Meet The Women Changing Our Perception Of What The Colour ‘Nude’ Is

‘Nude’ has long been synonymous with white skin, something that in turn has become a comment on the fraught racial politics of history.

Meet The Women Changing Our Perception Of What The Colour 'Nude' Is

by Bridget Minamore |
Published on

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 theMerriam-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.


29-year-old Australian-born Tahlia Gray has just launched Sheer Chemistry, a London-based hosiery brand that ‘celebrates the diverse beauty of women of all shades of brown’. Describing her move to New York as a recent graduate, she tells me ‘I imagined finding [nude tights] would be easy. But every time I entered a department store I was disappointed that I could only find shades of beige, all labelled “nude”, but never my nude. I then found myself becoming frustrated by the lack of hosiery products available for women of colour. Not seeing myself represented forced me to question whether my beauty was valid, and why none of these brands had taken the time to create a product that catered to me. As an affirmation to myself and other women of colour who’ve experienced the same struggle, I decided to create a hosiery brand dedicated to celebrating and validating the diverse beauty of women of all shades of brown; one which empowers women to feel confident and gorgeous in their own skin.’

Launching Sheer Chemistry earlier this month at the W Hotel in Soho (where the tights will be sold exclusively until 7th July), Tahlia has already received feedback from around the world. ‘Public reaction has been very positive,’ she says. ‘It’s fascinating how many women of colour have such an emotional connection with tights, and we often end up sharing stories about “American Tan” and the embarrassing beige-colour tights that we’ve all worn at some point in our lives. I have also been very humbled by women who have approached me to thank me (in person and online) for making a product and brand for them that represents their beauty, and am very passionate about bringing greater diversity to the hosiery market and providing women of all shades of brown with much-needed choice. We’re working hard to get our products into shops and department stores so that we are accessible for all. While there have been several other brands cropping up over the past few years, this still remains an underserved market where there is plenty of room for Sheer Chemistry, and others, to flourish.’

Tahlia is right: despite new (and old) brands attempting to fill the gaps, the options available for nude items of clothing that aren’t a pale pink are still heavily neglected. While Debenhams and M&S both sell a couple of pairs of ‘chocolate’ tights on their websites, it’s still slim pickings in comparison to the array of nude tones for white skin. The charge for more inclusive fashion is instead being led by smaller brands, often set up by young black and brown women who are similarly fed up with their lack of options. French brand Gerbe and Italian Levante have been quietly offering more diverse options, while Swiss-based Congolese mum-of-two Nadine Njoko Peiske set up Own Brown last year. Across the pond, US underwear brand Naja made headlines last year with its ‘Nude For All’ campaign, Nude Barre offers sixteen shades of nude hosiery, and Chantal Carter Taylor’s Love & Nudes became the ‘first Canadian brand of lingerie marketed to women of colour’ in 2016. In the UK we have Falke, that couples dark browns with colours from all over the rainbow, as well as 2015 Apprentice runner-up Bianca Miller’s own name brand. However, the most well known of all of the so-called diverse nude brands is Nubian Skin, with its hosiery, lace lingerie, basic underwear, and shoes—all in various shades of brown.

‘Nubian Skin was essentially born out of frustration’ says Ade Hassan, the woman behind the brand. ‘When I first started the business, “nude” lingerie and hosiery for women of colour was something I simply could not find. I’d go into a shop and ask for ‘nude’ and they’d offer me black, or something that might as well have been lime green because it did not match my skin-tone. Ever since we launched there have been quite a few smaller brands that have popped up with a similar concept and some larger brands that have added a ‘mocha’ to their collection. What is worrying is when large brands order all our colours, or as in one case, ask to collaborate with us on a project—but then produce items at a cheaper price point because they have the economies of scale to do so, or replicate our colours as an original idea without crediting us. In a lot of these cases, the brands see offering multiple skin-tones as a trend to score some points with. Still, business is going well so far—we’re now stocked in leading department stores and boutiques in nine countries over four continents.’

Business is going more than well for Nubian Skin: after the first images of their lace lingerie collection went viral in 2014, the brand has been seen on everyone from model Jourdann Dunn to Beyoncé and her backup dancers on the singer’s mega-selling Formation tour. Last week, Ade Hassan announced she’s to receive an MBE for ‘services to fashion’. When the Queen gets involved, surely the calls for diverse ‘nude’ clothing have reached some sort of critical mass?

Perhaps not. Despite Ade and Nubian Skin’s success, and the many other brands popping up doing similar things, the market remains niche. I can’t walk into the nearest shop and find tights or underwear that matches my skintone, and for women of colour who are plus size, the options are even smaller. While some of the brands mentioned here have been listening to calls to expand their range of sizes (Nubian Skin launches their larger sizes this year), things still aren’t easy. Bravissimo’s ‘mocha’ Alana bra is the only nude-ish brown bra I’ve heard of that went up to a K cup, but it came in one specific shade of brown, and now it’s sold out. For people of colour who are trans and gender non-conforming, things can be even more difficult. Buying underwear while experiencing gender dysphoria can’t be easy, but binders—sports bra-like underwear that flattens your breasts—have only become available in nude tones over the last year. In the spring of 2016, gc2b came out with their nude binders, while FLAVNT’s ‘bareskin binders’ were launched in the autumn, following a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Looking at the websites of all the brands, the one thing that struck me was the way each site had an ‘Our Story’ or ‘About Us’ tab explaining what prompted them to launch their business. The stories were depressingly similar—people who felt excluded by the mainstream decided to stop waiting and create something they needed by themselves—but in many ways, it gave me a lot of hope. The things we wear under our clothes can be just as important as the things we wear over them, and ‘nude’ needs to come in more colours than the pinky-beige it has been restricted to for so long. Our clothing options need to be as intersectional as our society is—let’s hope that we’re on the way to getting there.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

The Best Foundations For Dark Skin: Tried And Tested

In Defence Of Wearing Tights All Winter Long

Can You Call Yourself A Feminist If You Buy Fast Fashion

Follow Bridget on Twitter @bridgetminamore

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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