At the end of a summer when unarmed black men seem to have become, increasingly, routine targets of law enforcement, it would be easy to overstate the significance of an advance for people of color in the world of fashion. But with the caveat that this obviously isn’t the most pressing news of the day, it still bears mentioning that the launch of a new apparel line reminds us that there are many different ways that we make incremental progress in society, and this time it appears to involve lingerie.
Yes, you read that right. I said lingerie.
It was recently announced that Nubian Skin is launching a line of lingerie that matches the wide range of skin tones of women of color. This may not seem like a big deal to everyone, but for millions of women of color, it is. Lingerie can be a lot like makeup, in that finding a brand that is both comfortable and complimentary is considered essential for the average woman but has long been tough to do for the average woman of color.
For years, major makeup brands didn’t make products that matched our skin tones. And inspired by the popularity of the Ebony Fashion Fair show, in 1973 the founders of Ebony magazine launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics, one of the first lines designed for and marketed to women of color. Similarly, supermodel-turned-supermogul Iman has acknowledged that part of the inspiration for her makeup line comes from the challenges she faced early in her modeling career to find products that matched her skin tone.
Yet even today, if you’re a black woman with a richer skin tone, finding suitable makeup choices remains a struggle. During my The Root interview with Yaba Blay on the subject of the cultural impact of Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, Blay said, “If Lupita gets signed by a L’Oréal or CoverGirl, I can finally look forward to some foundation that matches my skin color.” (Nyong’o has since been signed as a spokeswoman for Lancôme.)
But cosmetics aren’t the only cultural domain in which women, and all people of color, have often been treated as invisible. I can remember being a child and seeing boxes of pantyhose labeled “nude” and thinking that the legs pictured on the packaging didn’t match my mother’s. Then, of course, there are Band-Aids. “Flesh” colored has long had a singular meaning when it comes to adhesive bandages: a pinkish color meant to roughly resemble white skin. But that color doesn’t correlate with the varied hues of what will soon be a majority-minority America.
Which brings me to lingerie.
Before we even walk out the door in the morning, women have to think about a host of things that men never have to, and probably wouldn’t believe that we have to, even if we told them. One of them is occasionally figuring out what-color undergarments to wear. And not for the reasons men might think (or perhaps hope), but for professional reasons.
For instance, if a woman is wearing a white dress to a business function, or even a white dress shirt to a job interview, it is considered poor form for others to be able to see her undergarments underneath, which is always a danger when one is wearing light-colored material. Those of us whose skin tone does not constitute the “traditional” definition of “nude” have had few options, despite our purchasing power. I have never owned undergarments that truly match my skin color, but have simply bought any brown-toned undergarment I’ve come across, and been grateful that even though it doesn’t really match my complexion, it’s at least a color other than white, black or traditional nude—i.e., beige.
But thanks to the creation of this new line by Nubian, I, and millions of other women of color, now have more options. Who knows? Maybe when today’s young black and brown girls grow up, they won’t even remember a time when “nude” undergarments didn’t take their color into consideration.