Friday, June 20, 2008

Vogue Asks, "Is Fashion Racist?"

"Are we still talking about this in 2008?" asks Iman in an irate voice kicking off the "Is Fashion Racist?" article in the July issue of Vogue. I've certainly pondered that question myself over the past few years and I am sure that many other fashion enthusiasts have as well.

Really, why is it that an industry such as this one known for embracing a variety of outlandish personalities and ideas is so blind when it comes to putting new faces in its clothes, on its runways or in its magazines. For example, I’ve lost count of how many times I've seen designer Philip Lim glorified on the pages of fashion tomes but I struggle to remember when I last saw and Asian model featured in a multi-page editorial. In spite of the fact that Pat McGrath, Andre Leon Talley, photographer Mark Baptist and designers like Tracey Reese are influential enough to sit at the proverbial table, that diversity hasn't tricked down to model employment office. This seems to suggest that people of other races are welcome to provide the glitz for a shoot but must never be the one to wear the accessories.

I think about this topic often and it's become the main focus of my blog because it wasn't like this when I was growing up and first became enamored with fashion. I still remember the day my English teacher brought in a stack of old ELLE magazines to give away and I got my first taste of it. I spent hours pouring over those images back then. It was superficial and I knew but I didn’t care. It still meant something to me. Seeing the Beverly Peele on the cover of Seventeen when I was in high school back then made me feel good. It made me feel included in that fabulous something even though my bi-level two toned jheri curl was decidedly not happening. Side note: I still haven’t forgiven my mother for making get a jheri curl. I honestly think of it as child abuse.

My fashion jones followed me to college where I always had the latest pictures of Naomi Campbell tacked to my mirror for fierce make up inspiration. But then it seemed, things started to reverse themselves. Instead of marching forward and including larger cross section of ethnicities, fashion started marching backwards. The change was slow but deliberate. Black models became less visible as lighter skinned, more racially ambiguous Brazilian beauties hit the scene. They started dropping off too, save Gisele, in favor of Eastern European models, each new batch even more nondescript than the previous seasons.

Nowadays, when I talk about how it used to be I feel like an old woman rocking on my porch talking about the good ole' days when they let us colored folk take pretty pictures.

In the article the author, Vicki Woods, writes that "[Vogue] magazine exists to inspire women," but I wonder is she's actually been looking at the same magazine that I have. Except for the odd issue that gets is right, most of what I see in Vogue is far from inspiring. While I will admit to coveting certain pricey items but I don't think I've looked at a model in Vogue and wanted to trade places with her since the Summer’s Bare Necessities shoot and that was in 1992.

I agree with Woods where she suggests that one simply cannot compare the supermodels of the 90's who "looked equal but different as they thundered down the runway" to the unhappy mass of similarly styled European models "who look pretty much alike." Even Sarah Doukes of Storm Models remarked "It's a naughty thing to say, because I've got some beautiful Eastern European girls, but to be honest, when I go in cars with them in Paris, I do get snow blinded."

Bethann Hardison was so angered by the situation that she emailed Iman writing "Did you realize that over the last decade black models have been reduced to a category?" The two called a series of town-hall style meeting titled "Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color" held at the New York Public Library. Countless models told stories about being rejected for jobs, not because their particular "look" or walk was a problem, but solely based on the fact that they were black. Liya Kebede shared that she has had "experience with people who did not want to work with me because I was black..really, truly." In any other industry, that would be a racist remark, and you would be taken to court for it!" After those meetings the wheels started to turn and the issue garnered more attention.

Models, especially the ones lucky enough to be earning a living as models, are reluctant to name names. So when Jourdan Dunn famously asked, "why are our catwalks so white?" it made international fashion news. Except that she didn't actually say it, professional celebrity offspring Kelly Osbourne did. Jourdan shares "She was at the Topshop show, and she said it to a journalist, who ran out and did a telephone interview with me. She said, 'Do you agree?' And I said, 'Yes, it's true."

Even as models of the moment like Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, and blazing Dominican newcomer Arlenis Sosa, are making inroads, they still face opposition but from where? This is where the article falls short, unable to point the finger at anyone in particular. Certainly not at Anna Wintour, who isn't even mentioned in the piece and presumably prefers to let her covers do the talking. Wintour doesn’t even bother to mention the article in her editorial.

