Fashion and Race: Running (from) the Numbers Game

Benetton is notorious for its multicultural windowdressing.

Thus far, I’ve read only a very small number of September issue fashion magazines: American Vogue (chock full of great or more precisely, useful, evidence for my research on the democratization of fashion), Teen Vogue, and New York Magazine. I have several others collecting dust next to my bed (including Bust, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire) – hopefully I’ll get to flip through these tomorrow on my way to Seattle.

So while I have little direct knowledge of this, it seems from the reports that two overwhelming trends emerge when we consider the September issues of the major fashion magazines: (1) an increase in advertising pages – 57% increase in Glamour and a 23% increase in Vogue – suggests the increasing strength of the national economy and (2)  that the fashion media and market is still constructed and organized in terms of middle class ideals of whiteness.

Dodai Stewart of and other blogs citing Stewart are criticizing the all-important September issues for featuring only the tiniest number of black models. Here’s the breakdown of some of Stewart’s findings:

  • While Halle Berry graces the cover of Vogue, she is as Stewart points out, not a model. In fact, no black models were featured in her own photo shoot whereas white models, Lara Stone and Karlie Kloss got 12 pages and Isabeli Fontana got 8 pages.
  • Harper’s Bazaar also featured no black models in her own photo shoot. Models Karmen Pedaru and Carmen Kass each have 12 pages to themselves while Dree Hemingway and Heidi Mount have multiple pages as well.

These numbers are instructive – to a point. They clearly demonstrate the continued bias toward whiteness as a beauty ideal (for starters) in the U.S. and more broadly, Western popular imaginary. However, what these numbers don’t tell us is how many Asian or Asian American models were featured, how many Latinas, how many Chicanas? How many mixed race models? How many African American models? How many Caribbean models? And, in those magazines that were lauded for having at least one major shoot featuring a black model (Elle, Allure, and Teen Vogue), how are such inclusions enabling diversity? In other words, the difference between diversity and inclusivity are not attended to in the numbers game.

Pluralist multiculturalism has been roundly dismissed by progressive academics and activists for being an ineffective way of securing anti-racist goals. In fact, racial inclusion without diversity (e.g., real transformations in the social, cultural, and economic structures of the fashion industry, for example) actually reifies the dominance of whiteness – and along with it, elitism, heterosexism, and patriarchal notions of femininity –  by incorporating racial difference in such a way that it makes no difference.

What’s more, the focus on the number of black models in fashion magazines – as my litany of questions above is intended to illuminate – subsumes more complex questions about racial diversity within the category of “people of color” as well as among “black” models. Finally, framing race analysis within the coordinates of “black” and “white” unwittingly erase the specific issues and experiences of non-black people of color.

I’m a little embarrassed to make these points to Threadbared readers who I’m pretty sure will find them to be almost stupid-obvious. And yet, there it is. Here’s to gentle reminders then . . .




7 responses to “Fashion and Race: Running (from) the Numbers Game

  1. I agree. And if you count only “black” models in general, not only do you miss all other races/ ethnic groups, but you also neglect to notice that “black” is not an all-inclusive term. As an American-born African (not an African-American), I can testify to there being differences between black people, and counting by skin color alone ignores half of the people you try to include.

  2. Someone

    I’d hesitate to use this year’s Septembers as a barometer of economic health. I would expect many, many advertisers to focus on the September issues to the exclusion of others in a year of reduced ad spending. That is, if they did 12 ads last year and only 4 this year (or even only one), we know they won’t want to miss the September boat.

    Anyway, when I saw your post title I thought of the race/fashion cliché I hate the most: putting black models in (the endlessly touted) animal prints. Ye gawds, why does anyone still think that’s clever?

  3. kips

    I always wonder why, in these discussions of fashion-spread diversity, black models are the focus to the exclusion of other models of color. I was happy to notice an Asian model in one of Marie Claire’s spreads this month– and, wow, it didn’t even feature “exotic Oriental” fashion.

    I wonder about what I see as the widespread acceptance and success of Asian designers, stylists, etc. in fashion as opposed to the small number of Asian models we see in American magazines.

    I thought maybe the reason there’s not so much focus on getting Asians and Latinas in American magazines (and TV shows, and movies…) is that they are represented in media from other countries. And I wondered how many Latino and Asian people regularly buy magazines and music, etc. from Mexico, Korea, India, etc., even though they might not be able to read or understand them.

  4. My sister actually counted the number of people of color in this month’s British Vogue and came up with 9. That’s including ads and “party” photos, not just editorials. It’s ridiculous, but it also emphasizes how disconnected the editors/creative directors and even many advertisers seem to be from reality and perhaps even morality.

  5. Claire N.

    While other models of colour should be counted, black women have a distinct relationship to beauty and whiteness as the beauty ideal–i.e. not being perceived as attractive as a group UNLIKE most other women of colour groups. Also isn’t it OK once in a while to focus on black women or South Asian women or Latina women etc.? I feel a little antsy when non-black women of colour continually criticise a focus on black women. I know the black/white binary is powerful and exclusionary, but black women rarely get a particular focus even within that binary and if we do–it’s not always positive.

  6. Pingback: On the Seduction of Proenza Schouler’s Act Da Fool** « threadbared

  7. In my L.A. area college classroom, where campus demographics are about 35% Hispanic/25% Asian/40% everyone else, I asked for a show of hands this past week to see who had read the recent Sept. issue of Vogue (these are fashion students). Roughly 8% raised their hands. I don’t think New York media’s grip on fashion is as strong as we tend to think. In fact, they are loosing ground. With more international publications available (as mentioned above), along with online options, my students are finding fashion reporting that speaks to their own individual needs and aesthetic POV, rather than tolerating traditional fashion media and it’s bias.