Sunday, 24 June 2012

Has Vogue Italia's Black Issue Changed Anything? Part 2: Fashion Editorial

Welcome to part 2 from my examination of the lack of racial diversity in fashion media (for part 1, click here). This time I'll be looking at the horrendous use of 'Blackface' in editorial, which is a problem that many editors refuse to acknowledge. Personally I find it upsetting that this kind of insensitivity is continuing in the 21st century and it made me determined to expose these incidents.


If you pick up any fashion magazine, it is more than likely that there will be a dearth of white models and public figures within its pages but only a handful of examples from other races. There are many successful non-white celebrities and models that could easily grace the covers of a fashion magazine, but are simply not given the opportunity. For the magazine editors and advertisers, this is simply justified by the knowledge that a black cover star results in lower sales figures, meaning that the magazine makes less profit, so it is logical from a business angle to continue to use white cover stars. The financial burden of running a magazine means that advertisers are necessary to provide crucial support; without the endorsement of those advertisers, the magazines would not be able to make a profit. Therefore black models will continue to merely make rare cover appearances in order to placate the ethnic minority audience and keep up appearances of political correctness. With this in mind, I would like to examine several controversial photo shoots employing white models made to adopt the image of their black counterparts, and look at the possible reasons behind these being published as fashion. 

Lara Stone Vogue Paris Blackface
 [Taken from Vogue Paris].

The first of these images is Lara Stone, photographed by Steven Klein for Parisian Vogue. The photo shoot showed Stone in a variety of guises, sometimes coated in dark paint and sometimes in cracked white paint which bore the appearance of emulsion. However, the main difference between these two is that the white paint was obviously not true to any skin colour, but the ‘blacked up’ photographs made any viewer unfamiliar with Stone believe that she was non-Caucasian. Furthermore, she was dressed in a fur headpiece and gloves which were reminiscent of stereotypically ‘ethnic’ clothing and, though carrying a cane, this could easily have been mistaken for a spear as its tip is out of shot. This gave the impression that the shoot was mimicking the tribal roots of Africa, but not in a flattering light. If Stone had been painted in heavy black, crackled layers, as in the white paint images, the criticism might not have been so harsh but, as the photograph on the left proves, she was made to imitate a person of African descent. Claire Sulmers, journalist and editor in chief of the website The Fashion Bomb, wrote that ‘Though Lara Stone is missing the white outline around the mouth or bright red lipstick [used in ‘blackface’], this photo shoot definitely strikes a raw nerve’. She goes on to add that ‘Ms. Stone is the only “woman of colour” who scored a multipage editorial’, which makes the photo shoot more offensive because it highlights Parisian Vogue’s inability to take non-Caucasian models seriously in editorial content. Sulmers has worked for Parisian Vogue’s website in the past, making her viewpoint even more important, as she would have struggled to criticise an institution she had been employed by unless she felt it essential. 

Sasha Pivovarova V Magazine Blackface
 [Taken from V Magazine].

The second image is taken from Visionnaire, or V, Magazine, and features Sasha Pivovarova in full body make-up, embracing an unpainted model in a monochrome photograph. Both girls are naked and are accompanied by the caption ‘Black is the new black’, which is a quote taken from James Kaliardos, the Creative Director of L’Oreal, when discussing beauty trends for 2010. As writer Laura Kenney asked, ‘Why didn't the magazine use a darker-skinned model instead of painting a white model black?’, and she also noted that V Magazine proclaimed "2010 sounds like the future, and this is what it will look like," (2009). The shoot is obviously designed to be artistic and visually arresting for the viewer, but does that mean the future of beauty is to appear black but to outlaw black models? It is hard to believe that many readers would find ‘blacking up’ to be creative or challenging; instead it's merely outdated and embarrassing to look at.

Arthur Sales L'Officiel Hommes Blackface
 [Taken from L'Officiel Hommes magazine].

The third example of ‘blackface’ in editorial content is unusual because it involves a man, rather than a woman, being made to appear non-Caucasian. This is the first publicised instance of male ‘blackface’ in a fashion publication and it is probably the most shocking of the three images I’m analysing, mainly because of the high quantity of photographs and also the unambiguous nature of the resulting shoot. Milan Vukmirovic directed Arthur Sales for L’Officiel Hommes magazine’s feature, Keep It Goin’ Louder, in which Sales was painted to resemble an African-American, complete with a large afro wig and glowing white teeth. The feature was designed to explore the return of Americana influences in men’s fashion, but Sales’ appearance completely dominates the entire shoot.There is no logical reason to have chosen Arthur Sales over a photogenic African-American model. The addition of the afro wig also seems to be even more culturally insensitive. 

What’s wrong with ‘Blackface’?

In order to understand why the black community is offended by ‘blackface’, we must first examine its place in history as a comedic tool used on stage. Performers ‘blacked up’ to demonstrate the stereotypical character of the downtrodden black man, who bore clown-like make-up and had exaggerated facial expressions, thereby ‘caricaturing black people and depicting them as being both stupid and credulous’ (Malik, S., 2010). The Black and White Minstrel Show could be seen on prime-time British television until 1978, giving millions of people a very narrow-minded view of the ‘other’ in society. In the fashion world, some models with non-white ethnicity were able to build a successful career, but these women were exceptions to the unwritten rule that white women should dominate fashion magazines. Today’s society has welcomed black celebrities and models, but not as readily as the public are led to believe, and that is why modern ‘blackface’ scandals are particularly shocking. It is offensive enough to see any race being ridiculed, but to use a white model in make-up instead of a black model is completely unnecessary on a practical level in today's society. All major modelling agencies harbour a small but diverse range of non-white models and it is not acceptable to say that a non-white model is not readily available or professional enough. 


Stay tuned for part 3, where I'll be asking what academics and industry insiders have to say about racial diversity. 

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