The Color of Beauty Looks At Institutionalized Racism in The Fashion Industry

by Latoya Peterson

The Color of Beauty is a documentary film that follows aspiring top model Renee Thompson as she attempts to take on the New York Fashion industry. (A partial script is posted after the jump).

The ultimate conclusions will not be new to regular readers of Racialicious – most fashion houses express an explicit preference for “white faces,” features, and a certain type of frame. However, I wanted to focus in on one particular idea put forth by Justin Peery, fashion photographer:

The girls that are really just being featured in everything, they really have unique features for African-Americans. You know, the very skinny nose, the very elegant faces. They really look like white girls that were painted black. It, that’s beauty, you know, to the industry’s perspective, to agents’ perspective, when they see that, you know, when they see a girl that, that can look different, you know, by a skin pigment, and, and still have great features like that, it’s, it is sellable. You know, when you, when you come in with, you know, big eyes, big nose, big this, whatever, big lips, things that are common traits in African Americans, it doesn’t work. But for those lucky few girls that, like Renée, they have white girl features, and it’s kind of messed up, but that’s just the way the, the industry is.

Peery, later in the documentary, is the photographer that ultimately gives Thompson a shot. But what my mind keeps coming back to is the use of certain types of words.

Like elegant.

It is always fascinating to see code words at work. And the idea of white faces as “elegant” implies that those who do not carry those features cannot have an elegant face. I’d love to see a list of fashion codewords. Readers, what do you think?

Partial Script

10.00.22

Renée I think sometimes it is blatantly racist,it’s disgusting.

10.00.30 No black girls allowed on a lot of the break-downs for castings or things like that. Like, we’re not looking for black girls, we want white girls only, or brunette, white girls.

10.00.45 You’re constantly under this scrutiny that you, of something you can’t do anything about. This is the skin I was given, this is who I look like, this is what I look like, you know…I’m sorry. 10.00.56

10.01.20

Renée Thank-you.

Hey, y’all. Okay, Yeah, I got cards, I just grabbed a whole bunch.

10.01.30

Justin Peery She had the look, you know, she had what I wanted to bring into New York.

This is the hardest market to work in in the world. Once we get her where we need her, then, Yeah, she can easily be making eight, eight grand a day, plus.

10.01.47

Renée My bust is never gonna get any bigger. Nnever… .

Justin Peery Good. 10.01.51

10.02.08

Renée The first thing I want to do is kill Fashion Week. I want to be that girl that, the new girl, the, the, the new phenomena. 10.02.15

10.02.29

Justin Peery The girls that are really just being featured in everything, they really have unique features for African-Americans. You know, the very skinny nose, the very elegant faces. They really look like white girls that were painted black. It, that’s beauty, you know, to the industry’s perspective, to agents’ perspective, when they see that, you know, when they see a girl that, that can look different, you know, by a skin pigment, and, and still have great features like that, it’s, it is sellable. You know, when you, when you come in with, you know, big eyes, big nose, big this, whatever, big lips, things that are common traits in African Americans, it doesn’t work. 10.03.10

10.03.13 But for those lucky few girls that, like Renée, they have white girl features, and it’s kind of messed up, but that’s just the way the, the industry is. 10.03.24
10.03.26

Renée It only takes one big campaign, or that one really big show to propel something for you. So, I think I’m as close to it as I’ve ever been. 10.03.38

Renée The moment of truth.

Man The moment of truth.

Renée Ahhh, is it really it? Oh, my gosh.

Woman Good show.


Renée
Fabulous.

Man You wore it.

Renée Okay.

10.03.52
N. Anderson Renée Thompson is amazing, she’s a great girl, ever since she’s been, been with me, she’s been, I’ve been traveling, she’s been to Asia, she’s been to Paris, she’s been to, been, Milan, she’s been to South Africa, she’s, now she’s in New York. I’m proud of her, I think she’s an absolutely incredible model, you know what I mean? And I wish 90% of the models that could be as driven as she is, because they, she does not understand the word “no.” 10.04.12

Justin Peery I’ll touch base with you in about a hour.

Renée Okay. Fab.

Justin Peery Bye.

Renée I got my promise for good luck.

Justin Peery Good, good.
10.04.32

Renée This is what we do. This is what we do, run around like crazy chickens all day, and people staring at you.

Oh, God.

You can tell I’m relentless. I just do it.

