never an attractive colour. This is not the problem.
The problem is that ‘nude’ in this context is meant to mean ‘skin-coloured’, i.e. it blends in with the wearer’s skin. And however bad manufacturers of ‘nude’ items are at matching tones, it’s clear that the tones they’re intending to match are not just those of skin colour, but those of white skin colour. (The model in the Guardian photo was white, needless to say.)
I’m sure there are reasons to need a bra, or knickers, that approximate one’s skin colour; not obviously showing through a thin top is the first one that comes to mind. The need to co-ordinate one’s outfit is hardly a white problem – women of all possible colours make the same sort of decisions daily – but it’s only white women whose skin tone is represented on the lingerie racks.
It’s a small thing. But having ‘nude’ mean specifically ‘white nude’ only reinforces the cultural pattern whereby white (well, pinkish-yellowish-cream) skin is the default, and other colours are specified in contrast to that default. Defining set X of people solely by their deviance from the norms of set Y is called othering. In this case, it’s called racism.
The fashion industry has larger problems than the word ‘nude’. But small things contribute. And it’s another case where the offending word would be so easy to get rid of – there are the neutral descriptors ‘light’ and ‘dark’ if you want to describe a general property, and a whole spectrum of colour names if you need to be more specific.
And then we could re-purpose ‘nude’ in a more accurate and egalitarian manner, maybe. I leave you with the episode in the Goon Show where someone says “Who’s that approaching wearing a transparent kilt?” and gets the reply “That is a special kilt designed for patriotic Scottish nudists.” Transparent underwear matches everybody’s skin.