Breaking the Mold, The Evolution of Transfeminine Representation on the Runway and the Activists Who Paved the Way.


Written by: Cori Mickelson & Noemi Gomez

Strut (2016)


Being transgender defies cultural beliefs of gender and sexuality; people assume one’s gender based on biological concepts which over the course we have examined is not the case. Gender is a social construct and many scholars such as Butler theorize the performativity associated with gender leaving space for the evolution of one’s gender over time. Male and female bodied individuals who aren’t occupying their biological sex challenge heteronormativity and the social hierarchy created by a patriarchal society. Transgender awareness isn’t the mystery it once was with successful trans actors, models, designers, and artists transgender representation is finally gaining the momentum it deserves. However, this doesn’t mean that there has been fair representation within these mediums.  The groundbreaking progress that has been made over the last five years is only a small step towards inclusivity within the fashion industry. With the help of activists such as Laverne Cox, Hari Nef, Caroline Cossey, April Ashley, Teddy Quinlavin, and Munroe Bergdorf the fashion industry is bridging the gap of transgender exclusion, paving the way for future generations and changing society’s beauty standards. This essay will serve as a brief look into the evolution of transgender representation on the runway and the pioneers who risked everything just to be themselves.

Society has always been obsessed with the categorization of one’s gender; from conception to before you take your first breath you are assigned one of two biological sexes, (male or female) based solely on your chromosomal makeup. Medically speaking it is still acceptable to label a baby’s sex at birth, but we have learned that the social constructs surrounding gender are far more complicated. Associating with your assigned sex has been the normative however, many individuals don’t fit within these limited categories and this is where representation becomes important. A popular complaint among marginalized individuals in the trans community is lack of representation.  When you’re young and rely on what society presents to you to normalize your experience it’s hard to connect with your true self. Many trans individuals suffer with the feeling of being born in the wrong body, uncomfortable with who they see in the mirror, ashamed of who they are, and the following women are no exception. More importantly, the risks these women took aided in breaking the glass ceiling of gender normativity represented within the fashion industry.   

April Ashley BBC (1961)

April Ashley had struggled with her identity her entire life; she had even made attempts at taking her own life, but a new hope arose when she read about Christine Jorgenson’s gender reassignment. Without representation Ashley may have never found a way to truly become who she knew she was born to be. In 1960, Ashley underwent gender reassignment surgery becoming one of Briton’s first to successfully have the surgery. Upon her return she re-entered the workforce as a model and was open about her surgery stating, “They all knew about my operation — they all knew who I was… None of the photographers gave a damn about my past. They wanted me in their portfolio.” Out Magazine She made it all the way to the top appearing in British Vogue, but all of her success was brought to a halt when tabloids outed her. Patriarchal gender norms cause hysteria and misrepresentation of trans individuals but pioneers like Ashley wouldn’t let that get in her way. Again, and again, she found her way back into the fashion industry but every time her identity was exposed, she was shunned. Her struggles pushed her to advocate for her sisters and earned her spot in history as one of the first “out” transgender models. Unfortunately, Ashley’s story is just the beginning of the fight for representation on the runway.

Tracey “Africa” Norman

In the 1970s Tracey “Africa” Norman broke onto the runway scene, handpicked by Irving Penn, a notable photographer for Vogue magazine at the time, he thought she would be the next Beverly Johnson, (the first cisgendered Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue). Penn’s endorsement helped Norman land contracts for Avon, Clairol and Essence. Norman spent her years on the runway the only way a trans woman could, by passing as a cisgendered female. She made it the better part of 10 years before she was outed on a photo shoot for Essence and her career as she knew it was over. Tracey’s story went untold for years but would be inspiration for models such as Laverne Cox as she reminisced about Norman’s face on the box of Clairol’s No 512 and the caption ‘Born Beautiful’ stating, Yeah, we are born beautiful The Guardian  Norman’s success as the first Black transgender model wouldn’t gain her the notoriety she deserved for over 40 years.