10.04.56 I’m given it a 110% more than normally, because I know that the pressure is on, and it’s like, there’s a slim chance for me and I’ve got to grab that slim chance, and I’m gonna really like, wear the highest heels and the shortest skirt and wear the biggest smile and have that crazy bubbly personality, because I want to be remembered, I want them to say, “There’s no way we can’t pick this girl.” 10.05.19
Renée How is it going? Pleasure. Nice seeing you again. So?

Man
Nice to see you too. Are you tired?
10.05.28

Renée This is a very prestigious client, one on the show level. They’re one of those people that can really get you that one job that will launch you

Maurillio Carnino So, how old are you again?

Renée Old. I’m 24, I’ll be 25 in August, so, I’m trying to keep my 18, though.

Maurillio Carnino Okay.

Renée As best as I can.

Maurillio Carnino I, I, I, I gave up on trying.

Renée Yeah. Well, you look good, though, don’t let nobody tell you different.

Maurillio Carnino Thank you So, where are you from?

Renée
I’m originally from Jamaica, but I lived in Toronto, so I just moved here about a month ago. So, Yeah, now I’m officially a New Yorker.

10.06.08

Maurillio Carnino Renée, I, I saw Renée one time before, and I, what I think about her, she’s definitely very impressive, she was like, you know, this Amazon, super, and incredible fit body. Incredible face, very beautiful face. 10.06.27

So, let’s see your move.

Renée
Okay.

Maurillio Carnino Now, why don’t you start over there.

Renée Okay.

Maurillio Carnino Showwise she has a, a terrific walk, she’s lively, it’s like this lively wine[?] on her hips.

10.06.52

Maurillio Carnino It’s like she, she’s, she’s womanly, she’s, so she has like, you know, a kind of woman figure, and at this moment, without being anorexic, but the girls they’re like a little bit more thin. Black models, they tend to be like a little wider the hips, and, and a little bit more like round, and so some time, you know, even though like the face is amazing, she has like a thick problem. 10.07.20

Maurillio Carnino ??? ???.

Renée Great. Thank-you.

10.07.28

Maurillio Carnino Some people say we don’t want the black model, no, I never really heard that, actually sometimes from somebody I hear the opposite, “We need to find the right black model.”

Renée Thank-you. Wish me luck for the shows, huh?

10.07.42

Maurillio Carnino One time one of my clients are like, “No, no, no, no, no, I need a black model, but she has to be a white girl dipped in chocolate.”

10.07.58

Lisa Tant A couple of years ago, you know, when this issue really exploded, the, the runway was just a sea of blond girls, with eyes at the sides of their heads, and very much like the robotic Eastern European type look that was really popular. And show after show, you wouldn’t see anybody other than a white face. 10.08.15

10.08.20

Jeanne Beker There still seems to be this crazy kind of racism, I, I hate to call it that, but a, a, a kind of consciousness in the fashion world that, you know, sometimes you do see, you know, a black girl on the runways, it’s almost out of a tokenism. 10.008.37

10.08.37

Lisa Tant The token black girl, Naomi Campbell, the token Asian girl, and real, really just the same one over and over and over and over again.

10.08.50

Renée The client will say, “I’ve got a really beautiful black girl, she’s very approachable.” “No, we’re not looking for black girls.”

10.08.55

Justin Peery Clients will hire 15 Caucasian models, they have on their roster to hire one or two ethnic models. You know, you do have some designers that will put, you know, “No African American,” you know, so on and so forth. So, that’s why it is so hard for agencies to have ethnic models. They literally have to be flawless, whereas, you know, the 15 white girls, you got three or four in there that are not flawless, you know, but in, in the African American realm, the model has to be perfect. 10.09.26

N. Anderson I don’t like how down here you look a little bit, you know, frumpy.

Model Yeah.

N. Anderson You know, the arms look good, face is not bad, but the hair is just not right.

10.09.37

Renée It’s like the expectations are really high for us, our measurements have to be absolutely perfect, the skin has to be absolutely perfect. 10.09.43

N. Anderson Even if we get only two images out of this entire shoot is fine for me.

Model Two?

N. Anderson I don’t particularly like the hair and most of this… .

10.09.51

N. Anderson
Being a, a black person, as well, and, and that own the company, and I will take on a, a, a, a, a white model, and I see their success happen so fast, and you take on a black model, and you know they have the same drive and the same, the same, you, you know, commitment to the industry for themselves, and not getting the, the, the same opportunities really makes, it, it, it, it breaks your heart. 10.10.13

10.10.25

Renée
It does get very discouraging, it gets to a point where you feel like you’re constantly justifying your worth and your, what you can contribute to the business. You can only take so much of beating up everyday, and constant rejection, or that fear every time you walk through a casting door that you’re gonna be reminded that, yet again, you’re, you’re a black girl. 10.10.47

10.10.56 Quitting, just to me, seems like you’re, you know, you’re giving into that racist façade, or that you’re giving into saying that’s okay that you think that. It’s not okay, it’s not okay that you think that I’m different or lesser than, it’s not, so I’m gonna stay right here and be a sore in your eye until you recognize what I’m good for. 10.11.16

10.11.29

Renée
It’s time to do the show.

