Racism is an issue that has long been a controversial talking point in the fashion industry, yet it still dominates the catwalk, writes Lorraine Haigney
In 2008, Italian Vogue, arguably the most influential magazine in fashion, ran an issue featuring solely black models. The under-representation of minority models had become a massive talking point and at first glance, this issue seemed like a turning point. It seemed that Vogue had finally acknowledged that their readership wasn’t just made up of white people. Hopes were high that the rest of the industry would follow Vogue‘s lead.
Three years on from its publication, does the ‘The Black Issue’ hold the same significance that it was lauded with at the time? Has racism in the fashion industry decreased? Well, not by much. ‘The Black Issue’ fell short of altering the industry in any real way and its impact was ultimately muted.
If you’ve ever seen a copy of Vogue you’ll know that advertising takes up nearly half of the magazine. In ‘The Black Issue’ these advertisements featured mostly white women. This inconsistency was indicative of the magazine’s real purpose; it was more of a gimmick than a cry for equal representation.
The inclusion of white models in ‘The Black Issue’ puts forward a question. Why are black women so under-represented in advertising campaigns? Models used in these campaigns have what the fashion world spuriously deems ‘aspirational beauty’. Editors argue that these are the images their readers want to see, that the purpose of fashion magazines is to show fantasies and glamour – not to mirror real life. This type of beauty, by definition, is one that cannot be achieved by the majority of the readers. What editors fail to mention is that their profits are dependent on perpetuating what has been called the ‘white beauty myth’. If the myth is to be believed, psychical traits more common in Caucasians are more desirable than those found in other races. It’s incredibly effective in making the majority of female racial minorities feel insecure about their appearance. This insecurity creates a market for extremes such as skin lightening treatments and hair perming that keeps the coffers of the fashion industry bulging.
A number of advertising campaigns that are headed by black women have been scrutinised for excessive use of Photoshop. L’Oreal was at the centre of a scandal in 2008, when their promotional image for a new product featured Beyoncé with strawberry-blonde hair and pale skin. L’Oreal claimed not to have altered her skin at all but the difference between her usual caramel skin-tone and the pinked-beige one shown in the advertisement was stark. More recently, a ‘before and after’ image of Kim Kardashian was released. It showed that her skin had be lightened, her bust reduced and her bottom and thighs were slimmed down. Though happy to shell out millions to these women to front campaigns, the fashion industry is not happy to feature them with their natural skin tones or body shapes.
The recent John Galliano scandal, in which the head of Dior went on a drunken anti-Semitic rant while unaware that he was being filmed, also brings the thorny issue of race into the spotlight. Although not directly related to the issue of ethnic diversity within the modelling and fashion industry; it brings to public knowledge the presence of racism within all aspects of this industry and has acted as a catalyst for the reassessment and re-evaluation of attitudes towards race in fashion as a whole.
Racism doesn’t just affect the consumers; different ethnic groups within the industry face discrimination too. Model Renee Thompson claims that the industry is “blatantly racist” and says she has seen the direction that “no black girls [are] allowed” at castings. It’s common knowledge that becoming a successful model is difficult, but the competition among models from minority groups is fierce. Jourdan Dunn, an established and successful British black model, has commented on this competition. She says that “There aren’t a lot of [black models], but instead of sticking together, we’re pitted against each other”. This rivalry isn’t a new issue – Tyra Banks commented on the tension between herself and Naomi Campell, stating that it was caused by the “unwritten rule” that “only one” of the top supermodels could be black.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, some say that black women are getting more representation than ever, citing up-and-coming stars like Joan Smalls, Chanel Iman or the aforementioned Jourdan Dunn. However, in the last three years, the amount of models from minority groups at New York Fashion week only increased by about three per cent.
Almost 85 per cent of models featured on the catwalk were white. It’s clear that balance in the representation of all races is not coming quickly.
In upholding a beauty standard that is narrower than the hips of a Vogue cover model, the fashion industry is alienating more women than it is embracing. The models and consumers are becoming aware of this now more than ever and they are demanding swift change. Whether the fashion industry is willing to facilitate this is yet to be seen.