Everything else.. Fashion and Inclusivity in Sri Lanka

Fashion and Inclusivity in Sri Lanka

2021 Jul 15

Fashion is inescapable, it will always be a deeply personal expression of who we are and how we feel about ourselves. It progresses and changes with time, reflecting the people and era to which it belongs. It is distinct.

For eons we have admired and coveted the bodies and styles of the carefully curated images, of the graceful and flawless figures we see in the media. There is a natural inclination towards things perceived as ‘perfect’, and for a long time all we saw were the same looks parroted by brands worldwide, with little regard for the diversity of their consumers and little inclusion of persons who understood and represented their consumers.

The Eurocentric, wealthy, slender, tall, leggy, light skinned, light eyed beauty standard became an aspiration – seemingly untouchable except by the few lucky winners of the genetic lottery. Yet in its rarity somehow it became a standard – and thus was born an era that made judgements based on labels, purchased lightening creams, hair dye and coloured contacts.

But as times changed and minority voices got louder we started to see representations of people of colour, different ethnicities, different gender expressions, different sizes, different socio- economic backgrounds and even the differently abled. The industry had started to make strides in including and showcasing the diversity of the human form and its full spectrum of beauty. However as said by Verna Myers, “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

True inclusivity would entail that the aforementioned people are included in the important conversations, integrated to the brand image, and a true part of the process, with equal exposure, representation and pay.

Fashion and trends comprise a large portion of the media we consume today – everyone is trying to sell us something, and we soak it all up like the summer sun. The importance inclusivity plays speaks to more than just non-discrimination – the movement of inclusivity seeks to open up the fashion world to everyone – from inception, to production, to the final purchase.

However, even with all our progress, we still see the devastating effects that media poses to people’s body image and self-worth. The warping of reality and the loss of originality and free expression, that have resulted from the endeavour to chase trends, indicate that despite the strides being made we still have a long way to go.

This article sets out to look at the positive steps we have taken in the right direction.

Inclusivity should draw the consumer in and allow them to feel as if they were part of the conversation, allowing them to feel like fashion, trends and art belong to them too. It should allow all consumers to feel represented. It should highlight beauty in all forms, ensuring that the public is aware that perfection is not the standard – that beauty has NO STANDARD – and that all sizes, abilities, gender expressions, socio-economic backgrounds and colours, are beautiful and welcomed.

Sri Lanka’s fashion industry is burgeoning; emerging and growing in the last 10 years, we have a bright future with a wildly talented pool of artists. Our rich culture and wealth of resources mean we often see traditionally inspired clothing down our runways. Utilising traditional material productions and designs deeply entrenched in the history of ancient Sri Lanka, we integrate inclusivity in more ways than representation, colour and sizing. This also means we are incorporating social sustainability by supporting rural businesses and fabric manufacturers.

A primarily brown skinned society, the Sri Lankan skin varies from milky to deep and is rich, warm and diverse. Though admittedly we are still fighting off the post-colonial fever, the after effects of the Black Lives Matter movement had sparked more fervent conversations on colourism, amplifying the conversations of the many activists fighting against colourism, which tie in to conversations on classism. In the last few years, we have begun to see a wider variety of skin tones on the runway, in our ad campaigns, and gracing the covers of our magazines. Additionally, the modelling-scape began to see fresh faces with designers curating models via open casting calls.

Kalpanee Gunawardana, an Entrepreneur, Activist and Model, openly advocates against colourism, and is at the forefront of utilising her platform to spread positivity. Her work and honesty about the process shed a welcoming light to the acceptance that real skin and real bodies will never look like the images we seek to replicate on screen. Kalpanee also talks about accessibility as a part of inclusion:

An equitable, peaceful, sustainable society is a just society; clothing and appearance have been tied to social mobility and self-confidence whilst media we see affects the ability to aspire… There is much to say about moving away from judging a book by a cover, and in a macro overview many of our societal ills can be traced to systemic issues that we actively need to work towards understanding and dismantling. Whilst we do this however, the aforementioned should not be limited to a ‘privileged’ section of society.”

In conversation with Amesh Wijesekera, a Sri Lankan Designer now based in London, we discussed the importance of inclusivity and how his process goes far beyond including diverse skin tones – Amesh’s designs showcase traditional Sri Lankan prints, bringing culture to the forefront of modern style. His designs have bold colours and clean lines, and his volumes all showcase traditional imagery and a multitude of ethnicities – his fabrics are all hand-made and locally sourced in his endeavour to support rural communities. Amesh makes it a point to ensure that his aesthetic remains gender neutral – Stating that “fashion is for everyone, and everyone should be able to wear what they want with confidence and pride”. More than just using models to showcase his work, Amesh integrates narratives into his volumes, believing that “when you include real people and their stories you add value to the art.”

Gendered clothing was so yesterday, and in recent times the foray into non-gendered apparel and the widespread acceptance of the aesthetics and boldness of de-gendering have opened incredibly fashion forward doors for the members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies. Expression of one’s inner self has never been easier – whilst still receiving its backlash, the comforting step forward we are experiencing proves promising.

A noteworthy local brand making marked strides in inclusivity is MIMOSA. MIMOSA is a casual/commercial brand, and from its early days has incorporated styles that were catered to plus-size and petite women. Driving away from the notion that plus-size women need to be clothed in figure hiding garments – only comparable to shapeless sacks, they catered modern and trendy styles to fit and flatter ALL body types. With plus and petite collections often gracing their very carefully curated and aesthetically pleasing social media platforms, we are often left impressed and excited about their collections. Utilising real ladies, and showcasing different body types and aesthetics, MIMOSA proves to us just how versatile and complementary their collections are. This understanding of style, body and shape, which allows their brand to bring trends to customers who may feel like certain styles are just not made for them, showcases an element of inclusivity. 

So why is inclusivity so important? The point of beauty is that it is intangible and ineffable – fashion merely provides us one element of visual representation. We need more real stories and real people, campaigns and trends that don’t create false and harmful realities but rather foster safe spaces for expression and self-acceptance, and relatable content that the consumer could feel connected to.

While we make these strides, we must also endeavour to make them accessible. The road ahead seems long, but not impossible.

There is such an art in the sincerity that we are starting to embrace … isn’t it exciting? 

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