This ten-page Italian Vogue editorial from February, 2006, features two Caucasian models made up to look like black women. The photographer? A certain Steven Klein.
A tipster with an enviable magazine collection pointed us to this spread, which is still viewable on the American photographer's website. (It's collected with his 2005 editorial work for the magazine.)
In addition to often exploring themes of sexual violence and power in his work, Klein has a certain habit of changing models' skin tones with makeup. In September, 2008, American Vogue printed an editorial that featured the white Brazilian model Caroline Trentini painted the color of burnt Cheetos; earlier this year, in some work for Vogue Paris, Klein had Dutch model Lara Stone posed with male models who were made up alternately in a deep tan, presumably to contrast with her very fair skin, or in matte yellow and red. This month, of course, it is Stone whom Klein photographed in blackface.
Racialicious ran a persuasive post earlier this week that argued that these kinds of images, where white women are made to appear black, actually further white privilege:
"[W]hat is on display in French Vogue...is not beautiful black bodies, but what Nirmal Puwar describes as 'the universal empty point' that white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked."
Because as long as white remains the "default" race — the ethnicity that isn't — temporarily portraying them as black doesn't prove we live in a post-racial society: it just demonstrates that white people are permitted to play with racial categories in ways that people of color are generally not.
Also, there remains the issue of real black models, and the continued discrimination they face. Jourdan Dunn recently told Teen Vogue about being turned away from a casting at the last minute because the client had simply opted not to use any black models that season; although since we started counting models of color at New York Fashion Week, the level of overall diversity has improved, it is still very much a concern. The issue of Vogue Paris that featured Klein's blackface editorial with Stone, the so-called "Supermodels" issue, had no models of color.
This issue of Italian Vogue also had zero models of color in its editorial pages. None.
The fashion world's myopia when it comes to diversity — which is the underlying problem here — is also clouding some people's reactions to the Vogue Paris spread.
"I have a hard time reading 'race' into this," says a puzzled Teri Agins, the Wall Street Journal's veteran fashion reporter.
Elizabeth Gates, in an insightful essay, compares the Paris Vogue spread to "a modern minstrel show," but says, as a black woman working in fashion, she is utterly unsurprised by Steven Klein's photography and Carine Roitfeld's editorial choices: "I would be fooling myself if I thought the draftsmen behind fashion's most beautiful things were ever going to be sensitive to race, black women, or how they represent our cultural history. In fact, I'm not exactly sure why this was a shock to anyone." Elle's Anne Slowey admits, "It's an industry filled with people who have no idea about history and politics."
Maybe it's time to start learning.
Earlier: Oh No They Didn't: French Vogue Does Blackface
Self-Reflection: A Bizarre, Macabre Short Story Brought to You By Vogue
February French Vogue: Steven Klein Model Zombies & NSFW Nan Goldin
Fashion Week Runways Were Almost A Total Whitewash
How Did New York Fashion Week's 116 Shows Treat Models Of Color?