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The black face of fashion

  • 24 June 2011

Sao Paulo Fashion Week has come under criticism for its absence of non-European models. In 2008, of the 1128 models who worked at the fashion week, only 28 were Afro-Brazilian (2.5 per cent). According to race protestors, little has changed. This despite the fact that 50.8 per cent of Brazil's population is Afro-Brazilian.

I don't know much about Brazil's racial politics, but haute couture follows global trends. The absence of non-white faces might be particularly visible in Brazil where the white population is relatively minuscule, but this is a near universal standard in high fashion. The assumption is that consumers are white, and that white models promote a successful industry.

I moved house last week, which meant I had to re-dewy-decimal my large collection of books and magazines. I unearthed an Elle from November 1987, the month of my birth, which I had received as a 21st gift. It was a joy to leaf through the pages of powersuits, cowlicks, and alpha-female perfumes; but I was astonished to notice the number of non-white models on the pages.

I was surprised to be surprised; the pop-cultural icons of my childhood were overwhelmingly African-American, and I belong to the first generation to come of age in the wake of a black US president. Why shouldn't I expect to see non-white models in a fashion magazine?

Likely, because there are so few non-white faces in contemporary fashion. I decided to do some racial profiling — literally. I counted the non-white faces in that 1987 Elle. The magazine has 230 pages, 150 of which include faces; 43 of those (just under 29 per cent) include non-white faces.

I scoured the latest edition of Vogue to compare. Of the 192 pages, 152 included faces, but just 14 included non-white faces. That's 9.2 per cent.

What has changed during my lifetime?

I was alive in the '80s, but my experiences were limited to drinking milk and learning that the differences between dogs and cats were essential to understanding gender (dogs=boys, cats=girls).

I do know, retrospectively, that Rodney King had not yet mainstreamed the knowledge of, and outrage at, institutional police racism in the US, and that Oprah did not yet direct the cultural habits of housebound Middle America. The late '80s were not an especially easy time to be black in the white world. And yet, there was some semblance of equity in the global fashion industry.

There are two historical trends that help