Black Is The New Black

The July Vogue Italia should be arriving on American shores in the next few weeks, and of course New York TimesCathy Horyn has a sneak peak of, as well as interviews with, some of the models who appear in the “historic” issue. (For the Thursday Fashion and Style section, she also penned an essay called “Conspicuous By Their Presence.”) Her column and the comments posted to it include some interesting, and some troubling, insights. Reading these, I want to post some initial thoughts:

1. A commentator noted: “I’m very excited about the Italian Vogue issue, but I also think we need to remember this isn’t the first time an all black issue has appeared on the news stands. An ‘all black issue’ is not necessarily an innovation or groundbreaking within the context of fashion publishing, so much as it is a rarity. After all most magazines out there are typically ‘all-white’ issues, while a magazine like Essence has always been ‘all-black,’ but we don’t make a fuss about those.”

I think that’s critically important here. Vogue is a gatekeeper in the industry, so it’s important that its publication of an all-black issue be located in just this power to arbitrate what counts as fashionable, as beautiful. For all these reasons it’s also important to ask about what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls “the traffic in criteria:” By what criteria does Vogue’s publication of this issue count as “historic” or “groundbreaking”? What does it mean that black aesthetic and commercial practices, such as the rise of magazines like Essence or Jet and their critical importance to the cultivation of black models in the 1950s, are corralled under a different set of criteria?

2. In an e-mail from stylist Edward Enniful on the Steven Meisel shoot with Naomi Campbell, he wrote: “We laughed, ribbed each other, and talked about the old days, but most of all we created a story that reflected black dreams and aspirations. There was no hip-hop gangsterism, no ghetto fabulousness, no bling-bling clichés.” Without choosing one sort of fabulousness over another, I think it’s fascinating how contemporary black expressive subcultures –which, let’s face it, have also become global commodities and art forms on a massive scale– are somehow not located as a site for “black dreams and aspirations” in this statement.

This rhetorical maneuver seems to be happening on two levels. The first implies that hip-hop is either a site for only inappropriate black dreams and aspirations, or that the dreams and aspirations so often expressed through hip-hop are dead ends. The second positions “hip-hop gangsterism, ghetto fabulousness, and bling-bling clichés” in opposition to a presumably more universal standard of glamour, which is imagined to be clearly, discernibly, the proper location of black dreams, et cetera. (And also, by the way, reduces hip-hop to a single dimension.) This standard, however, has never been all that universal– as evidenced by the heralding of this issue as historic, not because it’s the first ever all-black issue of a fashion magazine, but because it’s the first ever all-black issue of Vogue.

What interests me about these qualities and values we bandy about –style, fashion, glamour, beauty, sophistication, excellence —is their histories. There’s a reason why ghetto fabulousness names both a particular moment for certain (not all) black aesthetic practices and a particular site for their emergence. I think it’s important to acknowledge that in doing so, ghetto fabulousness can manifest a complex and complicitous critique of the hierarchies of differential value (aesthetic and socioeconomic) attached to certain bodies, clothes, accessories, et cetera. These hierarchies are deeply embedded in political, economic, and geographic conditions (deindustrialization, urban underdevelopment, white flight, zoning laws, redlining) and racist discourses (blackness as particular rather than universal, blackness as criminal rather than aspirational). The negative discourse about ghetto fabulousness as a sort of false consciousness, a delusion of superficial glamour, a distinct lack of rational economic or “educated” aesthetic sensibilities, a pretense of living large by black and poor persons who are living beyond their means (as if most Americans aren’t doing so!), is a direct descendant of the Reagan era’s stereotype of the welfare queen collecting checks and cruising in her Cadillac. As such, it bears recognizing that all the judgments of taste, “rational” or “irrational” decision-making, and beauty invoked in negative uses of the term ghetto fabulous are deeply ideological and contentious.

This is not an argument that all images of black aesthetics have to be located in hip-hop or urban spaces (which would be totally problematic because African diasporic aesthetics vary so widely), but an argument for being thoughtful about the uneven distribution of what counts as beautiful –and what is defined as ugly in counterpoint– and why.

3. I’m excited to see Toccara from America’s Next Top Model in the issue! She was done wrong by the show.

Leave a comment


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s