Caroline “Tula” Cossey (1995)

Trans women are no stranger to the systemic discrimination they are faced with and the “death sentence” they faced if they were outed. Caroline “Tula” Cossey recalls being outed after her success of a Bond movie, Playboy centerfold and several other high profile modeling jobs. After she was outed she faced threats of violence, lynch mobs and was even assaulted in the bathroom by a male “fan”.  Cossey refused to let this be her legacy, she travelled the world to educate people that “trans women were just normal women, not circus acts” Mirror UK She appeared on the cover of Playboy for a second time but this time with a new purpose, activism. She used her outing as a way to show the world the truth about trans women. The cover of Playboy shown above asks the clever question, “Would you sleep with this woman? See inside – then decide”. Her bravery, albeit far too progressive for the times, will be her mark on the fashion world.

Isis King (2009)

America’s Next Top Transgender Model

In 2008 cycle 11 of America’s Next Top Model premiered. On this day the world met 22-year-old Isis King from Maryland. Isis was one of fourteen hopefuls of becoming America’s Next Top Model. Although Isis placed tenth over all she will always be remembered as the shows first transgender contestant. This was during a time where it was rare to see transgender representation on screen. Isis credits Tyra Banks for opening doors for her that have led to her opening doors for fellow transgender models. Although this was a big step in the right direction for representation in reality TV, we still saw moments on the show that reinforced that there was still work to be done. During the first episode a fellow contestant asked Isis if she was “all woman” referring to her genitalia. When Isis mentioned she was not born female it stirred conversations and anti-trans comments. These comments included “Ain’t this supposed to be a girl competition — how did you get through the door?” and “If I have to get along with Isis I will, but if it becomes me and my goal, I’ll stomp that man right out of the competition” (Ramos, 2019). Misgendering Isis and making comments about how she does not belong in the competition because she was not born a female showed the audience issues the transgender community faces. There was also no conversation of disciplinary action to anyone who made anti-trans comments or any type of group conversation as to how to be inclusive and not disrespectful. Although Tyra meant to shed light on the beauty of the transgendered community and show that they belong anywhere, she ultimately was not prepared to have Isis on her show. This can be seen in moments where Isis’s confidence suffered because she was concerned about her male genitalia showing due to clothing like bikinis which ultimately cost her the competition.

                        Designer Gogo Graham’s NYFW for trans* femmes by trans* femmes

Gogo & Marco Marco: Who was first?

Clothing has the power to build confidence and tear it. Clothing also has the power to help the wearer express who they are. This is because clothing has always been created with a consumer in mind. From the beginning of design the designer creates their consumer. Who is going to wear this product? Where are they going? For years this consumer has always been cis gendered men and women. Until now. Gogo Graham is a transgender female designer who is changing the narative on who the consumer is. Gogo attended The University of Texas at Austin and graduated with a degree in Textiles and Apparel. After graduation, Gogo moved to New York and started designing. Gogo is designing her clothing line for trans femmes and notes that the design can not exist without the consumer. In 2015 Gogo actually produced a show with all transgender models during New York Fashion Week. This was the first fashion show to have this representation. So it will come as a surprise when in 2018 The Marco Marco Runway was named the first runway show with an all transgender model lineup. Although this is a celebration to see this representation on a stage as huge as New York Fashion Week you have to question how a cis gendered man is receiving the credit for something a transgender female designer has already accomplished. One might even question if this is commodity activism. Is Marco doing this to create a more inclusive space or is he trying to use this community to sell?

                                                           Dominique Jackson (2015)

Representation of Strut and Slay

As we begin to see a shift in more transgender representation on the runway from brands such as Marc Jacobs, YSL, Jeremy Scott and more you have to wonder who is representing them? Are they being hired by modeling firms such as IMG Models or Elite Model Management? Although we are starting to see more transgender models being recruited for big modeling agencies there is still a lack of representation in these agencies. This is where Slay Model Management and Trans Model come into play. These agencies represent trans models in Los Angeles and New York which are big fashion capitals. In 2016 Slay Model Management was featured on Strut a show that followed the day-to-day lives of five transgender models including Isis King, Dominique Jackson, Ren Spriggs, Laith De La Cruz, and Arisce Wanzer.  The show provided a huge platform of visibility for the agency and the models. It also allowed viewers to see what transgender models experience going into casting, photoshoots, and walking catwalks.

