Since the release of Teen Vogue’s August 2015 issue last week, the media has been abuzz. And most headlines on the issue include some combination of the following words: “Teen Vogue Picks The Next Top Models — And None Of Them Are White.” Many of the articles go on to include the racial background of the Condé Nast publication’s three cover stars: Imaan Hammam (Egyptian-Moroccan), Aya Jones (French-Ivorian), and Lineisy Montero (Dominican). Some articles even push the envelope further, discussing how this cover is a feat for racial diversity in the fashion industry, noting certain moments in which the industry has notably lagged behind in achieving equal and accurate representation, from magazine covers to runways.
What’s most intriguing, though, is the racial pride that each of these models exudes. In the cover story, written by Teen Vogue’s Health and Beauty Director Elaine Welteroth, Montero is quoted: “Sometimes people call me Middle Eastern, and I’m like, ‘No, I’m black.’ I am proud of my culture, proud of who made me, proud to be here.” That very acknowledgement of “being here” is what is so profound, provoking a historical reflection on black models and blackness in fashion.
This is the connection that the media has not yet made: January 2015 marked only 50 years since the first black model appeared on the cover of a mainstream fashion publication. In 1965, Donyale Luna was sketched for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar; she then went on to become the first black model to grace the cover of British Vogue in 1966. In the time since, countless black models have become the firsts to cover mainstream fashion publications — from Naomi Sims to Beverly Johnson — marking what appeared to be the acceptance of blackness into mainstream ideals of beauty.
Nevertheless, I can't ignore how pessimistic and inquisitive I am about the buzz surrounding Teen Vogue’s newest cover. Why, after 50 years, are we still praising publications for including black women on their cover spots? What does it say of racial progress when just two years ago, Bethann Hardison and the Diversity Coalition sent (what have become infamous) letters to international fashion councils, calling out the lack of diversity on runways?
Yet just this week, Complex reported that out of the 482 models who walked Paris Couture Fashion Week, only 17 were black. What does it say of progress when in 2014, Harper’s Bazaar and several other publications didn't feature any women of color on their covers at all? What does it say of progress when black models such as Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn, and Joan Smalls, all have anecdotes about the blatant prejudice they have experienced in the industry? By now, shouldn’t the equal and accurate representation of blackness be common?
To have a conversation about blackness and its intersections with any industry requires an acknowledgment of the current racial tensions in our country. The death of Michael Brown almost a year ago has pushed the country to collectively witness how race-related prejudice is just as present now as it was during Jim Crow. Furthermore, one cannot ignore how social movements, such as those for Civil Rights and Black Power, undoubtedly spilled over into popular culture, from music to fashion, and how the same thing is happening now.
Musicians such as Nina Simone and James Brown released singles that delved into race during these movements, which can easily be compared to this year’s albums by D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole. Additionally, the unwavering criticism of the ways in which the fashion system continues to exclude and discriminate against people of color was as much a conversation during the careers of Donyale Luna, Naomi Sims, and Beverly Johnson as it is now with Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn, and Joan Smalls. The current cultural shifts in the country are once again begging for space in the mainstream.
One can’t help but to see how the past is very much a part of the present. Although we’ve made substantial strides in pushing for equal rights and the acceptance of beauty of varying colors, the recent Teen Vogue cover forces us to question whether this is simply a moment in time or truly a proactive solution to combat an issue that has consistently and historically plagued us. From editors and models being vocal about the race prejudice that they have faced in fashion to unacceptably low numbers of POC representation on Fashion Week runways and the covers of magazines, the fashion industry is still finding it difficult to achieve equal racial representation.
One driving force behind this issue might be the problematic power relations that allow for the construction and acceptance of blackness. Historically, black women’s bodies have been fashioned into the “Other” at the hands of mainstream culture, placing them into subordinate categories that have worked to reify their oppression. There is something to be said when their bodies are recognized as ideal. There is something validating in seeing people who look like you, and who reflect your experiences, in the mainstream.
Jones, Montero, and Hammam are magnifications of black and brown beauty, and a reminder of the necessity to further push for diversity so it becomes ordinary instead of newsworthy. The cover of Teen Vogue’s August issue is indeed something to celebrate. If anything, it is validation. It is a moment that we can seize. It is a moment to say that we are, indeed, here.
But it is also a moment in which we should hold the industry accountable in the same ways that we do other systems, because it too participates in the reification of ideologies and norms. To laud Teen Vogue for this feat means that collectively we recognize that seeing black women on the covers of magazines isn’t the norm. It means that other publications might follow in suit. But one can’t help but to be pessimistic and wonder if the moment will be turned into a trend instead of a necessary responsibility that should be enforced upon every power player within this influential industry.
My questions now are these: How can we strive for consistency? How can we make it our goal to see that these three beautiful women and models are represented far beyond this cover? How can we dismantle the actions of an industry — a system — that is as active and guilty of imposing oppression and perpetuating stereotypes as countless other systems that have historically done the same?
If the fashion industry is as powerful as we make it out to be, it is time for us to no longer accept one cover of a black girl a year (or none); it is time for us to transform the thinking at the top.
Images: Teen Vogue