So back to the blame game... Is it the photographers? No, according to Mario Testino. He says that photographers just "react to the supply." Is it the designers then? Some of whom seem to think black bodies are all wrong for the clothes. Alber Elbaz of Lanvin says no no, not him. "I try all different dresses and when I see only the face of the girl-and the dress disappears-I know it's the best dress for her." Huh? He goes on to say that he was "trained" to use black models. "I loved them from the time I worked at [YSL]; he always used black models." Because I'm thinking something is lost in translation there so I'm not going to go on too much about why someone has to be trained to see black people as a viable option. It's getting a little too Haley Joel Osment in here for my taste.

Well, that leaves the casting agents (the gays are spared the finger pointing in this article.) Russell Marsh, who does casting for Prada and is very influential in the industry isn't asked why there was a ten-year gap in between Naomi's last walk for the design house and Jordan Dunn's. He's asked why he chose her. His unsatisfying answer pays lip service to her elegance and confidence being right for that particular show and then goes on to talk about how important it is that the clothes are not overshadowed as they were during the age of the supermodels.

Seriously, people talk about the AGE OF THE SUPERMODELS like it's prehistoric or something. Last time I look around, most of those big names were still making money and to the best of my knowledge no one has successfully performed carbon dating on Naomi Campbell. Iman rightfully called bullsh*t on that saying, "You don't want to look like these [current] models, you don't want to emulate them." Models exist to be muses and to make women want to buy the overpriced clothes they wear.

James Scully, who casts for Tom Ford blames celebrity culture. "When it's tough for models, it's really tough for black models." While it is true that it's rare to find a model and not an actress on a fashion magazine cover these days, Hollywood has it's own problems when it comes to diversity.

Anyway, it seems the bottom line is that dour faced robotic beauties are in and models with unique looks and personalities are out. My question is that if designers really believe that their clothes are best represented on blank canvas models. Why is the canvas always white? Why not runway shows populated by say, Asian models of similar builds, styled the exact same way or black models grouped together for the similarity in their features? They are certainly not above exploiting a model's race to grab attention. How can a group of professionals famed for thinking outside the box be so narrowly focused at the same time?

So where does that leave someone like me? While I am pleased to see models like Arlenis getting a break my enthusiasm for these things has dampened considerably. Often I will read comments from people who are puzzled as to why people like me bother getting upset about these things in the first place. "Why should I care about that white magazine and whether or not they put black people in it?" is a common refrain. I admit that there are some days that I feel the same way. Especially nowadays when I'm more informed and entertained by fashion blogs than I am by print magazines.

On the flip side, another part of me still longs for a time when I can pick up a magazine on the stands, read about fashion and see an array of images representing all types of beauty not just black or white. I don’t feel that any kind of change like this will occur if people stop complaining and give up. These old habits die hard. So while I am still hotly anticipating getting my hands on a copy of Italian Vogue, I still reserve the right to complain about it once I've seen it for myself. I can’t help it. I'm old and cranky and I’m a decade away from yelling at kids to get off my lawn. At the very least, I know there are people who feel the same way that I do and I know how comforting it is to read bitching online that could have come from ones own mouth. So this is for the two dozen of you who read this site and feel like I do. Cranky is the new black.


Anonymous said...

Lawsuits are a reality in any other industry because nobody will be brave in the fashion world. When you have a solid case, perhaps it's time to take action. That article seems like an evasive and half-hearted exercise in social relevance.

Beauty Is Diverse said...

"I still haven’t forgiven my mother for making get a jheri curl. I honestly think of it as child abuse."


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I wish I could write as well as you. And I'm so glad you created this blog. It's on my short list of "must read daily!" blogs.

B said...

lpd, you are really very kind for saying that :)

Anonymous said...

"Cranky is the new black". LOL - loved it - Great post!

Leela said...

You know what Bridgette, until I read this post, I never thought about this. Now that you've brought it up, it's like an enlightenment.This is a problem, but what do you think is the solution?? :(

B said...

Hi Leela,

I don't really know what the solution is. I think some magazines might start feeling pressure and include more non-white models but only to keep up appearances. I think that people who love fashion but hate the status quo will just start their own blogs or online magazines. The problem is that it fashion bloggers are still pretty dependent on print media for photos and information unlike gossip bloggers who can easily get a head start of tabloids. Ony time will tell how this all pans out.

Shell said...

Black consumers pour millions of dollars into the country. I can only imagine how much money sistahs spend buying clothes and fashion magazines. We should be represented on the cover of magazines in all our glory!! What happens to little black girls buying mags now and nary see a black model. What kind of message is that sending out. That whole idea that one or two get work and the other black models get the shaft is ridiculous. Love your post and keep bitching on!!

Anonymous said...

