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?

Vogue_july_nicole_kidmanThe 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.

Vogue_july_is_fashion_racist

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.”

Why should any race ever be in or out of style? Skin color isn’t the same as skirt length. Vogue_july_is_fashion_racist_2

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?

20 thoughts on “Is Fashion Racist? Fashion-Industry Mouthpiece Vogue Says No

  1. I’d go one step further and ask why “diversity” only means black women.

    What about Asians and Hispanics? What about Native Americans? The disabled? The pierced and tattooed Suicide Girls?

    And what about — I shudder as I write this — men?

    Vogue’s “investigation” is an absolute travesty. Glossed Over’s analysis of it is right on the nose.

  2. Caitlin, no diversity is not just limited to black women but I would go as far to say that it is sometimes easier for Asian and Latina women to get modeling gigs because they are seen as “exotic” beauties. Black women are only considered when they are of lighter skin tones and have features that appeal to a European ideal. Black women are the only women in the industry who have to go through hoops to change something even as simple as their hair texture through the use of hair straighteners and weaves because people act like features that are natural to black women such as our skin, nose, lips, hips, round buttocks, and our tightly curled hair is too foreign and complicated to deal with. Plus, while no one is trying to diminish the struggles that other women of color must go through to succeed in the fashion industry, it is the black models who take every opportunity to call attention to the matter so that those who might come after them might have an easier time. That is why there is an association for black models whose members include Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Tyson Beckford, etc who try to dispel these inequalities and offer a community for other models who need help. Asians and Latinas could call attention to it as well.

  3. i agree with everything you said. less talking, more doing. don’t tell us about these 3 black girls who are models that don’t get enough work because they are black. put them on the pages of the magazine in regular spreads on a regular basis, or, gasp, on the cover.

  4. i agree with everything you said. less talking, more doing. don’t tell us about these 3 black girls who are models that don’t get enough work because they are black. put them on the pages of the magazine in regular spreads on a regular basis, or, gasp, on the cover.

  5. i agree with everything you said. less talking, more doing. don’t tell us about these 3 black girls who are models that don’t get enough work because they are black. put them on the pages of the magazine in regular spreads on a regular basis, or, gasp, on the cover.

  6. Did you see the article in Vogue about editor’s favorites? The only African American editor they could find was from Men’s Vogue. I think that is a clear display of the homogeneity of Vogue.

  7. Spot on comments! This article’s questionable logic pissed me off too. You should send this to Vogue so they know that there are intelligent readers out there who are not snowed by their ridiculousness.

  8. Vogue is a joke of a magazine anyway. I’m surprised you found the article in the first place since their pages are 90 percent ads anyway.

  9. I think issues of race are picked apart and overanalyzed. When we constantly concentrate on being completely politically correct, we make racial differences count for more than it should.

  10. Vogue circulation hasn’t improved since Anna Wintour’s tenure yet she still believes myth that black faces (or any non-white) face for that matter will sell covers. I can’t believe that she wasn’t quoted at all in this piece and that she didn’t even mention the article in her editor’s letter. But then again, what could she possibly have to say? I’ve been blogging about the diversity in fashion for awhile now and aside from Vogue Italia’s “special” segregated issue, I haven’t seen much in the way of progress. Any time the issue is brought up there’s just the same finger pointing and nothing changes.

  11. “Black women are the only women in the industry who have to go through hoops to change something even as simple as their hair texture through the use of hair straighteners and weaves because people act like features that are natural to black women such as our skin, nose, lips, hips, round buttocks, and our tightly curled hair is too foreign and complicated to deal with.”

    Bull. Tell that to a Canadian Indian woman, who will know far more about prejudice and discrimination than you EVER will.

    The ONLY vision any white person has of a Canadian Indian woman: drunken retarded whore. It’s a lot easier to change your hair texture than to change that fact.

  12. Athena, I found your comment hurtful. It reminds me of back in second grade when a little black girl hurled racial abuse at me the entire year as if I had something to pay for the injustices white people put on her people. I was a little Asian Indian girl living in a town where I was about the only Asian kid around.

