To look back over the last decade and call this representation progressive, however, might be to speak too soon, especially considering the most popular trans names in fashion are white and cis femme appearing. And that the drip-down effect of media representation – from something as glamorous as a high-fashion magazine shoot to how trans people are treated at street level – isn't black-and-white. Then, of course, there is the question of how sincere a gesture it is to put a trans model on the cover of your magazine, or in your latest campaign, or on your runway, when, in 2017, it seems that many brands or designers don't realize that casting one trans person isn't inclusivity, its tokenism. So how do we circumvent a situation where trans people are treated like outsiders, to ensure that they receive a permanent spot in a more inclusive industry?
“Most trans people are not trying to 'shake up the world',” Shon Faye, a British journalist and commentator on trans issues, tells Refinery29 when asked about her reaction to the Vogue Paris cover. Shon points out that, although kinder than the coverage of a few years ago, it’s still a “sensational representation” of trans people. “Being trans is not a political statement designed to make everyone rethink gender,” she says. “It may have that effect sometimes, which is good, but we are not a style aesthetic. ‘Shaking up the world’ is not always positive for trans people. Shaking people up often means they won’t give you a job, or that they throw you out on the street, or that they rape you."
Talking to trans people with modeling experience, Shon’s words ring true. 24-year-old London-based Tschan Andrews recently quit the industry after six years, because her identity too often “felt questioned or disrespected." The biggest disrespect of all, she says, was getting pigeonholed as androgynous. “That’s incredibly disrespectful for a transgender model, it will cause dysphoria” she explains, detailing experiences where she was sent home from shoots for famous fashion magazines for questioning why she was being asked to dress more "masculine" or play the role of both male and female (though it's worth nothing some trans models feel safer remaining androgynous, which can double as a state of protective limbo).
Reflecting on those experiences now, Anders says: “It’s like fracturing your mind – you being yourself and someone saying no – it triggers negative thought processes you have had to break down over years to be yourself.” She's since realized that she’s just not comfortable “foregoing [her] identity for a picture.”
Photo: Courtesy of Museum of Transology.
Scott points out that, as long as fashion “perpetuates the notion that successful trans people are people who look like cisgender people – specifically white cisgendered copies – and doesn’t celebrate the diversity of trans people,” the impact on the trans community will be minimal.
Photo: News Group/REX/Shutterstock.
Caroline 'Tula' Cossey.
For Shon, the fashion industry needs to take a wider look at catering for trans people’s bodies. “Forcing a trans woman model into a dress designed for a cis model's ribcage to send her down a runway constrained and breathless is kind of the perfect metaphor,” she says. “When it comes to clothes, we are being bent into shape by the old standards, still forced in every way to live in a cisgender world. Nothing is being created for us. There is still no material acknowledgement that we exist."