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When ‘nude’ is only nude for some people

Kim Bhasin


| Thu, April 20, 2017 | 03:35 pm
When ‘nude’ is only nude for some people

Collection of nude-colored shoes by Christian Louboutin. (

Nudity is en vogue these days. Shoppers are clamoring for nude swimsuits, nude lingerie, and nude designer clothes. It’s a simple yet edgy look for those bold enough to suggest they’re baring it all, and tolerant enough to endure the occasional double-take.

Yet for some, nude simply means beige. Or perhaps some lighter shade of tan. The problem with this particular color label is that, more often than not, “nude” is only nude if you happen to be white.

As the style has become increasingly popular, this retail conundrum is gaining attention. Some are now challenging the industry norm, jettisoning the interchangeability of “nude” and “beige” and producing clothing that matches the flesh of everyone.

“Finally, the fashion and beauty industries are catching up,” said Katie May Atkinson, an analyst at trend forecasting firm WGSN, “but it’s been a long time coming.”

Why did it take so long? Pairing skin tone to clothes was a hot trend in the late 2000s, with couture designers walking light brown looks down runways, albeit on white models. Nude pumps gained a bigger following; so did nude nail polish. Then one night in 2010, Michelle Obama wore a strapless beige evening gown to a state dinner—a gown whose color was described as “nude.” Not so much.

Fashion’s issues with color are born of a longstanding, racially insensitive beauty standard, said Elizabeth Wissinger, a professor of fashion studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Wissinger, who’s done extensive research on diversity within the industry, says fashion has begun to acknowledge alternative body types and complexions, but its attachment to narrow traditions suggests it will take a long time.

“Fashion claims to be nimble and responsive and on the cutting edge,” said Wissinger.  But “there are also such long cultural echoes of what’s deemed fashionable, so there’s this subconscious background of calling it ‘nude.’”

Crayons and civil rights

The concept of nude-as-a-color was challenged a long time ago, just not in fashion. Crayola, the crayon maker (now owned by Hallmark Cards Inc.) once made a pinkish beige color called “flesh.” The tone was renamed “peach” in the 1960s, when exclusionary references began to unwind in the face of the civil rights movement. 

One definition of nude in the Oxford Dictionary remains “of a pinkish-beige colour,” though another states that nude is “denoting or relating to clothing or makeup that is of a color resembling that of the wearer’s skin.” Until 2015, when a college student successfully petitioned Merriam-Webster, that dictionary defined nude as “having the color of a white person’s skin.” This is the definition now in its place: Having a color (as pale beige or tan) that matches the wearer’s skin tones <nudepantyhose> <nude lipstick> (2) :  giving the appearance of nudity <a nude dress>

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The beauty industry, meanwhile, has been miles ahead of fashion in catering to women with darker skin. Women of color have more choices than ever thanks to labels such as Bobbi Brown and MAC, providing an inclusive set of swatches for their customers. Bobbi Brown’s nude finishing illuminating powder, for instance, comes in six different sets, spanning “porcelain” to “rich.”

Yet on the catwalk, there’s been little evidence of the nude rainbow. One notable exception is the label of performer Kanye West, whose inclusion of many tones on multi-ethnic models has created some buzz around the word’s budding redefinition. And yes, the Kardashian pack has played a role too, with the never-shy Kim in the lead role of nude hue pitch-woman. She’s worn looks from nude bikinis to nude blouses and skirts.

To be sure, there are some fashion brands that have joined in. Nubian Skin was the first, with a line of lingerie that’s available in plenty of dark brown shades. BeingU, Nudest, and BrownBottims also sell underwear in lots of hues. A new U.K. shoe brand called Kahmune offers 10 separate shades of high heels to match skin tones. Nunude is a label that sells tracksuits and lounge wear with the hopes of redefining nude. And Christian Louboutin, maker of the iconic red-soled shoes, has expanded the color range of his nude ballet flats and pumps.

“I’ve always done a nude shoe but only using the color beige,” Louboutin, the designer, said at the time. But he decided to change things when one of his staffers told him flatly: “Beige is not the color of my skin.”

Diversity and logistics

Naja, a lingerie label that’s since expanded into activewear and swimsuits, released a line of “nude for all” underwear in shades that span the spectrum of brown. Founded in 2014 by former lawyer Catalina Girald and Jane The Virgin actress Gina Rodriguez, Naja looked to upend lingerie stereotypes last year with its campaign for nude bras and panties, seeking to celebrate diversity with models of all skin tones–and, of course, matching nude lingerie.

“The fashion industry was primarily targeted at white people and nude was the color of a white person’s skin when they were nude,” said Girald. “We needed to be inclusive and had to change that.”

Girald said one obstacle for the industry has been simple logistics. They order their clothes, underwear, or shoes from factories abroad that have high minimums, so if they want an item in many shades, they’d have to make a big bet on inventory. Smaller brands just can’t afford this, and larger brands often don’t think it’s worth the risk. For Naja, which runs its own factory in Colombia, this isn’t a problem however, she said.

Most labels name their nude tones (think “cafe au lait” or “cinnamon”) but Naja just names its nudes by number (“Nude #1,” “Nude #2”). Naja initially tested 23 colors on women, which it narrowed down to seven. It found that often it’s the perception of color that confuses shoppers. They expect to be a certain shade because of their ethnicity. During the testing process for example, an Ecuadorean woman couldn’t find her color match. Meanwhile,  a Danish woman with a tan was also being tested, and found her shade: Nude #3. Turns out, they weren’t all that different.

“We tried the Danish girl’s color on the Ecuadorian girl and they were the same color,” said Girald. “They couldn’t even believe it themselves.”