    Yes, you and “your people” have suffered. Forgive me for my non-pc-ness. But you are not the only ones! In high school, we had a diversity club filled completely with black kids. No other ethnicity could be a part because apparently, we had not suffered the injustice those kids had. Apparently, we could not fight to make our world better, too.

    We have a hard time, too, and just because you only see your hard time, doesn’t give you a right to discount anyone else’s. Walk in others’ shoes before you think you’ve got it the worst.

    P.S. Before you go pointing fingers, no I have not had the worst of it. Nor have “my people”. But there has been much injustice done to all people, and my people, in my opinion, include every one of you reading. Every human that draws breath.

  13. “The ONLY vision any white person has of a Canadian Indian woman: drunken retarded whore. It’s a lot easier to change your hair texture than to change that fact.”

    To use your phrase BULL. It sucks that you’ve met people who have that opinion of Canadian Indians but to say that ALL white people think like that is ridiculous.

  14. Brigette: Not everyone thinks that. I know people who are native american who are not referred to as “retarded drunken whores”, but rather as smart, fun people to be around. Not every white person thinks the way you describe them to think.

  15. Hi (I’m new). I’m a British student so I don’t get the same Vogue as in America, but there was an article a while back on a black supermodel called Alek Wek (have a look on Wikipedia). Apparently she was quite the prize in the fashion world, but it seems to me that non-white models (I don’t want to pinpoint any particular skin colour) only seem to come to the fore if they have a ‘story’. Alek was discovered in London, which sounds standard, but her back story is that she was one of seven children who fled the Sudan with parents to get away from the fighting. I don’t know whether it’s my utter cynicism, but it would appear that if she did not have a frightening and unusual background story, she may not have been as popular as she was at the time. I don’t know about other non-white models…investigation?

    Personally, I have no opinion on whether fashion designers should use white or non-white models. They should be choosing the models based on how they fit in with their clothes, their target audience, and their overall style. If the choice is not there, how can they have a good range of models? It is the responsibility from the top down to create a demand for a range of models based not on their skin (as Ms Felton says, if they are faceless, why does it matter at all?) but on their accordance and suitability to the brand or line of clothing. Models are the canvas and the clothes are the painting – when I see a catwalk show I see fabulous (or not so fabulous) clothes hung on women who should be accentuating the clothes through their posture, look and general attitude – not a tally of who is white, black, Asian, Chinese or a million other creeds.

  16. Whoa, girls. quit it with the who suffered more stuff! The point is that all minorities have been shunted aside and marginalized and its not worth it to start fighting with each other… its just creating more hatred that began with white oppression. (this is coming from a white woman by the way)

  17. I wasn’t trying to start an argument about who suffers more than whom. I was just trying to explain why black models seem to be getting all of the attention regarding race in the fashion industry. Does anyone else not notice that black models are the only ones who seem to speak up about it? Maybe they are the group that the media chooses to focus on, but I think that if other non-white models in the industry did the same their struggles would be heard as well. I also was not trying to make it seem as though I have gone through so much hardship in my life. I don’t know a thing about racism firsthand and I would never claim to, since my life has been easy and I am bi-racial.

    Someone just decided to isolate one comment that I made and disregard the rest to paint me as someone who has no regard for what everyone else in the world goes through, and that is false, unfair and very hypocritical on their part.

  18. actually, asians (and mostly people who are non-whites) are discriminated LARGELY in the fashion industry.

    most always, the people who are america’s top designers are whites and italians (from european descent)

    and you’ve never seen a non-white become a top fashion designer IN america, right?

    that’s because of the GREAT discrimination
    and it is QUITE unfair that such is happening because non-whites are as creative, with the utmost capabilities and ideas, to become a top fashion designer.

    just because someone does not look similar to you, does not mean you should reject them.

    we all speak the same language, we are ALL human, and we all have the same feelings

    so ERASE THE HATE!

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