Blackface In Fashion: When Will It End?

Year after year, another slew of reports surface that admonishes the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. One disturbing trend is the usage of blackface in magazine editorials for “artistic” purposes.

Recently, photographer Stephen Meisel made blog headlines when the internet got wind of his March 2014 editorial for Vogue Italia. Meisel seems to believe that creativity is best fueled by controversy, operating under the old adage of “all press is good press.” The spread showcases Dutch model Saskia de Brauw in dark face paint, making hyper-exaggerated expressions of “warrior-like” aggression and posing with African animals. She’s dressed in all the tired trappings of “exoticism,” headdress, colorful prints, traditional African markings, recycled images of African opulence. Why is Africa, when filtered through the lens of fashion, limited to this one story, a narrow, stale interpretation that associates blackness with other worldly mysticism, as though its citizens were as outlandish as X-Men?

Julee Wilson at The Huffington Post points out that, “Although the feature doesn’t depict historical minstral-inspired Blackface, it’s still in bad taste.” Wilson is right, but I would even go so far as to the say the shoot is not just in bad taste, but to borrow the language of bell hooks, “eating the other.” If Meisel is attempting to tell a story via the clothes, what is he saying about Africa? Or rather, what does his prejudices reveal about the persistence of anti-black stereotypes? The feature is titled “Abracadabra,” which conjures up images of magicians and sorcery, things not of the “natural” world. Thus, there is a purposeful and deliberate correlation to this imagery, which typically does not have positive connotations.

For example, one photograph has the model with her head in the lap of a lion, who has a chain and padlock around his neck like a string of pearls. Naturally, people were quick to argue that being offended by the images were a matter of “over-sensitivity” and sensationalism. The arrogance and fetishization that shaped Meisel’s creative vision for this shoot easily draws parallels to such works as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the marginalized group in question is deliberately used as an exploitative prop, using cultural signifiers as a mark of untouchable Otherness.

This isn’t the first time that the fashion editorials have come under fire for using questionable themes. The March 2013 issue of Numéro featured a white model with considerably darkened skin and was titled “African Queen.” The magazine’s non-apology shifted the creative responsibility and execution to the photographer, Sebastian Kim, claiming it was an endorsement of “the melting pot and the mix of cultures, the exact opposite of any skin color based discrimination.” Perhaps the statement would have felt a bit more sincere if Numéro had better numbers. Is it really too much to ask to have a higher standard than a 2.1 percent rate of non-white cover models? From the runways to the magazines, the fashion industry seems to have a goldfish memory for all things racist or cultural appropriation. Numéro isn’t the only exception within an industry that can make and unmake the trends of pop culture. Representation in the media, whether concerning literature, film, music, fashion, consumable mass media, matters.

Well, why didn’t the magazine hire black models? Don’t give the fashion industry that much foresight. One of my favorite models currently in the business, Jourdan Dunn, revealed that there were times that, to put it bluntly, the client had filled his/her diversity quota and she was turned down for castings.

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Citing a separate incident, Dunn said that a makeup artist refused to work with her. In the April 2014 issue of Teen Vogue, Dunn comments about the painfully slow progress of the fashion industry, noting that using non-white models as the exceptions to the runways is not an effective solution. The world of high fashion may not have direct impact on the everyday life of the average consumer, but it does reflect and regurgitate the cultural climate, trickling down to our subconscious in startling ways. What we can internalize as children ranges from minor to absolutely devastating. Studies have shown that children uphold preconceived racial biases, further enforcing the findings of the Doll Test in 1947, where children repeatedly chose the white doll as the “better” one.

Perhaps Vogue Italia didn’t pull a full-out Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer.” Regardless the pictures are a poor attempt to critically or intelligently assess the idea of a “melting pot.” Does anyone remember those misguided “Keep a Child Alive”  ads with Gwyneth Paltrow? Meisel and the magazine replicate tired and repetitive tropes rooted in an idea of an unknowable, wild, and exotic Africa spawned by the scars of European colonialism.

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