Unmasking the Stereotype: Black Face in Fashion

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by Barbara Gonzalez

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When Vogue Netherlands released their May 2013 issue, a worldwide controversy arose within a matter of days over the makeup worn by models in a spread intended as a tribute to Marc Jacobs’ work with Louis Vuitton. The fashion spread featured Dutch model Querelle Jansen, who donned black makeup with wigs imitating textured hair. In the effort of portraying and paying homage to black beauty icons Josephine Baker and Grace Jones, the magazine ended up doing the opposite, offending millions on an international scale. Bloggers and fashionistas alike took to their sites to furiously criticize the acclaimed “fashion bible” for committing the unthinkably racist act of dressing their models in black face.

However, many also defended the publication with comments in which they questioned whether these bloggers were being “overly sensitive” and that they “didn’t get what the big deal was.”

Let’s pause for a bit of a history lesson, shall we?

Throughout the years, black face has been a symbol of the white entertainer reducing the black race into a spectacle of inferiority. Actors in minstrel shows and plays used the form to display the most horrendous and degrading stereotypes of African American slaves. White directors and audiences wouldn’t even allow black performers on stage unless they too were wearing black face. This humiliating form of “entertainment” evolved to find a place on Broadway, in movies and television and even children’s cartoons such as Disney, Looney Toons and Warner Brothers.

Now let us return to 2013.

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Aren’t these racial stereotypes a thing of the past?

No. Racial stereotypes are alive and well in today’s society.

In fact, it’s troubling to think that some might still assume they no longer exist when they’re still evident in our everyday lives, especially in the fashion industry.

If Vogue Netherlands wanted to honor these black beauty icons, there are countless black models in the industry that would have been more than ecstatic to work for such an esteemed publication. However, while models of color have been readily employed in the advertisements of fashion magazines, they are significantly lacking in fashion spreads. These magazines are set up to create a bold message: People of color are only worthy when it comes to making a monetary profit, but not beautiful or worthy of representing the forefront of fashion in spreads or covers.

Yet you may say, “I still don’t understand the big deal; they didn’t mean to do any harm by it, they were just trying to appreciate these major historical icons who just so happened to be black. Why is everyone being so sensitive?”

This is where the phenomena of cultural appropriation and white privilege come into play.

Cultural appropriation is the unauthorized use of another culture’s dress, dance, music, language, religious symbols, etc. This is something utilized by the fashion industry to an almost excessive degree. When these situations arise, those who participate in them are completely oblivious to the cultural significance behind what they’re wearing and styling. By way of this seemingly harmless act, individuals who belong to the imitated culture are told they have no say in the way that they are represented in the media and outside world as a people.

White privilege is an umbrella term for all things from which white people benefit due simply to being white in a social, economic, or political space in comparison to people of color. In this situation, white privilege manifests in a white model being the face of the ideal standard of beauty, who then covers this face with black makeup, and is later able to take it off and go on with her life as a white woman. She does not have to deal with all of the problems and issues specific to people of color, such as having their culture appropriated or “exoticsized.”

As a woman of color who is a frequent consumer of fashion magazines and all associated media, I can’t help but be affected when I witness terrible injustices such as these. Editors audaciously feature black face and other forms of cultural appropriation on the sleek pages of well-respected publications for the simple reason that they can. They know they have an overwhelming amount of supporters that will come running to back them up in anything they do, even if it is offensive. As avid consumers of this industry, we need to start being more critical of the magazines and designers we love and admire so much. We have a responsibility to our society and to this industry for which we have such high regard to speak up and let them know that what they are doing is wrong, no matter what way they try to frame it.

Photo credits:

Coco Perez

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