RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
Fashion trends that make beauty skin-deep

The fashion industry has long been criticised for the selective exclusion of black models. Until the late 1960s, no black woman had appeared on the cover of a mainstream US woman's magazine.

Pauline Mills, the editor of the beauty pages at the black British newspaper The Voice, says cosmetic companies often refuse to send her products. "They think if they are featured in a black magazine it will look as though they are going downmarket," she says.

In 1996 Naomi Campbell complained that she had been bumped off the cover of American Vogue in favour of a white model. Iman once claimed she earned four times less than her white counterparts.

But in an industry where the market is looks and the currency is vanity their tales of discrimination are often dismissed as the unsubstantiated carping of the tantrum-prone rich and famous. "Modelling is so subjective that it will always be difficult to tell for sure whether you did or didn't get a particular job because of racism," says Ben Arogundade, a former model who is writing a book about western perceptions of the black aesthetic.

"But you know when it is happening. You know when white models are getting regular jobs and black models aren't getting any. You know that it is more than coincidence."

So the video footage of the Elite executives indulging in gratuitous racist banter is to the fashion world what Rodney King's beating was to the Los Angeles police department: undeniable evidence to support the allegations that black people, and many others, have been making all along. That racism in the fashion world is endemic. "They were just saying out loud what a lot of them are thinking," says Pauline Mills. "It doesn't surprise me at all."

The prevailing orthodoxy has always been that the selective exclusion of black models was down to pragmatism rather than prejudice. "When you put black girls on the cover of a magazine sales drop by 20%," a spokesman for Jean Paul Gaultier once said. "I would not say the fashion industry is racist; it's the world which is racist. It is people who buy fashion and people who buy magazines and they seem to prefer the white woman."

But the sidelining of black models in the media has always been more deliberate than that. "The person you put on the cover has to be somebody that readers can aspire to aesthetically," says one former magazine editor. "You want to look at the picture and say: 'I want to look like that.' I'm not saying that couldn't happen if the reader is white and the model is black. But it is more difficult."

Black models say that many clients call and specifically ask for white models and that agents often operate an informal quota system. "They'd say, 'We've already sent them three of you guys already this week'," says Ben Arogundade. "But it is very difficult to do anything about it because you feel if this is the way things operate, there's not a lot I can do about it. If I complain I'll just get a reputation as a trouble maker."

There is a strong fear that speaking out could end your career. "Step out of line and they'll just step on you," said one black model who refused to be named.

While demand for the tall, small, round or thin may come and go, the demand for the Caucasian aesthetic is constant. "I don't think anyone can dispute that there is a prevailing view of beauty and that has generally been white," says one fashion writer.

Those black models who do make it generally find themselves exoticised. Campbell was labelled the "black panther". When Iman came to New York from Somalia the photographer who discovered her invented a tale about her being an enfant sauvage, an illiterate shepherdess who could not speak English. "I was a diplomat's daughter, fluent in three languages, and I was totally pissed off at the misrepresentation," she told Vogue. "But that's the only way they could accept me."

Black models also complain that they are paid less than their white counterparts. "In my worst year as a model," said Iman, "I earned $2m. OK, $2m sounds enough but what matters is getting the same as others. And I got less. The white women in my league were earning $8m."

But it is at entry level that the problems are most keenly felt. "It is a very small world and if you want to make your name in it you have to play the game," says one black model. "The question is whether by the time you have made it you might have been playing the game so long that you become part of the problem."

As black people start to play a more dominant role in youth culture in the west, the prevailing view of fashion is, however, getting darker. This has created some openings for black models, particularly men. And in the US, a growing black middle class has put considerable consumer pressure on the industry to smarten up its act.

But in Britain, where the black community is smaller and poorer, the clout is principally moral. "It all comes down to money at the end of the day... We have to say if you guys don't give us representation we are going to stop buying your product," says Mr Arogundade.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream
book review
“The speech is profoundly and willfully misunderstood,” says King’s longtime friend Vincent Harding.
 follow on twitter
RT @LRBbookshop: On 15 Sept we'll host an evening celebrating the life and work of Dawn Foster, with @BizK1, @piercepenniless, Lynsey Hanle…
‘Just now I’m goin; To take a Fascist town. Fascists is Jim Crow peoples, honey — And here we shoot ‘em down.’ Love…
RT @DrJoGrady: We must all oppose the treatment of @lazebnic and @gkhiabany by @GoldsmithsUoL. Informing students that the @GoldsmithsUCU m…
RT @richardlmac: The suspension of @GoldsmithsUoL academics Des Freedman & Gholam Khiabany is a scandal. A rogue SMT bullying two principle…
RT @becky_gardiner: #freedesandgholam Four weeks since @GoldsmithsUoL suspended @lazebnic & @gkhiabany for telling students the facts about…
The treatment of @lazebnic and @gkhiabany by @GoldsmithsUoL is outrageous. Their crime? Informing students how the…
RT @dontpayuk: It's a simple plan, but one that is the only viable option available to us to prevent 1 in 3 of us from ending up in fuel po…
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc