Vogue’s glorification of colonial racism

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Wow, this commenter on New York Times fashion editor Cathy Horyn’s blog really summed up how I’ve always felt about those “Out of Africa”-type fashion spreads in Vogue. (Thanks Johnny!)

American Vogue is a sad joke–the racism and elitist mentality of Vogue is astonishing. The few minorities featured in this magazine reek of tokenism and I would respect them more if they simply had no African-Americans, Asians or Latinos in their magazine. The fact that they hide their racism and ignorance with subterfuge offends even more.

A few years back Vogue once ran one of their annual colonial themed reactionary fantasies in Kenya and in reference to a Masai woman in full tribal regalia, Vogue asserted that the woman’s beaded earrings, beaded corset and bib-style necklace was “inspired” by a recent collection of John Galliano. Vogue actually went to print with the caption that this Masai woman adorned in jewels worn by her ancestors for centuries was “inspired” by John Galliano!! It finally dawned on me that for the average Vogue staffer, the obvious could not be imagined–the “genius” Galliano could not possibly have copied Masai tribal wear. My husband swore it must have been a typo but in the next month’s issue an equally outraged reader lambasted Vogue for its stupidity in making such a claim and I do not recall that any apology was ever given. On the contrary, Vogue continues to use African natives as props in issue after issue. The fact that Vogue just ran another colonial themed pictorial in its June issue with natives as a backdrop to a white actress in full Karen Blixen “Out of Africa” mode reaffirms my belief that the editors are truly clueless–given the number of recent books, films and documentaries describing the British gulags in East Africa and the general heinousness of colonialism in Africa, I am stunned that Vogue continues to exhibit such insensitivity. Granted Africans are not Vogue’s target demographic but for the sake of basic human decency it is time for this magazine to stop belittling historic wrongs and put a stop to the glorification of colonial racism. I have discussed Vogue’s colonial fetish with Jewish friends and although their experience differs in many significant ways, it is similar to the outrage felt by some for the Nazi props used in the Charlotte Rampling movie, “The Night Porter.” While it may be inaccurate to compare Vogue’s racist colonial pictorials with the sadomasochistic Nazi scenes of the Night Porter, for many Africans the khaki safari uniforms shown in the spread, the whips, the servile air surrounding the natives depicted in the background remind us of a time best left in the ash heap. No matter what the artistic vision, neither genocide nor apartheid or any other form of human rights abuse make for good fashion props. I hope Ms. Wintour and Arthur Elgort will one day come to understand this.

Vogue magazine truly embodies all that is wrong in our culture while actually distorting all that is good–sycophancy and rampant cronyism abound while real talent is all but ignored. Unfortunately reading pop culture periodicals is work related but it gets very depressing.