The black face of fashion


Elle, 1987Sao 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 understand this phenomenon, revisionist as they might be. Firstly, the emergence of hip-hop as a popular subversive cultural expression raised the mainstream cultural capital of non-whites in the late '80s, which is something the fashion industry capitalised on.

Secondly, the trend in Afro-American cultural expression to engage in political downward mobility has had divergent consequences. The rejection by Langston Hughes and other poets of his generation of grammatical English as a white bourgeois pretence is an early example of this trope.

This has propagated similar transgressions in modern black artforms, which has in fact given ammunition to a racially exclusive agenda in 'high' culture. In other words, deliberate commercialisation has ghettoised legitimate non-white artforms.

Can high fashion legitimately purport to be a 'high' cultural expression? Earlier this month, British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman responded to criticisms of institutional racism, saying that, 'In a society where the mass of the consumers are white and where, on the whole, mainstream ideas sell, it's unlikely there will be a huge rise in the number of leading black models.'

By which she means, Eat shit: millions of flies can't be wrong.

If 'low' culture mimics the mundane and the vulgar, then 'high' culture is supposed to interpret and transform it. In communicative disciplines (mass media and the arts), 'low' culture is not required to acknowledge its agenda, and displaces the responsibility for its content onto the consumer. The question is whether it responds to the consumer's values, or whether it in fact informs them.

'High' culture is supposed to resist this populism. But the value of 'high' culture has waned, in response to the broadening of the middle classes, who now share a greater portion of the cultural and economic pastry. To retain its value, 'high' culture must impose barriers to its entry: in music, this is virtuosity; in literature, it is education; in fashion, it is the aesthetics of race.

The interesting thing is that the fashion industry justifies this exclusivity using the populist language of 'low' culture: 'The consumer wants it.'

So is fashion, or should fashion be, culturally regurgitative, interpretive, or transformative? If fashion wishes to be considered a legitimate art form, it must interpret and transform the world it reflects upon. As it is, the fashion industry produces fancy clothes, and little else of worth.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Elle, Sao Paulo Fashion Week, Vogue, Alexandra Shulman



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Existing comments

As an addendum to Elena's last line, the fashion industry produces fancy clothes for stick insects, not real people. Any pretence by the industry that their product is for everyone is laughable.

But I am a mere male. What would I know?

ErikH | 24 June 2011  

A timely call to recognise fashion as a bastion of old world stupidities and greed - Hans Christian Andersen's besotted emperor still grandly walks the face of the earth in his birthday suit - and what a poigant, fascinating paraphrase of Alexandra Shulman! Truer words may never have been more archly put. Thanks, Ellena, for a compelling piece.

Re the pantheon of 1980s pop cultural icons reflecting racial divides and cultural hegemony, however, I would suggest the addition of Michael Jackson: a crucial, pivotal example of an individual who found the 1980s 'not an especially easy time to be black in the white world'. His strange devolution bears witness to the pressures to which Ellena alludes. At the same time, he metaphorically ate the decade, gobbling the Beatles' back catalogue, changing popular music forever and generaly playing John the Baptist to a flotilla of water-walking, African American music messiahs (purveyors of hip hop, or the white version, rap). Jackson shows both the influence of the racism Ellena addresses and the conquering of that prejudice in the field of music. General dominance by African Americans several genres occurred (Beyonce, Whitney, Mariah, etc, all following in the footsteps of Mahalia, Lena, Odetta, etc.), alongside the conquest of professional sports, especially sprinting and basketball.

Also, the world witnessed the emergence of numerous black actors through the 1970s/80s. The Richard Pryors, Eddie Murphys and Bill Cosbys prefigured the Chris Rocks and a host of respected and trail blazing black thesps, including Morghan Freeman, Sam Jackson, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburn, Halle Berry etc.

Semioticians suggest the low/high cultural divide is just a convenience of definition. Ethicists and sociologists would see it as a ready excuse for exclusion. Trends will always be ruled by tidal pulls of greed, bigotry and self-interest, but beauty, truth and grace will inevitably fight that tide. And, as the 80s show, the fight will occasionally be won.

Barry G | 24 June 2011  

"As it is, the fashion industry produces fancy clothes, and little else of worth."

A good and true comment. Many fashion photos objectify women as sexual objects. eg. The photo contained in this article. Why can't we be treated to soft feminine modest fashions instead?

Trent | 24 June 2011  

Fashion is useful only as a tool to transfer wealth from its victims to its perpetrators - usually multi-national purveyors of warped values such as the manipulation of women's self image, and the sexualisation of children.
So don't look to those people to move society in helpful directions.

pat mahony | 24 June 2011  

Can the next piece please reflect upon the advertising campaign of United Colo(u?)rs Benneton and whether cultural and racial fetishism is a reflection of modern identity politics?

This piece is brilliant, thanks Ms Savage for another thought-provoking piece. Greetings from your fan base in Geneva.

May | 25 June 2011  

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