Chanel Iman, a model of African American and Korean descent, garnered recognition for her work as a Victoria’s Secret Angel and editorials for big-name magazines like Allure, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. When you see this 22-year-old rocking the runways and basically taking the fashion world by storm, it can be easy to forget that once you look past the too-expensive clothes and wild makeup, models of color are struggling against the racist attitudes that are still pervasive in the fashion industry.
Iman told the New York Times, “A few times I got excused by designers who told me, ‘We already found one black girl. We don’t need you any more.’” British model Jourdan Dunn –who, in 2008, became the first black model Prada sent down the runway in over a decade– echoed Iman’s experience. According to Net-a-Porter’s The Edit magazine, “There were times when Dunn would be on her way to castings and told to turn back because the client ‘didn’t want any more black girls’…A makeup artist announced on a shoot that she didn’t want to make-up Dunn’s face because she herself was white and Dunn was black.”
And recent statistics show that black models accounted for only six percent of Fall/Winter 2013 Fashion Week show “looks.” Latina models fared even worse, accounting for a mere 2 percent of all “looks.” Moreover, 13 major companies –including Calvin Klein, Juicy Couture, and J Brand– hired zero models of color for their shows.
With the overall failure of the fashion industry to accept and celebrate diversity in its ranks, it is especially difficult to sympathize with magazine editors who publish entire spreads featuring white models in blackface. First, because of the appalling racism of these editorials and second, because many models will never find a place in the fashion world because of the color of their skin. As black models compete with each other for gigs that are few and far between, it is a slap in the face to forgo hiring black models in favor of painting white models black.
Vogue Netherlands’ May 2013 issue’s “Heritage Heroes” editorial, which features the blue-eyed Querelle Jansen in blackface and an Afro wig, is meant to pay homage to Marc Jacobs’ work for Louis Vuitton. According to Fashionista, Jacobs’ Fall 2008 line drew inspiration from Jamaican model and singer Grace Jones while his Spring 2009 collection was inspired by French performer Josephine Baker.
Some have called the act a publicity ploy, as Vogue Netherlands is a fledgling edition (it hit stands only last year) and Vogue Paris caused a much-publicized controversy over a 2009 “Supermodels” issue featuring blonde-haired Lara Stone completely covered in dark makeup. Jezebel pointed out that the entire issue featured 14 pages of Stone painted black and exactly zero black models.
Most have called these spreads tasteless, whether their editors knew that it was blatantly racist (which they should have) or were totally clueless. Either way, black models suffer and black skin is used as an accessory to be painted on and wiped off –as long as you’re a waiflike, fair-skinned girl with traditionally white features underneath.
Sadly, Vogue isn’t the only magazine guilty of using blackface. In March 2013, French fashion magazine Numéro published an editorial titled “African Queen”, which featured white model Ondria Hardin with heavily-bronzed skin. After widespread criticism, the glossy issued a half-hearted apology, noting that after “considering the turmoil caused by this publication, the Management of Numéro Magazine would like to apologize to anyone who may have been offended by this editorial.”
Clearly, Numéro learned nothing from its controversial 2010 editorial, in which Constance Jablonski donned an Afro and darkened skin. Meanwhile, the shoot was set in an overgrown field and featured a woven pram and black baby. Classy.
At the end of the day, just because editors at fashion magazines are using subtler methods to oppress and alienate black models and readers doesn’t mean they won’t be called out on these tactics. Whether we’re talking 19th century blackface, which was chock full of garish makeup and “Mammy” and “Uncle Tom” stereotypes, or modern-day fashion shoots where a white model’s skin is darkened to fit a “tribal” or “African” theme, the effects are similar: to keep black people down and to perpetuate the racist idea of the exotic “other”. And we can –and must– do so much better.
Diana Denza is BettyConfidential’s contributing editor.