As consumers we have a right to demand products that address our needs and desires. There are great blogs online, why doesn't someone start a magazine!!

Kanani said...

Given that many (not all) workplaces, and organizations went through a cultural shift ages ago, it stumps me that fashion holds onto old perceptions and is slow to get out of the gate. And, "cranky is the new black" is the best slogan to come in ages!

Lenoxave said...

Very thought provoking. I find it interesting that the racist thinking of the fashion world as a whole is tossed like a hot potato. Editors, to photographers, to agents, to designers and it goes on and on. No one wants to cop to their shyte.

Sad indeed. With all the $$$ black women spend, I wonder that we haven't just pulled the financial plug on supporting these mags and products until we get representation.

Felicity said...

Brigitte, your blog is very good, I have been thinking about what this and I think that the world of modelling is very competitive and I really wonder if there are that many jobs at all. In the 90s the industry was willing to embrace more people of colour, and those girls, were really glamourous, full figure, look at the models now, many on the catwalk are stick thin. I think that the industry has a lot of homosexual men, who want to see boys than women. Black women even if they are slim, still look very womanly. How many black girls are going into modelling, it is easier to use famous black women, such as Jennifer Hudson, and Rihanna to be on the cover of your magazines. The industry wants to see black women in a certain way, not to be seem as elegant, that is why they prefer lighter shade black women, also it is about having the right contacts. If hour shaped black girls did modelling in Italy, French etc. They will cause such a sensation.

AJ Plaid said...

@ felicity--I can't blame "the gays" for Black models mot being on the runways and the magazines. 1) The statement that they want to see boys instead of women is essentially equating gay men to pedophiles, an age-old stereotype. Gay men tend to like over-18 men, not boys. 2) The statement makes a dubious link of LGBTIQ men to the discrimation to Black folks--internecine in-fighting between two marginalized
groups who, honestly need to form coalitions.

Nope, I lay the blame on the fashion editors and the other people in charge of editorial content. Anna Wintour and her professional cohorts are the ones who controls the images, including what model "type" will be photographed. Having worked at Conde Nast and observed the kind of people who work there, esp. at Vogue, skinniness reigns in the editorial departments. The closer the physical proximity to, say Anna Wintour, the thinner the person is. Exceptions exists, i.e. Andre Tally, but they are rare. In other words, the physical environment at Conde Nast in reflected and reinforced in the magazines. It's a hermetic world of skewed beauty. And it's skewed to be white.

Sorry about the length.:-(

P.S. Brigette, "cranky is the new black" should be your blog's subtitle.

Felicity said...

@aj plaid
Nope, I lay the blame on the fashion editors and the other people in charge of editorial content. Anna Wintour and her professional cohorts are the ones who controls the images, including what model "type" will be photographed. Having worked at Conde Nast and observed the kind of people who work there, esp. at Vogue, skinniness reigns in the editorial departments. The closer the physical proximity to, say Anna Wintour, the thinner the person is. Exceptions exists, i.e. Andre Tally, but they are rare. In other words, the physical environment at Conde Nast in reflected and reinforced in the magazines. It's a hermetic world of skewed beauty. And it's skewed to be white.

The images of those models are not real, who are the fashion editors? Apart from Anna Wintour, Black women tend to have a more heavier structure, than white women, even if you get very slim black women, they will look slightly heavier than white women. We cannot compete with that and being that thin, affects your health. I sometimes wonder if it is worth it and maybe, black people having their own magazines and maybe focusing on places like Africa, particularly South Africa, South America and the Caribbean, there are lots of designers, who would like exposure. I look at the Asian fashion magazines, the Asian continent is very big and have a lot of fashion magazines, designers etc and now the European are trying to tap into their market, because of the potential.

Ariel said...

I love this article so much I posted about it on my blog today. I know I don't always comment but I always read what you have to say and I love what you write.

Anonymous said...

Besides beauty and creativity, the fashion industry has always exploitated...errr, I mean, capitalized on the female body. The truth is, as statistics show, black Americans display the strongest designer/brand loyalty. We spend money we don't even have on designers and brands (both are corporations) that really don't care about us. They've taken us for granted, they feel no need to spend time, energy, or money marketing to us, because we're a built in obedient faithful demographic. Or maybe they feel seeing a skinny white model in an outfit raises its value.

And what's all the fuss over half-Korean Chanel Iman and the clamoring over skinny Jourdan Dunn? It's more of a "model of colour" spread than a black model spread.

This article is a good read too.

I tell you...once Obama takes office, things better change.

B said...

