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What's the Color of Nude?

By: Shilpi Shukla Email By: Shilpi Shukla
July 2010
What's the Color of Nude?

Sterling silver sequin, abstract floral, nude strapless gown—that’s how designer Naeem Khan described this dress worn by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama at a state dinner. Little did he know that this statement would lead to a racial hullabaloo. The color has since been renamed as flesh and finally as champagne. But the burning question remains—what color is nude?

The dictionary describes ‘nude’ as a color that can extend to cover tan, tawny, sandy, yellow brown and light yellow. For many like ace fashion designer Mandira Wirk, the issue is unnecessarily being blown out of proportion. “Nude is often called the color of foundation. Depends on how we visualize it for the color denotes a wide range of shades from light peach, champagne, pale yellow to ivory.” However, for many others this incident does underline the ongoing racial bias in the fashion world. Many internationally acclaimed models like Naomi Campbell, Beverly Johnson, Iman and Tyra Banks have been vocal about the uphill hurdles they faced to get acceptance in the glamour world, given their skin color. Fashion magazines in the West took a very long time to feature multiracial skin on their pages and covers.

Even in India, home to many dark-skinned beauties, color discrimination reigns high. In its inaugural issue, Vogue India cover page featured Indian sexy sirens Bipasha Basu and Priyanka Chopra flanking Australian model Gemma Ward. Did an Indian edition of Vogue need a Caucasian beauty on the cover? Commendably, in its recent issue titled “The Dawn of Dusk,” the magazine made a statement on its cover, depicting darker-skinned models striking poses to show that beauty existed in all skin tones.

Many Indian models have time and again complained of the lack of colors in apparel and cosmetic brands that would enhance their brown, dark-brown or Asian skin tones. Model Nayonika Chatterjee, known for her dusky complexion, finds it funny that the First Lady of the U.S. should face the same biases that models like her faced and still do. Chatterjee explains how in her initial modeling years it would be a mammoth task for her and others who had darker skin to get an innerwear in the color nude. “There were times when we had no other option but to buy a nude bra as per industry’s ‘fair’ standards, soak it in tea for a day, dry it and then wear it.” Things have changed for such warm-skin toned models as some big brands have started storing it.

Indian mythology has described some of its most celebrated and revered goddesses as dark and lustrous. Luster, rather than color, was considered the symbol of feminine power, purity and beauty. Mythology describes Parvati, the goddess of power, as ‘yellowish coppery’ in color. Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas in Mahabharata, was considered beautiful because of her glowing dark skin, large dark eyes and graceful figure. Goddess Sita, the wife of Rama, is said to be earth-born and colored like the golden soil of India. Even so, new-age India seems to take a certain liking for fair skin tones. Not long ago, Indian model Diandra Soares was rejected by a big brand saying that she was five shades too dark! “I know that I would never be signed for a skin campaign for I am too dark for advertisers and promoters. It’s tough to change deep-rooted perceptions and prejudices, especially if very few people see anything wrong in that set perception. Or why else do we have truckloads of white-skinned models every fashion week in India,” she questions.

Funnily enough, dark-complexioned girls are shown at a distinct disadvantage in ad commercials. They neither get prime jobs nor the most eligible bachelors in the storyboards. It’s only after they use a plethora of fairness creams or soaps that they stand a better chance of making a success of their personal and professional lives. For supermodel Nina Manuel doing commercials or a print campaign meant being bathed in white. She confirmed in an interview that she'd virtually given up doing tests for cosmetic products. “There is no question of letting a dark-skinned model endorse a cosmetic product,” confirms a leading model coordinator on condition of anonymity.

For many years, dark-skinned actresses in India were cast as sinister, vengeful, seductive beauties. Dusky Bollywood beauties like Smita Patil, Deepika Padukone, Kajol, Konkana Sen Sharma, and Mugdha Godse have all had a tough time fighting off biased mindsets to make a mark in mainstream cinema. Bipasha started her Bollywood career with negative roles in films like Ajnabi and Jism.   She has often spoken about times when her make-up and dresses would be chosen to ‘cover-up’ her tanned skin tone. Priyanka Chopra shot to fame after playing a vamp in Aitbaar for which she bagged the Filmfare Best Villain Award in 2004.

Nevertheless, the cycle of changing trends in fashion is spinning faster than ever. With warm-toned models like Padma Lakshmi, Saira Mohan, Nina Manuel, Sheetal Malhar, Vipasha Agarwal, Lisa Hayden, and Lakshmi Menon and many others gaining international acclaim, one could hope that we don’t need to confine to stereotypes and bling forever. Make-up artist and stylist Yatin Ahluwalia says, “There’s something about honey-coloured girls that makes them look more unique and sensual. They photograph better too.” Agrees designer Wendell Rodricks, “There is an element of ingenuity and realism in dusky tones. It isn’t about fragility or vanity, it’s about strength and character.”

But will the search of beauty and sensuality completely transcend color tones ever? Will the Indian industry ever shed its bias towards fair skin? Well, the answer lies in the eyes of men and women who’re giving fashion a makeover, the trendsetters! Returning to the debate raged over the color nude, it’s worthy to say that applying the term ‘nude’ to denote skin tones only belonging to a certain kind would be unfair. Decoding the colour, designer Ritu Kumar says, “It’s time the Euro-centric fashion vocabulary’s revised. While pale pink is nude as per European standards, pale brown is nude to us.” Sounds quite fair.

About time the glam industry around the globe realized that no color is just ‘color’. Each comes with its wide range of tones and shades. So do human beings.

[New Delhi-based journalist Shilpi Shukla has written for publications in the U.S., U.K, Hong Kong and Singapore, besides India. She also works as a voice & accent and soft skills trainer.]

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