Cultural Inclusivity on the covers of VOGUE from 1960-2019
Tizita Balemlay was far from first on the list of black creatives to have had their work appropriated for profit, but her story is one that many remember. While some recall this story because they were enraged at yet another white person taking credit away from a person of color, others remember the other name that attracted them to this story-- Kylie Jenner.
In a backwards way, it was actually very beneficial for such a household name to be the culprit. It brought attention to the story, which, with the power of social media, expedited public awareness of the issue and provided a space for others to share their similar experiences.
That is not to say that Jenner did Balemlay any favors-- having been raised in affluence, Jenner’s influence and lack of acknowledgement for the brain behind the brand, PluggedNYC, is harmful for multiple reasons.
The first of which being the blatant disregard for respecting what is often a lifetime of intellectual property when black creatives are not credited for their work. The Kardashian-Jenner family is is one of the richest to have ever existed; they are well endowed with opportunities to obtain an education, begin business ventures, travel, make contacts-- any facet of starting a business that could be a massive hill to climb for the regular person is not an issue for them. By abusing that power for capital gain, the profit that Jenner could obtain from claiming the designs as her own is likely marginal comparatively to her net worth. In turn, the same amount of money being earned by the business of a 23-year-old Ethiopian woman would make a significant difference.
The second problem being that Jenner appropriated more than just the style of culturally significant dress-- she essentially reproduced the exact same product (a product that Balemlay was asked to design and send samples of by Jenner’s team).
In the U.S., black lives and their contributions to society have been continuously, systemically and systematically valued less than those with euro-centric features. There is hardly any media representation for black and brown bodies, therefore their dress is not often represented as a result. Traditional attire is not just significant to the culture it belongs to, but all cultures, as a person’s perception of the attire is informed by their upbringing. Clothing is, intentionally or not, coded with subconscious messages about who a person is as an individual.
Due to a lifetime of inability to identify with the figures and beauty standards which are so often praised, women of color often internalize negative biases about themselves. Those feelings of isolation and societal disapproval can affect women of color disproportionately, as women of all ethnicities are already subject to constant scrutiny at the hands of a patriarchal society. The intersection of being a woman and a person of color simultaneously can impact a person so heavily that their confidence and mental health can stand in the way of personal and professional progression, which are both already far more challenging to obtain for those with darker skin. (Silvestrini, 2020)
So, by that logic, if a white woman were to embody physical characteristics that are typically associated with black women, the white woman should receive the same amount of discrimination and negative critisism that black women face on a daily basis. However, that is not the case. Often, culturally significant attire is altered by causasian women to suit the beauty standards of european ideals. This is called white-washing.
In this essay, I will be exploring the nature of white-washing, cultural-erasure and the representation of women of color on the cover of Vogue magazine throughout the years.
Vogue, an American founded fashion and lifestyle magazine, has been in production since 1892. In its 128 years, the editorial has expanded past its original purpose, which was to publish works that those of high class and social standing across New York could identify with regardless of gender. Upcoming lavish events, features and news on the lives of city socialites, the arts and etiquette were the central focus of the magazine for 17 years.
The founder, Arthur Baldwin Turnure, sold the magazine in 1909 and it was then rebranded as a women’s fashion magazine. Vogue did not begin to consistently use photographs inside each addition or on the cover until the 1940s-- nearly all issues prior consisted of drawings or oil paintings on the cover with a few photos peppered-in throughout the 1930s. Each issue since 1940 has stayed true to its rebranded fashion-focus-- and though the contents included have gotten progressively more relatable to the average working-class American woman, it’s luxurious and high fashion photos have continuously emulated the beauty standard of the time.
Being that Vogue has had three different Editors in Chief since 1963- more than a decade before a woman of color was featured on the cover- is there a correlation between the percentage of women of color included on the covers (as compared to the percentage of caucasian women) and the standing EIC?
The way that media is perceived is largely related to symbolic interaction; a concept that was theorized by philosophers John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, but was named by Herbert Blumer while working alongside Mead at the University of Chicago. As mentioned above, each person has their own biases; these biases are often formed early on in life, and then further reinforced or denounced depending on life experiences. Dewey and Mead posit that symbols- mostly visual, such as words and images- are how we convey information and communicate with one another. Human behavior is largely scripted by our own perception of reality-- and that reality is informed to us through symbols, whether they be visual, audible, touchable or otherwise.
To understand how symbols are used by mass media to convey messages to the public, we must first understand the expected outcomes of its consumption. The press is meant to be consumable and intuitive enough for the general public to all understand the same message. It is expected that the accounts recorded are as accurate and informative as possible so that the consumer has the autonomy to draw their own conclusions about the pieces. These expectations fall under the social responsibility model of the Four Theories of the Press (1956). Though they were composed as a rule-of-thumb for newspapers to follow, non-news based press often fall under the social responsibility model as well. This model leaves room for the government to interject if the viewpoints being promoted are harmful to public safety, but allows the creators to explore and promote inclusivity as they see fit until a legitimate threat is posed.
