Fashion and Race: Running (from) the Numbers Game

By Guest Contributor Minh-Ha T. Pham, originally posted at Threadbared

Thus far, I’ve read only a very small number of September issue fashion magazines: American Vogue (chock full of great or more precisely, useful, evidence for my research on the democratization of fashion), Teen Vogue, and New York Magazine. I have several others collecting dust next to my bed (including Bust, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire) – hopefully I’ll get to flip through these tomorrow on my way to Seattle.

So while I have little direct knowledge of this, it seems from the reports that two overwhelming trends emerge when we consider the September issues of the major fashion magazines: (1) an increase in advertising pages – 57% increase in Glamour and a 23% increase in Vogue - suggests the increasing strength of the national economy and (2)  that the fashion media and market is still constructed and organized in terms of middle class ideals of whiteness.

Dodai Stewart of Jezebel.com and other blogs citing Stewart are criticizing the all-important September issues for featuring only the tiniest number of black models. Here’s the breakdown of some of Stewart’s findings:

  • While Halle Berry graces the cover of Vogue, she is as Stewart points out, not a model. In fact, no black models were featured in her own photo shoot whereas white models, Lara Stone and Karlie Kloss got 12 pages and Isabeli Fontana got 8 pages.
  • Harper’s Bazaar also featured no black models in her own photo shoot. Models Karmen Pedaru and Carmen Kass each have 12 pages to themselves while Dree Hemingway and Heidi Mount have multiple pages as well.

These numbers are instructive – to a point. They clearly demonstrate the continued bias toward whiteness as a beauty ideal (for starters) in the U.S. and more broadly, Western popular imaginary. However, what these numbers don’t tell us is how many Asian or Asian American models were featured, how many Latinas, how many Chicanas? How many mixed race models? How many African American models? How many Caribbean models? And, in those magazines that were lauded for having at least one major shoot featuring a black model (Elle, Allure, and Teen Vogue), how are such inclusions enabling diversity? In other words, the difference between diversity and inclusivity are not attended to in the numbers game.

Pluralist multiculturalism has been roundly dismissed by progressive academics and activists for being an ineffective way of securing anti-racist goals. In fact, racial inclusion without diversity (e.g., real transformations in the social, cultural, and economic structures of the fashion industry, for example) actually reifies the dominance of whiteness – and along with it, elitism, heterosexism, and patriarchal notions of femininity -  by incorporating racial difference in such a way that it makes no difference.

What’s more, the focus on the number of black models in fashion magazines – as my litany of questions above is intended to illuminate – subsumes more complex questions about racial diversity within the category of “people of color” as well as among “black” models. Finally, framing race analysis within the coordinates of “black” and “white” unwittingly erase the specific issues and experiences of non-black people of color.

I’m a little embarrassed to make these points to Threadbared readers who I’m pretty sure will find them to be almost stupid-obvious. And yet, there it is. Here’s to gentle reminders then . . .