Take your pick from the latest crop of fashion magazines: Open an issue of your choice and flick through its pages. Chances are you will see what I see — white girls everywhere. On the covers, on the catwalks, in the shoots, in the ads — the color of fashion is indeed blindingly, utterly white. Try to understand why and you will most probably hear what I heard: Agents saying that their clients don’t book black girls, photographers claiming that editors don’t ask for black girls, editors arguing that their readers don’t buy issues with black girls — in other words, black doesn’t sell. If fashion is about desire and aspiration, what we desire and aspire to is white.
The lack of color diversity is a topic that often pops up among those critical of contemporary fashion; it’s one of those topics we’re all painfully aware of and yet seemingly unable to change. But this unwillingness to challenge convention has an inevitable effect on us all, both producers and consumers of fashion. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which was devised to monitor our subconscious attitudes. The test is based on the connections we make between two ideas that are already associated with one another in our minds, as opposed to two ideas that aren’t. For the vast majority of us, who would be horrified to admit to racial discrimination, the IAT can tell us what we really think on a subconscious level. In other words, despite our best efforts to the contrary, our subconscious is often in direct opposition to our acknowledged conscious values. For instance, if we’re used to seeing white women defined as beautiful and sexy, we tend to continue to associate white women with beauty and sexiness. Interestingly, the IAT shows that black people are as partial to this type of bias as white people. The more images we see of white people in accomplished or desirable situations, the more we associate whiteness with positive values — regardless of whether we are white or black ourselves. In this way, what we see in magazines has a profound effect on both our values and attitudes. We inadvertently compare ourselves to those we see on the pages of our magazines, and those excluded are ultimately found wanting.
Keeping all of the above in mind, let’s now look at an archetypal scenario in which black people are included in fashion magazines — the safari shoot. A wonderful example of the point I’d like to make was published in the June 2007 issue of American Vogue, photographed by Arthur Elgort. Here we can see the actress Keira Knightley cavorting in Kenya, clad in contemporary interpretations of colonial-style safari clothes and often surrounded by Maasai people in traditional dress. One image is particularly striking. Here we see Knightley in a billowing skirt, standing on a stone and towering above a group of Maasai men. Surrounded by the black men, the white actress appears both whiter and more feminine, and it wouldn’t be amiss to argue that she is as elevated symbolically as she is de facto in the photograph. Fashion has a fascination with the weird and wonderful, and exotic shoots of this kind are a safe bet for pretty pictures. But what does it do to our reading of black people to see this group of Maasai men in their time-honored garb? In Reading National Geographic, anthropologist Catherine Lutz and sociologist Jane Collins argue that a magazine such as National Geographic has an intrinsic relationship to power and that their portrayal of cultures as other to the West, as exotic, makes it easier for us Westerners to dominate and marginalize them —albeit unintentionally. Seeing black men or women in traditional dress makes us associate their cultures with that which is premodern and slightly backward. If innovation and progress are values that we hold in the utmost esteem in the West, all that opposes our forward thinking tends to be regarded as irrational. We may admire principles such as stability and permanence from afar, but ultimately, social change and material progress are so deeply rooted in our mindset that we find it practically impossible to favor a different way of life. If we apply this logic to our photograph with Keira Knightley and the Maasai men, this would mean that the actress in her Western dress stands for an attitude that supports evolution whereas the Maasai in their exotic garments represent a mindset that is conservative, outmoded, and ultimately relegated to an earlier stage of progress. No matter how beautiful their costumes, or how striking their appearance, deep down on a subconscious level, we can’t help but feel superior.
Lutz and Collins write that “National Geographic is the product of a society deeply permeated with racism as a social practice and with racial understandings as ways of viewing the world,” and much the same could be said about Vogue, the home of our image. The armchair exploration of the world engaged in by Vogue and other fashion magazines with their exotic fashion shoots is then, more than anything, nothing but a romantic notion about a journey back in time — to a place that no doubt only ever existed in an imaginary Western consciousness. The white woman, as film scholar Richard Dyer writes in his seminal book White, can never be marginalized. As we have seen, in fashion magazines she is the norm, and the one who occupies this position has the privilege of sidestepping the issue of race. Whereas other people are raced, we, on the other hand, are just human. Dyer writes that “the position of speaking as a white person is one that white people now almost never acknowledge and this is part of the condition and power of whiteness — white people claim and achieve authority for what they say by not admitting, indeed not realising, that for much of the time they speak only for whiteness.” Because after all, is there any position more powerful than that of being “just” human?
TEXT by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg