Can We Please Stop Putting Models In Blackface?


The May 2013 issue of Vogue Netherlands includes a spread called “Heritage Heroes,” starring the beautiful Dutch model Querelle Janson. The editorial is a retrospective look at Marc Jacobs’ recent designs that have been inspired by black style icons. But not only is Janson’s face made to look super black, darker even than charcoal, but she also wears textured, afro-like wigs. Man, who ever styled that shoot knows exactly what black people are supposed to look like!

Although high fashion editorials have a primary purpose to sell us a lifestyle and a dream, and to get us to buy expensive handbags and other things we can’t afford, there’s no denying that the most beautiful fashion editorials feel like artworks in their own right. Open up any issue of Italian Vogue and look at an editorial shot by Steven Meisel to see what I mean. But that doesn’t mean that such beautiful creative expression can freely use a medium as prolifically racist as the history of blackface.

Every time a fashion magazine drops a blackface editorial, the whole wide Internet explodes. Everybody gets upset and all the fashion bloggers and news sites talk about how bad it is and, eventually, the magazine apologizes. But then what? Instead of letting the blackface meme stay dead, where it should be, here comes yet another magazine that thinks they will be able to do a blackface editorial and emerge from it unscathed. Do they think they’re immune to criticism? Do they think nobody is going to notice? Are they even listening?

White people are fascinated with blackness. But they can afford to be, because it’s something that gets used for a moment and then put back. That’s the only thing that explains why blackness keeps getting used in fashion culture, but without black models. In a 1989 interview with Madonna, Bill Zehme asked Madonna if she felt “black.” What she said is fascinating:

Oh, yes, all the time….When I was a little girl, I wished I was black…All my girlfriends were black….All of my friends were black, and all the music I listened to was black. I was incredibly jealous of all my black girlfriends because they could have braids in their hair that stuck up everywhere. So I would go through this incredible ordeal of putting wire in my hair and braiding it so that I could make my hair stick up. I used to make cornrows and everything. But if being black is synonymous with having soul, then, yes, I feel that I am. (Madonna: The Rolling Stone Files, p.106)

You can talk to people until your lips fall off about how offensive blackface is or about the history of racial mockery in the United States. You can preach about how deeply embedded these images are in the visual culture and how they show up outside of fashion, like around Halloween a.k.a. America’s Greatest Racial Insensitivity Day. Some people are going to even say that putting a model in blackface is a way of paying homage to the beauty of brown bodies. Well, we are beautiful, so at least you got that part correct. So how can blackface be offensive when it’s supposed to be uplifting?

Oh, here’s a radical idea: JUST USE BLACK MODELS. Or models of color period. Even though there are fabulous models of color out there, the fashion industry is reluctant to introduce more models of color into the field, even though everybody talks about the lack of diversity on the catwalks every season until their weaves fall out. Some in the industry, like the fashion scholar Ben Barry, say that the fashion industry is making a grave mistake by not including more diverse models.

I mean really, why paint a model black or whatever ethnicity when you could just hire a model of color? The February issue of Numéro, one of my favorite fashion magazines, had an editorial called “African Queen” that pissed a lot of people off because a young blonde-haired, blue eyed model posing as an “African Queen.” Sebastian Kim, who shot the editorial, said he “was not aware” of the title “African Queen” before the piece came out, which of course only added to the confusion. Both Numéro and Kim apologized, but Kim’s apology seems suspicious:

I would like to apologize for any misunderstanding around my recent photos for Numero France. It was never my intention (nor Numero’s) to portray a black woman in this story. Our idea and concept for this fashion shoot was based on 60’s characters of Talitha Getty, Verushka and Marissa Berenson with middle eastern and Moroccan fashion inspiration. We at no point attempted to portray an African women by painting her skin black. We wanted a tanned and golden skin to be showcased as part of the beauty aesthetic of this shoot.

Fine, so they didn’t intend to portray a black model. In all fairness, Africa does include North Africa which makes this an instance of bronzeface I guess. But the question still remains: if this is supposed to be a tribute to North African beauty, why on earth wasn’t a North African model used?

Fashion loves to push the envelope, and it’s true that controversy sells magazines and generates interest. But right now, the most radical, edgy thing fashion publications can do is put blaceface/yellowface/bronzeface/etc down and start including more models of color on the catwalks. But they won’t, and I’m going to have to write this article again in 3 months.

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