Is Fashion Racist? Fashion-Industry Mouthpiece Vogue Says No
In the July issue, Vogue asks “Is Fashion Racist?” You don’t even have to read the article to know what they conclude. I’d give them credit for tackling this topic at all—especially considering Vogue's problematic recent covers featuring Jennifer Hudson and LeBron James—except that the whole thing reads less like a serious examination of the subject and more like a bland paean to the mysterious ways of fashion. See, the industry isn’t actually racist! It’s just doing what it’s always done! Oh, isn’t fashion wonderful?
The article centers entirely on the dearth of diversity among models, and includes an intrusively long diversion about the decline of the supermodel. While the popularity dip of one-name wonders like Naomi and Cindy is certainly linked to a scarcity of color on the runway, it doesn’t fully explain the current state of affairs.
And why not broaden the discussion beyond the rarefied halls of the modeling world? How many minorities work in apparel design? How many in retail? For that matter, how many minority viewpoints are represented at Vogue? Woefully devoid of any context, the article makes no attempt to explain whether the situation on the runways is endemic or anomalous.
But that’s all moot, because, according to Vogue, there isn’t a problem! On to the text of the article:
This magazine exists to inspire women. How do fashion editors get inspired by watching the same procession of anonymous, blandly pretty, very young, very skinny, washed-out blondes with their hair scraped back in show after show?
Why is author Vicki Woods asking the reader and not, oh, a fashion editor? The only one quoted in this article is André Leon Talley, and he’s relegated to discussing runway shows. Also, I refuse to believe that Vogue “exists to inspire,” unless it’s designed to inspire us to anger.
Speaking of very young and very skinny, the article then devotes significant inches to the personal stories of models Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn, and Arlenis Sosa. Which only proves that there are a whopping three young women who aren’t white who get modeling work (though they couldn’t even bother to get a translator for Sosa).
In any case, no one in fashion is responsible for anything. Model booker Neil Hamil reports that he hears “Well, we already have our black girl” when he calls about castings. Photographer Mario Testino says, “People come in groups; we react to the supply.”
As for designers:
Maybe some designers just won’t use black girls? Because (in the overheard words of a Paris designer I can’t name) they are “too strong for the clothes”?
Wait! Did you catch that? This article just quoted (albeit anonymously) someone in fashion being truly insensitive to race. What was the response to this whispered comment? Why won’t Vogue name the designer? Do other designers agree with this anonymous assessment? Who knows? The article moves on to a fawning description of Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, who says he was “trained” to use black models. Charming.
Time for more vague platitudes about the nature of clothes and beauty! Casting director Russell Marsh, who works for Prada, trots out this justification:
“It’s the clothes that take much more priority than the girl...”
If the models are faceless and unimportant, why does their skin color matter at all? Let’s ask designer Marc Jacobs, who is apparently a champion of diversity since his last show had two non-white models. He falls prey to the supermodel straw man, and then says this:
But fashion is a cycle, he reminds me. “Things move on.”
Wait, entire paragraphs have passed without mentioning the heyday of supermodels. Let’s get back to that!
There are encouraging signs that models, rather than celebrities, may be slipping back into their former role as inspirers of women.
There’s that “inspiration” thing again! So, wasn’t this whole article inspired by a disproportionately small number of successful black models? A surge in the popularity of models, while beneficial to models overall, is not a solution to race-based disparity.
Casting director James Scully:
Scully points out that the last decade has been bad for models. “And when it’s tough for models, it’s really tough for black models.”
What is his point, exactly? If white people are struggling, that somehow makes it okay for everyone else to struggle even more?
Ultimately, the article never admits to much of a problem—and therefore proffers no solutions except that fashion is cyclical, and proponents of diversity should hang around until non-white women are trendy again. How long might that take? Just wait and see!
Vogue doesn’t need to sit back and merely reflect fashion in its current state. Anna Wintour holds tremendous sway over the industry. But Vogue turned what could have been a groundbreaking cry for change into an argument for the status quo, since any indictment of the fashion world would be an indictment of the magazine, too. (And their one-page photo collage, above, is not a strong defense.) If fashion is racist, is Vogue complicit in that racism?