However, racial stereotyping can often be found in the form of microaggressions- which are much less obviously harmful if one is not familiar with the concept- often leaving them unacknowledged. Though the psychological and emotional impacts microaggressions have on their recipients can be greatly damaging, they are so ingrained in our speech patterns that they typically go unnoticed. Often subconscious, they are a more subtle form of racism- to the aggressor, at least- that are displayed in social and communicative behaviors (2019, King, Erazo, Nadal).
For example, a common microaggression that is displayed in the U.S. would be if one were to point out how articulate a person of color’s speech is. While that may not seem harmful on a surface level, the implication behind that statement is that it can be expected that people of color are not typically articulate. These types of statements would not commonly be made about the speech of a white person.
In terms of fashion and lifestyle-centered media, microaggressions can commonly be seen in more obvious forms (such as having a two-page spread dedicated to various forms of hair-care; none of which would work for a person of color’s hair texture). Failing to provide the public with insight that can be beneficial for more than one ethnicity implies one of two things: either the authors, editors and publishers all failed to care for the needs of their black audience, or non-white features are the beauty standard that we should strive for. A definitive conclusion cannot necessarily be drawn; however, it is evident through the representation of beauty in the media that Americans' preference towards european features implies that opposing features are less valuable. These features, such as small noses and blonde hair, are most commonly found on light-skinned bodies, therefore light-skinned bodies are the highest represented. (2020, Silvestrini).
In terms of white-washing, high-end fashion magazines have continuously appropriated the features of non-european cultures. Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, two of the top ten paid models in the world in 2017, are presumably going to request far higher rates to model than a model not included on the 2017 list; a list that included no women of african descent. So why was it that Vogue Italia produced a photo series of Gigi Hadid modeling an afro- a traditional hair style of black women- in 2015? Further, after the mass amount of backlash both Vogue and Hadid faced online for the photos-- why did Vogue then use Kendall Jenner to model an afro again in 2018?
Women of color are subject to far more scrutiny than white-passing women. As a result of the innate privilege that white women hold in society due to the history of racial oppression the United States was founded upon, their actions and presentation are far more likely to be praised and accepted than a woman of color. One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is so damaging to those who identify themselves with the culture being appropriated is that they will continue to be condemned for celebrating their background while the appropriators are applauded for their exploitation. (Matthes, 2019)
In order to maintain consistency, the cover images that will be analyzed are all going to come from the Vogue U.S. archives. This analysis will include each issue that features a cover model beginning in 1960 and span throughout Dec. of 2019.
For the purpose of this analysis, models will be categorized by their natural skin tones alone (Ex: Gigi Hadid is of Palestinian decent, but has the natural coloring of a caucasian woman). Though many modern celebrities- such as Ariana Grande- have been accused by the public of black-fishing due to the amount of self tanning products they use, their appearance will not be counted against Vogue for cultural appropriation or considered to be inclusive, as their history of darkening their own skin is not the responsibility of Vogue to clarify. Caucasian models whose skin tone has been drastically changed at the hands of Vogue employees will still be counted as caucasian.
Further, the only models who will be counted in this analysis will be the ones whose faces can be clearly seen and appear to represent a well-known figure as opposed to artistic depictions of models.
Of the 624 covers that have gone to print since 1970- excluding any special edition issues- and the 708 faces on display, 87% of those models have been caucasian women. Of the 10% that accounts for the amount of women of color featured on the covers, 44% of those covers were produced in the 2010s.
While I felt that it was important to account for all cover models, the amount of caucasian men, men of color and children featured was so marginal that the percentage feels unnecessary to analyze in full-- especially when considering the magazine’s target audience. However, I feel that it is important to note that even in those marginal numbers, some of the data is slightly skewed; though three caucasian men were featured on the covers included in this time period and seven men of color were, four of the seven were used as background models in 2007 to emphasize Penelope Cruz, the issue’s cover star.
Further, of the 77 times women of color were featured, many of these covers featured the same model multiple times. For example, Rihanna has been Vogue’s cover star six times. Though many caucasian women have been the cover star multiple times as well, their consistent representation is undeniable. Since 1974- when Beverly Johnson became the first woman of color to star on the cover of Vogue- there have been 11 years without further representation for women of color (nine of which are included in Anna Wintour’s first 11 years as Editor in Chief).
While Wintour has, by a large margin, included more women of color on the cover of Vogue than any other EIC since the magazine’s origin, her 13% inclusion rate can be easily compared to the 10% that Grace Mirabella, the EIC before Wintour, included in her decade of work. Though it feels as demeaning as the percentages themselves to refer to these women as percentages, I feel that it is important to mention in order to show how truly inequitable racial representation in Vogue has been. By continuing Vogue’s long history of promoting whiteness as a symbol of high fashion, high class and beauty, the magazine (intentionally or not) reinforces the racial biases which associate blackness with being of lower class.
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