British Vogue’s attempt at Revolutionary Representation On January 13th, 2022, British Vogue released a historic February 2022 cover photo. The composition showcased nine dark skin supermodels dressed head to toe in black designer suits. They sit in front of a neutral background on a Tiffany blue bench; Vogue superimposed in large typeface. This photo is the first of a series shot by Afro-Brazilian photographer Rafael Pavarotti and styled by British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful. This project was created in an effort to celebrate the contributions of African models to the high fashion and modeling industry.
After its release on Instagram, Vogue described the shoot with words like “momentous,” “iconic,” and “world-shifting.” In a recent interview, stylist and editor-in-chief Edward Enninful stated that these women “are redefining what it is to be a fashion model.” In some ways, he is correct. These nine women have headlined some for some of the most exclusive high fashion brands. Most recently, top models like Adut Akech Bior closed for Saint Laurent’s Paris show, and Anok Yai was the first Sudanese woman to open for Prada. But for a photo that is getting such buzz, what about this image makes it so revolutionary?
In some ways, one has to recognize the positive aspects of a cover like this. Model Adut Akech stated that this cover represented some of the significant strides black women are making in the industry. “My message for any little black girl reading this – remain in your essence, never conform, and don’t dare shrink yourself.” A moving remark from a model that has truly overcome incredible odds in the fashion world, one can see how an all-black cover is an important step towards diversifying the industry. Other celebrities and members of the fashion industry also praised the image for its beauty and significance. But despite the admiration, the public response to this shoot reveals a more complicated story.
The first issue with this cover photo was the lighting composition. At first glance, the muted tones and dark clothing make the bright blue bench and boldface “Vogue” more pronounced than the models themselves. On a cover meant to highlight the black women in the industry, the poor lighting washed everyone out, making each silhouette indistinguishable from the other.
Hair choices were another hot button issue. Vogue placed these models in strangely stiff wigs ranging from updos to lace presses. For an issue meant to celebrate African beauty, people were disappointed natural hair wasn’t a prominent feature of the photo. In defense of the stylistic and hair choices, artists spoke about how 1960s civil rights styles inspired the hair as an ode to “unapologetic blackness.” But these hair choices didn’t reflect the models’ backgrounds that Vogue so ardently commented on.
However, most controversial of all was the role of skin darkening in these images. Many remarked that the editing made the models look “cold” and “alien.” British Vogue emphasized in many following articles that it was important to showcase the variation of both “blackness” and “African-ness.” But the stylistic vision and photo editing choices made these women look less like models and more like mannequins.
On a cover meant to be so influential, these issues of editing, styling, and aesthetics become more significant issues of diversity and representation. Media moguls like Vogue have shaped public perception of trends, fashion, and larger ideas of beauty since its founding in the late 1800s. Most if not all of these ideals have been exclusionary to black women and black beauty. So when a cover like this drops in 2022, I wonder why British Vogue is trying to create revolutionary representation for African models. As a company that has historically prioritized a eurocentric gaze since its inception, why do these institutions try to create images that speak to black women and black beauty?
For one, the fashion industry has been notoriously slow to recognize the importance of diversity. A painful look into colonial history reveals the ways that black beauty has been systematically and purposefully devalued through white supremacy. But in the past few years, Vogue has tried to highlight more BIPOC creators. The appointment of Edward Enninful to editor-in-chief of British Vogue was a step in the right direction. But covers like this don’t erase the legacy of racist beauty standards that the fashion industry has solidified over the past centuries. A recent New York Times article about the editor and chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, exposed the racist and exclusionary tendencies of the high fashion industry. In his memoir, the recently departed André Leon Talley stated, “Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad. She’s part of an environment of colonialism”. I find it particularly odd that the magazine of arguably the largest colonial empire is now deciding to highlight African and black beauty. Issues like these make me even more skeptical of the revolutionary quality of images produced through these institutions.
Vogue’s history of tokenism is also a significant issue with this shoot. In article after article, British Vogue emphasized the African ethnicity of each model. “Awash with dark-skinned models whose African heritage stretched from Senegal to Rwanda to South Sudan to Nigeria to Ethiopia.” While I believe it is essential to celebrate the ethnic backgrounds of high fashion models, this kind of hyper-visibility was odd in the context of this photoshoot. In questions about the styling of the photo, Edward Enninful stated that he wanted this cover to represent his interpretations of African elegance and “highlight their natural beauty.” He specifically emphasized wanting to stay away from tribal imagery and preconceived notions of the African experience. But while his team tried to avoid stereotypes, they reduced the definition of elegance to what? A Prada suit and a blowout? This issue is heightened by the role of skin darkening in these images. An emphasis on “African beauty” paired with these models’ digitally altered skin tone quite literally created a singular idea of “African elegance.”
But a much larger issue with this cover photo is the emphasis on its “revolutionary representation.” In a comment on the issue, casting director Katherine Mateo commented on the state of diversity in the industry. “For many years, we have been stuck on what society has trained us to believe is the ‘perfect’ skin color, size, age, height. But the fact of the matter is people want to see the world that reflects their reality.” Despite being black, all of these models are still tall, thin, and young. So in what ways do nine black models with digitally altered skin tones, expensive designer suits, and stiff wigs represent a “reality” that black and African women live in today? Tone-deaf comments like these reveal precisely what is wrong with British Vogue, the fashion industry, and greater society. The emphasis on body image and age in the fashion industry is a Eurocentric tradition that has been upheld for decades. This series does little to challenge the preconceived ideas of beauty in the world we live in today.
As diversity in fashion is becoming more important, media conglomerates will attempt to create their own ideas of Blackness and African-ness. But there is no form of representation more accurate, more authentic, and more important than the images that black women themselves create.