This past week there has been a fair amount of coverage regarding the appearance of women of colour in high fashion print ads, as well as on magazine covers. For the first time in 19 years, Prada is using a black woman in its ad campaign — Malaika Firth, a Kenyan-born, U.K.-raised model. And in recent days, Vanity Fair unveiled its cover, featuring Scandal and Django Unchained (and African-American) actress Kerry Washington, to much fanfare.
Some might ask why so much attention is being paid to these latest events and why they’re considered to be so culturally significant. The reality is that it’s rare to see many people of colour in print ads or on the cover of magazines. In fact, it seems as though the use of ethnic models on the runways or catwalk shows of high and haute couture fashion houses is even declining as more and more designers have become less interested in models with personality, or whose appearance may ‘detract’ from the clothing. Instead, they have been favouring the generic, read: white, models, so that the focus is purely on the clothing. In my view it’s a specious argument, but logic doesn’t always seem to prevail in fashion.
Today, it is still a big deal to have a person of colour on the front page of a mainstream magazine. Of course, you’ll see ethnics on the covers of niche magazines or in targeted advertising — those directed to a particular ethnic community — but it is infrequent in high fashion magazines, such as Vogue.
The lack of diversity is a problem that plagues all ethnicities. Blacks and hispanics in North America seem to fare better than other ethnic groups, but overall ethnics lack prominence in fashion campaigns and entertainment culture.
While in the grand scheme most of our attention should be focused on issues of greater importance — such as literacy among ethnic minority school children, high school and university graduation rates, and ethnic representation in institutions such as the judiciary and government — we can’t disregard the fact that fashion and entertainment are multibillion dollar industries, and industries that often play significant roles in our day-to-day lives. They determine what products we buy, which movies we see, how we dress and come to create our personal style, and they also influence how we see ourselves.
For a model or actress to be featured on the cover of a magazine suggests that they’ve achieved cultural importance and popularity; and, perhaps, more significantly, that they wield economic power and are highly influential. The elegantly dressed actress or model informs our concepts of beauty and elegance and shapes what we covet or desire to be. Magazines (i.e. the editors behind the covers), whether they’re absolutely right or not, are authorities and arbiters of popular culture. They tell us what, or who is beautiful and iconic. They tell us who we should emulate and to whom we should aspire to be. They inform our conventional ideas. So often if something is not explicitly stated or shown, it’s as though it doesn’t exist. And if particular groups of people are not visible for all to see, in arenas that embody our cultural standards, it suggests that they are seen as inferior, unimportant, or, dare I say, not attractive enough.
Recently, Kerry Washington stated that she hoped to soon live in a “post-racist world” — and perhaps it would be a world where diversity in the media was the norm because it reflects actual society. Here’s hoping that Malaika and Kerry’s moments are not blips on the radar, but that we will see them, and other minorities, on a regular basis as cover girls.