WRITTEN BY SOPHIA BAKER
In this feature we will be addressing the lack of black model in high end fashion magazines and why that is so. When I first began my research into the black models in the UK and the US, I knew I would come across some unpleasant truths but I did not expect to feel totally deflated by when I concluded my research.
Firstly let us look back to a time when black women were dominant in the media. In Paris 1921, Miss Josephine Baker a performer, with an audience of the rich and white set the standard for others to follow and opened the door for other black women. Of course she encountered opposition and prejudice but generally she was adored, praised, envied and lusted after by both men and women. Paris was more open to different races it would seem and there were black models gracing the runways in the 1940s and 1950s. But although all appeared well, Josephine and other young black women were still subjected to racism and seen as freaks or savages. Similar to what Sarah Baartman experienced when she was brought over from her native South Africa in 1810 and paraded as a freak in a circus because of her big bottom. You might ask well how does that relate to black women today, why is it relevant? Well it helps for us to understand what the audience viewed black women as. Why were they subjected to abuse while their white counterparts were not?
It goes back to what beauty meant at the time. Beauty was something that could was understandable, something conventional and unlikely to offend. A black woman could be considered completely beautiful, have flawless skin, great bone structure but if her skin was too dark, well that was unacceptable and incomprehensible for blacks and whites. Afua Adom features editor of Pride magazine and a freelance fashion stylist says, 'I know loads of black models who have experienced racism in the industry. Apparently mainstream won't be able to relate to a black model'. Who on earth could change the perceptions of the white gaze in the 1950s? Maybe Helen William's, the model who had the aquiline nose, big oval eyes, perfect lips – not too big. The girl who was offensively described as a white girl dipped in chocolate (by other black women). Although extremely offensive, that did not stop William's from breaking through to 'white' magazines. There was a place for dark skinned woman after all and Helen opened the door.
Black women were breaking all kinds of barriers down. In the 1960s, British icon Donyale Luna became the first black model to feature on the cover of UK Vogue in 1966. Beverly Johnson became the first black model to feature on the cover of US Vogue in 1974. Tyra Bank's was on the cover of the best selling Sports illustrated in 1997. There were many firsts before and after these models and to date the Black Issue of Italian Vogue is still their highest seller. 'It was intended to be the worse selling issue but my campaign on Facebook helped it to sell out twice! I had a point to make', explains Sola director of Mahogany International Models.
French designers such as Givenchy, Christian Lacrois and Yves Saint Laurent preferred to use black models at one time but when Spaniard Paco Rabanne used Jamaican model Kelly Williams in one of his shows, there was outrage and controversy. The reaction from the audience was shock and disgust claiming that fashion was for whites not blacks. Hiro, a fashion photographer who worked for Harpers Bazaar at the time, was given an assignment in Kenya and requested a black model. It seemed logical that a black model would suit the surroundings more than a white model. His request was refused and so he turned down that job. Nick Knight is another fashion photographer, known for using unconventional models. In his video 'untitled' he expressed, 'I am virtually never allowed to photograph black models and usually no excuse is given'. Vivienne Westwood and Naomi Campbell have also expressed their views on the lack of black models represented in the industry. It would seem that this is not a new subject and yet there is nothing happening about it.
What is the real issue with using black models? Who are these high end magazines marketing to? The answer is the white and the wealthy. Sola says 'It is purely about money and opportunistic. When Italian Vogue made their black issue, it was around the time of Obama being elected as President and tied in nicely with current affairs. It was never about promoting black models'. This brings us back to the issue of black models don't sell. At least not to the intended market; how could a white woman relate to a black woman's shape, hair, and the way the clothes appear on them? So is it only about commerce or does race play a bigger role? In, 1976 when Iman appeared wearing clothes made by prominent designers such as YSL, Issey Miyake, Versace and many others, she appealed to the masses and was very successful for 14 years. But according to editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965-1997 Helen Gurley Brown, black would offend readers. It seemed like there was one rule for runways and another for magazine covers and editorials. Magazines typically stayed within a standard, and didn't stray too far from it. The publications did not want to alienate its audience. When Harpers Bazaar used Elizabeth Princess of Toro on their cover in 1969, they put a white model alongside her just in case they stood to alienate any of their regular readers. This ultimately diluted the presence of Elizabeth on the cover. There seemed to be a kind of Fascism when it comes to the industry. One has to be of the Aryan race, all blonde with blue eyes to exist. Fashion is all about the unobtainable, they don't want everyone to be able to get the nicer things in life. It is all about commerce and has never been about representing the colours of the world. So why not just accept that? I can't...
The world is so behind. Everyone seems to believe that we have more moved forward in terms of acceptance but in reality, it feels like the button is firmly pressed on pause. Sometimes it plays in slow motion and we get a breakthrough. After all, we have models such as Naomi and Alex Wek who have sustained a long career in this harsh business. Then we have the hopefuls, Jourdan Dun, Ajuma Nasenyana, Chanel Iman, Ajak Deng and Rose Cordero. All of which are stunning us and taking our breath away with their beauty. They reflect a wide range of black women and so therefore do not alienate black woman who do not fit the white girl dipped in chocolate mould. But we need more and soon. Of course there is racism in this business. And maybe there always will be in countries that are predominately white. Although we have had high profile figures in the industry who have spoken about it, no one is speaking now. The media has pacified the black public by making them believe that is has changed. They gave us the Black Issue of Italian Vogue (published only in Italian) in 2008. That was nearly three years ago. Hopefully with the exposure of these new black models they will be used more consistently and it is not just a replay of the 60s.
I think it is important that black models are seen as beautiful models and not beautiful 'black' models. Just why can't the model be beautiful and that is it? As demonstrated on the Channel Four series 'The Model Agency', new face Leomie Anderson was told she was 'one of the top breakthrough black models'. In which she replied 'aww that's nice' and appeared grateful for the title. I could almost hear her thinking why she could not just be breakthrough? Why black?
Fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani, had the right idea for his United Colours of Benetton campaigns. He used all kinds of people. He used people from the streets to reflect everyday life and what Benetton represented, their motto being 'All the colours of the world'. One day I hope to see all these colours because they are beautiful being black is not a trend, we are here to stay!