‘Nude’ has long been synonymous with white skin, something that in turn has become a comment on the fraught racial politics of history.
When the Indian Prime Minister visited the White House in 2010, Michelle Obama’s choice of outfit for the ensuing state dinner was a ‘sterling-silver sequin, abstract floral, nude strapless gown’—a description courtesy of its Indian-American designer, Naeem Khan. But whose ‘nude’ was he referring to? The peachy-pink dress certainly didn’t share its colour with the skin of the African-American First Lady. When the Associated Press subsequently christened the dress as ‘flesh’-coloured (a description they later changed to ‘champagne’), it was clear that something as simple as the colour of a dress was making a larger comment on race, microaggressions, and the way the existence of black and brown women is often excluded from the fashion industry.
‘Nude’ has long been synonymous with white skin, something that in turn has become a comment on the fraught racial politics of history. Two years ago, an online petition forced the Merriam-Webster dictionary to change the definition of ‘nude’ to ‘having the colour of a white person’s skin’, similarly, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Crayola changed the name of its pale pink crayon from ‘Flesh’ to ‘Peach’ in the 1960s. In spite of the mixed racial demographics of both the US and the UK, whiteness is often viewed as the default to which we are all expected to defer. It’s why every high-street make-up counter has dozens of shades for white skin but none for black, and why professional make-up artists can cheerfully tell non-white models they ‘don’t have anything for [their] skin’ backstage at fashion shows. It’s why bandages and plasters come in shades of peach, and why parents can’t find dolls that aren’t white in department stores. It’s why fans are outraged when the heroes in their books are played by people of colour in film, TV or theatre—if a character isn’t explicitly described as black or brown, the world sees them as white. From pop culture to kids’ toys, people of colour and their own shades of ‘nude’ have been an afterthought at best and, at worst, simply not existed at all.
Inspired by the lack of options available these women are trying to change things. For a long time, it has been difficult for black and brown women to find tights and underwear in shades that match their own skin. Bras and pants in peach nude tones have always sold in large numbers—something that implies darker tones would sell equally well—and nude tights for white women are having something of a resurgence. Bucking any ‘frumpy’ narratives or connotations, more and more women are looking to cover their legs with a sheer material. In 2011, Debenhams announced the Royal Wedding led to a 65% rise in the sales of sheer tights, and a year later ASDA claimed their sales of ‘skin-coloured’ tights had increased by 500 percent in the wake of Kate Middleton’s newly raised profile. Alongside leading tights retailer M&S (that sells around one in three of the pairs sold in the UK) reporting hosiery sales have been rising in the UK, the US hosiery market has grown too, and luxury brands like Wolford and Mayfair have also risen in profile. Business insiders attribute much of this growth to the female, Millenial market. A growing number of black and brown female graduates working in business environments want to buy tights in their own shades of nude, and over the last few years, there are finally places where they can do so.