Surrounding Halima Aden, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, are eight models of various races and ethnicity representing “new frontiers” in fashion. Because, guess what? Not only white women are beautiful! But, it may have taken more than a century but it has happened. For the first time in British Vogue’s supposedly fashion-forward history the magazine features a model of colour wearing a hijab on its cover.
That is the ridiculous, outmoded, crass, hurtful and – whisper it – slightly racist message that the vast majority of Vogue (and other magazine) covers have been reinforcing for, well, ever. Since it was founded in 1916 – the year in which British Vogue was founded and National Geographic, incidentally, ran a full issue on Australia referring to Aboriginal Australians as “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings” – the fashion bible has had a succession of white editors.
This goes some way to explaining why it took 50 years for British Vogue to feature a black model on the cover. And it wasn’t exactly a regular occurrence after that. For 12 long, whitewashed years between 2002, when Naomi Campbell first graced the cover, and 2014, not one individual black model was granted the cover of British Vogue. This is the very opposite of trendsetting: it’s outrageously backward.
This matters whether or not you give a damn about Vogue or this season’s slip-dress-look (I don’t). When I was growing up Naomi Campbell was the only venerated beautiful woman of colour on my radar. What did this mean? That until I was fortunate enough to discover Toni Morrison, I thought I was ugly. Society (and, more importantly to me then, the people I fancied) apparently thought so too. The impact of this goes way beyond looks (and not getting much action in my teens). It infects your self-worth. It narrows your sense of what you can be.
Edward Enninful, British Vogue’s first black editor, took over last year. His first cover featured mixed race model and feminist activist Adwoa Aboah. It hasn’t been a hotbed of radicalism since (after all, this is fashion we’re talking about), but his latest editorial makes the point that “even five years ago … if you were shooting a group cover like this, the girls would not have looked like these young women do”. This is how true diversity – not the kind that’s really about ticking boxes or reinforcing negative stereotypes – happens. And it can only be sustained when people of colour are not just on the cover, but at the table too.
Adapted From: Vogue