I agree with you byrdie on all counts save Chanel Iman. She was on the Tyra show with her mother not long ago. Her mother is black/Korean and her father is black.

matt williams said...

Felicity said:

Black women tend to have a more heavier structure, than white women, even if you get very slim black women, they will look slightly heavier than white women. We cannot compete with that and being that thin.

I have to disagree. There is so much genetic variety among black people. In East Africa, women are often very thin after having a number of children. Many of the West African teenage girls who live in my city are much thinner (six 8 and smaller) than the average African American girls of the same age. Most African-American girls and women are bigger largely because of diet and lack of exercise. I see more 250 and larger among AA than I do continental African women. Even with the weight problems, there are 40 million African-Americans in this country, and it should not be impossible to find at least 15 who are between 5’9-6’0 and wear a size 0-4

Asi Mod said...

I read the article in Vogue and felt like the author was skirting the issue. She laid out the problems but then made excuses for them without getting any concrete answers.

Well, that's 5 minutes of my time I'll never get back.

Anonymous said...

Great post, you can do something with words :)

Jessie - My fashion blog

Anonymous said...

Wow, reading you blog verified a lot of the same feelings I have about the state of black beauty in congruence with the fashion industry. While I applaud the efforts of Italian Vogue for releasing their "all-black" issue, I cannot help but feel in the aftermath of this hooplah the mass of fashion magazines will retract back to their use of waspy, blonde blue-eyed 100 lbs. models. Now this is not an attack necessarily against white models per say. Whether or not you find white, Asian, Latin or black models to more beautiful is immaterial. What this issue boils down is how all of us, particularly those us living in westernized, eurocentric dominated societies have been conditioned to believe what beauty is. Which is a tall, fair skinned, fine featured, light eyes and straight hair. All one has to do essentially is study history, read classic novels and poetry and you will see there how eurocentric ideals of beauty have been more valued as an ideal standard of beauty. My point here is we are all victims of this type of socialization. As fas as editors, agents and designers are concerned they are pertinent to the issue, but as much as the AUDIENCE. Forgive me for saying this, and I do not mean in any way to make a generalization of young women, but I would bet a significvant sum of money, that if you survey most young women, regardless of race or ethnicity, they all aspire to the look of a thin, blonde blue-eyed rich white woman. I say this, because I have socialized with many people, of many races, and almost all have a slight yearnign to look like the Charlize Therons and Nicole Kidmans of the world. In addition, that is what the majority of men have been conditioned and desire in a mate. Studies have shown that black women are seen as sexually and romantically less desirable that white, Asian or Latin women. Which proves another point that whilst Asian and Latin women are also underrepresented in fashion, they are still regarded as being sexually and romantically more desirable than black woman because they still fit a Euro-centric idea of beauty, which is being of lighter complexion, finer featured and straight hair. Black women, particularly dark-skinned black women with West Afrcan features have never, and will never fit a eurocentric standard of beauty. Put a Alek Wek next to a Salma Hayek or Lucy Liu and you will see what I mean. As much as black women say they are pro-black and anti Euro-centric propaganda, the fact that black women get weaves, and wear colored contacts proves my point. Black women also secretly strive for the blonde thin, blue eyed ideal. Which brings me back to my original point. There is a reason why black models on the covers of magazines do not sell as well as white looking models. "Blackk" as beauty ideal is not inspirational to most young girls regardless of race. In the age of Hannah Montanas and Lindsay Lohans young girls want to be that versus a darker skinned African girl. It is neither right or wrong it is what it is. As far as whether or not black models will ever receive their moment in the sunshine, first society's definition of beauty has to expand to include women of all races. And what I mean is you will see non-ambiguously ethnic Black, Latin or Asian girl and will be able to look at her beautiful and inspirational without thinking of her race.

Anonymous said...

I am not a racist, BUT, how come there is "something" that is "all black" all over and no backlash from anyone? I'll bet that if there were an "all white" something, there would be hell to pay from the NAACP, and other organizations. Exmple, there is a Miss Black America, but no Miss White America. Ironic isn't it?

B said...

@ Anon 3:59

"...Ironic isn't it?"


And for the record, the NAACP to my knowledge as never said anything about the all white issues of Vogue that go to press most months.

I don't think that black models should be segregated into one "special" issue either, I think they and models of other races should be in the magazines every month. The fact that in this day and age white owned fashion magazines still think black skin and features are undesirable or "non-aspirational" is racist. This issue of Vogue and "Miss Black America" are responses to white racism. But since you are "not a racist", I'm sure you can understand that.