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Nude, adj.: see ‘white’

May 2, 2010

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 11:47 am

    Goonshowfive… but transparent underwear surely can’t be good

  2. Paul permalink
    May 3, 2010 11:55 am

    Now this one I feel is a little over-the-top.
    Britain is 85.7% White British according to the last census. That means it *is* the default in Britain.

    I’d be very surprised and quite disappointed to find someone not-white who’s chosen to live in Britain who takes offence to nude meaning white-nude when the population is pretty significantly still White-British (let alone white-other).

  3. wickedday permalink
    May 3, 2010 1:30 pm

    Britain’s around 10% not-white, if I recall rightly, though this obviously varies wildly from place to place. That’s not the point. The point is that small, everyday centerings of whiteness, like the assumption that everyone who goes lingerie shopping in the UK is white, add up to a bigger problem.

    One in ten Britons is still six million people whose life experience, indeed existence, is being systematically erased. That’s the problem.

    You’re not stupid. I shouldn’t need to explain to you why privileging one skin colour over others is wrong, problematic, and enables racism. I would politely suggest checking your privilege (Google is your friend) and thinking slightly harder in future.

  4. Paul permalink
    May 4, 2010 10:49 am

    “One in ten Britons is still six million people whose life experience, indeed existence, is being systematically erased.”

    It’s significantly better than what it was 100 years ago. It’s not being “erased” at all in this country compared to years past. Racism wasn’t even frowned upon in to the 70s for goodness sake. I’d go as far as to say it’s being repaired rather than erased.

    Regardless, I really don’t see this as a problem. The fashion industry certainly has a lot wrong with it, but I cannot see how this is a problem.

    It’s foolish for the companies to only aim “nude” at white people perhaps, but it’s not as though they don’t make other colours.

    But hey ho.

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