We’ve got to make money. Money, money, money must be made tonight. This is the opening night, and we’ve got a lot of important people coming in. We’ve got critic s from Atlanta. So, let’s give them a show. 10.11.45
10.11.56 I have heard that people say blacks don’t move product, or blacks don’t buy our clothes, or, you know, black women are not our demographic. 10.12.08

10.12.13

Dallas Logan
Nobody wants to invest their money in a black model to do Gucci, Prada, and Valentino, because they’re black, and black doesn’t sell. Point blank. Money’s green, and white people have the money, white people are gonna buy from white people. 10.12.25

10.12.26

Renée They’re just like always expecting a white girl for major products, they’re always expecting that image, that Barbieish image, you know, to sell something, and that doesn’t all, it’s, it’s, it’s just something that they lean on, it’s a crutch. 10.112.39

10.12.42

Jeanne Beker Well, everyone’s pointing fingers. You know, some people might say it’s the agents are to blame, they’re not scouting these girls, they’re not encouraging them, they’re not signing them. Maybe it’s the designers, you know, right off the bat, maybe designers should insist that, you know, this is my esthetic, and for ad campaigns hire girls that just, you know, can bring a little more diversity to the table. 10.113.02

Dallas Logan Beautiful. Bring your face this way.

10.13.10

Hairstylist I think fashion is five steps behind the real America, behind real Canada, there’s been way more progress in personal and interpersonal relationships between the races and between the cultures than there has in fashion. Fashion’s stuck in 1955, and I don’t know what it’s gonna take to get them to move forward. 10.13.27

Dallas Logan I’m doing 10 shots and we’re done, baby. You ready? Let’s nail it.

10.13.31

Lisa Tant
When you look at the emerging markets in the fashion industry, it’s China, Brazil, India. If we keep sending all white models down the runway, that isn’t going to speak to the consumers in those markets. And any designer who continues to do that runs the risk of being irrelevant. 10.13.46

10.13.52

Renée There was this big uprising in the industry about black girls not being on the runways that particular season in Fashion Week in Paris, Milan, New York. There was this black girl boycott for whatever reason, and it became a big, big industry discussion. 10.14.10
10.14.12

Lisa Tant
What’s interesting with “Italian Vogue,” the editor there really decided to make a big statement about this. The entire issue, from the cover, all the editorials, featured black models. 10.14.21

10.14.30

Jeanne Beker
Is that gonna mean that the nature of the industry is changing, as some people sort of said yes, it would, you know? I knew that it would not mean much, except, you know, yes, it was a nod to black models everywhere, but is it really gonna change the shape of things to come? No, not really. 10.14.46

10.14.48

Renée It’s them saying, let’s prove we’re not really racist, and do this, and then get everyone off our backs. And unfortunately it worked. Nobody’s complaining about it anymore, everyone’s saying, “Well, remember that one black issue we got.” Give me a break. 10.15.00
10.15.13

Renée
My worries. I might not fit into the jeans, ‘cause I got a bit of a booty.

Renée
These jeans are hot.
Justin Peery Well, they fit you perfect, so.

Renée Ready? Here. Thanks.

Woman You have a killer body, huh?

Renée Thank-you.

Justin Peery And really short legs, huh? Perfect, we’re all done.

Renée Thank-you so much, guys.

Justin Peery You’re awesome, thank-you.

Renée Do I get to keep the jeans?

10.15.47

Renée So, hopefully with some luck, I’ll get the job.

Woman I think she has a job.

Justin Peery I think she has a job, Yeah.

Woman I think she was awesome, so.

Justin Peery Yeah, she looks great in stuff, so she definitely has a job.

Woman Yeah.

10.15.59

Renée It’s a message from Justin, he says, “I dearly loved you, good job.” Fabulous.

10.16.08

Renée I think, I think I’ll make it. I think I have a little bit left in me. I think I’ll make it. I think I’ve been through too much not to make it. I think my making it would mean a lot not just to me but to a lot of other black models who are also still trying to make it, or other girls who are looking around trying to see what beacon of hope do I have. 10.16.31