Following the recent appointment of Edward Enninful as editor-in-chief of British Vogue, I thought it’d be topical to investigate the representation of black men and women in fashion. After a little research I realised I may have taken on more than I can chew. The representation of black people in fashion is something that stretches much further than the pages of Vogue. That isn’t because they’ve dominated the industry, but instead because they have often been underrepresented.
We are talking about an industry that has been routinely criticised for underwriting black voices and discriminating against them on the pages of magazines, on the runway and at the design stage too. How many black designers do you know that have ‘made it’? How many black writers are featured in your favourite magazine? Think about who is voicing, or representing, the black community in fashion. Only now that I’m confronting these questions am I noticing the imbalance.
Obviously, to write about racial prejudice across the whole of the fashion industry would be too big an ordeal for a relatively short blog post. Therefore, I’m going to focus on black models exclusively, and write about a few key figures in more detail. We are discussing the portrayal of white and non-white models and so cannot ignore the fact that there is also a misrepresentation of races that do not identify as ‘black’ or ‘white’. Again, this would justify a much longer article and so isn’t something I’m not going to address directly in this post. That’s not to say the subject is of lesser importance, more that I’d want to give it the time it deserves to fully understand the history and conversation around it before commenting.
Adwoah looks completely at home beneath the large Vogue lettering
Let’s start with Enninful’s debut issue in December 2017 with Adwoah Aboah fronting the new look. I think it’s interesting how 70s the magazine feels, the colours, design and fashion, when highlighting (what really shouldn’t be but unfortunately is) a new concept. The first African American woman to pose as cover girl for British Vogue was Donyale Luna in 1966. This was before American Vogue who put Beverley Johnson on their cover in 1974. Now, decades later Adwoah looks completely at home beneath the large Vogue lettering. I’m not sure if Enninful has purposefully taken us back in time with his choice of design to highlight how outdated fashion is in representing black women, in comparison to other cultural outputs, or other genres of magazines in general. I like to think it’s a little nod to the rest of us, who have sat in blissful ignorance pretending not to notice the disproportion. Either way, it’s a great cover and inside just gets better and better.
I turn to my copy of FIB’s (Fashion Industry Broadcast) ‘Top Models’ to further understand how black women are represented in fashion. Two out of ten girls who make the list are black. These women are Iman and Naomi Campbell. These incredible women helped paved the way for black supermodels and made possible what a lot of people at the time would have thought unachievable. Sylvie Darchenko, former model and author of the book, continuously refers to the ideal model as ‘golden-haired’, a ‘blonde bombshell’ and having ‘golden glowing skin’. This creates a white-normative from the outset. She doesn’t refer to differentiations in skin tone in her introduction but seems to take on a very one-sided viewpoint of what is ‘beautiful’. She takes us through the ten lucky ladies one by one and discusses their histories and successes. On page 86 Iman Abdulmajid is introduced. She was born in 1955 in Somalia and was given a male name as her parents believed it would prepare her for the difficulties of growing up in Muslim East Africa. This is quite different from the white privilege described just pages before. Elle Macpherson’s rise to fame began when she was spotted whilst ‘on a skiing holiday in Aspen, Colorado’. This feels a little dissimilar to Iman’s story, don’t you think? I read on. During her career, Iman was dubbed ‘Black Pearl’ and it was her skin tone that brought her fame. ‘The Fashion Book’ describe her as ‘a fetish model’ for various designers. It is clear it is her contrasts to the norm that made her such a success. By describing her as a ‘fetish’ I feel she is almost patronised, infantilised and objectified.
The modelling world was not prepared for non-white women
Iman went on to marry David Bowie and launched her own makeup line which catered specifically for non-white women. This was all because of her difficulties finding a skin tone match as a model. The modelling world was not prepared for non-white women and this is evident in such an essential part of the backstage process. This mirrors today’s era where black and Asian women still find it difficult to obtain makeup that matches their skin tone. Rihanna takes inspiration from Iman’s pioneering efforts in her new Fenty makeup line which again caters for those underrepresented skin tones. In 2013 after years advocating against racism in the fashion industry, Iman and fellow campaigner Bethann Hardison turned to designers and brands who exhibited a lack of diversity on their runways.
Naomi Campbell was born in London in 1970 and so had a very different start to life than Iman. She is often characterised by her bad temper and anger management issues. Nonetheless, her power as a black model in a white-dominated industry means she has become a role model for many women. She was the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine. She still is one of the most famous models to enter the industry and to this day, maintains her influence over the next generation. ‘The Fashion Book’ explain how she has been dubbed ‘the black Bardot’. This feels a little like a backhanded compliment as her beauty is explained through a white-skinned host model. Can we not praise her without using white references? They go on to quote Campbell who explains that ‘this is a business about selling – and blonde blue-eyed girls are what sells’. She recognises her prejudices but doesn’t let them overpower her. Her celebrity status is defined by this rigorous determination to overcome racial discrimination in mainstream media, and her efforts to create a new norm.
We still have a long way to go in representing non-white women in fashion, but at least people like Edward Enninful, who has the power and confidence needed, can use his influence to inspire the next generations
Looking to today’s racially diverse landscape, we find multiple black models who have found fame in fashion. Leomie Anderson, Imaan Hammam and Anok Yai (who was the first black model to open a Prada runway since Campbell in 1997) are all finding fame on the catwalk and in front of the camera. However, there is still obvious imbalance. Let’s take the Victoria Secret’s models as an example. 2/14 of the angels are black. I know this isn’t representative of the whole of the fashion industry, but it does give us an insight into the current situation. We still have a long way to go in representing non-white women in fashion, but at least people like Edward Enninful, who has the power and confidence needed, can use his influence to inspire the next generations. I hope to see a big change in the next few years. I want to see it in the next few months. I wish I’d already seen it.
By Ailish Fowler