          Aaron Philip (2020)

Aaron Philip: Beauty Comes from All Body Types

As we begin to see more representation through agencies such as Trans Models and Slay Model Agency it is still important to ask what major agencies are doing to support transgender models. Are they signing them? Are they representing them? One agency that is moving towards inclusivity is Elite Model Management. In 2018 Elite signed Aaron Philip. Aaron Philip is the first black “transgender and disabled model to sign for a leading agency” (Militano, 2020). This is a major celebration as we see these big known agencies sign models of all types of backgrounds. Philip said, “The fashion industry has only known one type of body, and one type of marketable figure for so long. (But) now we’re entering this time, and this climate, where all types of bodies want to be pushed forward and celebrated — not only celebrated, but be seen as desirable and marketable” (Prieb and Ries, 2019). Philips has gone on to be on the cover of Paper Magazine, has appeared in Vogue, and is the face of Moschino’s fall collection.

Valentina Sampaio

Victoria’s Not So Secret

Although we are beginning to see representation with well-known brands, there are still some brands who oppose having representation in their brands. In a November 2018 interview with Vogue, Victoria’s Secret Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek stated, when asked if the show would move in a different direction in the age of social media, that “transsexuals” would not be casted for the runway show because the “show is a fantasy” and the “only one of its kind in the world” (Phelps, 2018).  In other words, Razek was saying that transgender models did not belong on the Victoria’s Secret runway. The brand and Razek received major criticism about being out of touch with the market of today which desires inclusion and diversity (Rivas, 2019). As a result of Razek’s comments Victoria’s Secret’s CEO canceled the 2019 show. In 2020 it was announced that Victoria’s Secret that they had hired Valentina Simpaio, their first transgender model. A few days later it was announced that Razek was also retiring from his position as Chief Marketing Officer. It is uncertain if the company decided to let Razek go or Razek decided to leave due to the company’s move and him not agreeing. A concern that was brought up with this move was if the company was truly hiring Simpaio because they wanted to change the company’s views or if they did it as damage control? Is Victoria’s Secret using Valentina to fix the damage that was done in 2018? It will be interesting to see how Victoria’s Secret keeps themselves accountable with representation.

Savage X Fenty (2020)

Savage X Fenty: Inclusion is Beautiful

 While Victoria’s Secret was receiving deserved backlash for anti-transgender comments, Savage X Fenty was receiving well deserved praise for their inclusivity on runways, print ads, and more. From the beginning Rihanna has made sure her brand is inclusive. The first sign of this was when she released her foundation range for Fenty Beauty. When she released for foundation range it included 40 different shades. When it came time to her concealer range she released 50 shades. She continued this inclusivity on her runway. An amazing example of this is Savange X Fenty’s Fall 2020 show which included models of different sizes, drag queens, popular models such as Bella Hadid, artists such as Lizzo, and transgender models. At the end of the show seeing every model involved in this show was breathtaking (image below). It was incredible to see how much representation the show had. It also makes you wonder will this show influence brands to include more transgender models and models of all shapes and sizes? Will brands look at their models and ask themselves if their casts are diverse? It will be interesting to see the future of the fashion industry when it comes to including transgender models. These models belong in this industry and are a part of any fantasy regardless of what brands may think.


Equality has never been synonymous with fashion, but big players are recognizing the importance of inclusivity not only for their brand but for a new standard of beauty for future generations. In conclusion, we are beginning to see more efforts in including transgender models in the narrative of high fashion. They are now being celebrated and represented by major agencies which makes it hard to believe that not even a decade ago they had to live in hiding. Not even a decade ago being outed could lead to their lives and careers being destroyed. Although we are seeing big positive changes there is still so much work to do. Brands need to look at the people who work within them and ask, are they inclusive? How can we keep ourselves accountable? How can we create a more inclusive environment? There is much work to be done but it is good to see how brands are heading in the right direction.

Work Cited

Papisova, V. (n.d.). How This Transgender Woman Went from Homeless to Starring on ANTM. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

Ramos, D. (2019, August 14). From ‘Top Model’ To ‘When They See Us’: Isis King Talks Acceptance Of Trans Community In Hollywood. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

Pierre Crosby, P. (2020, February 21). Gogo Graham’s trans-femme label celebrates it’s tenth season. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

Adhav, L. (2019, June 18). This Ground-Breaking Fashion Show Featured All Trans Models. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

Militano, H. (2020, September 22). Aaron Philip Breaks the Mold as the Star of Latest Moschino Campaign. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

Transgender-Only Modelling Agencies Giving Visibility To An Underrepresented Fashion Demographic. (2017, August 02). Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

Prieb, N., & Ries, B. (2019, June 24). A black, transgender and disabled model just landed her first major magazine cover. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from

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