Steven Meisel's brand new cover story for Vogue Italia is already drawing the ire of some commentators for showcasing racist stereotypes. Called "Haute Mess" and extensively hyped online — the magazine blogged behind-the-scenes teaser GIFs and sneak peeks to build anticipation — the Internet now seems primed to do what it does best, next perhaps to watching cat videos: discuss at length whether or not something is racist.
The story certainly trades in ethnic stereotypes. The font is based on graffiti. The Sharpie brows and heavy lip-liner bespeak a chola influence. The detailed acrylic nail art says "ghetto fabulous." Oh, dear: a high-end magazine in an industry not known for great ethnic diversity in the imagery it creates is using low-income women of color and the fashion trends they set as inspiration for an editorial spread. Is there any wonder this feels condescending?
In fact, should there be any doubt about the specific inspiration for the styling, nail design, and — most notably — the hair styles on display in "Haute Mess"...
Look familiar? This is an image from a gallery of "Ghetto-Fabulous Edible Hairdos" that's been making the rounds since 2011. They didn't even change it from Skittles to M&M's.
Another hairstyle copied almost exactly from the "Ghetto-Fabulous Edible Hairdos" round-up is the green-and-red basket-woven 'do modeled here by Lindsey Wixson.
This is the original. You can see clearly in behind-the-scene photos from the shoot that Wixson's version even copies the easter eggs. These have to be the source photos.
Vibe says the spread "can be argued" to be racist, noting the editorial has an odd motif of pregnancy — one model is depicted as pregnant, and several pose doing things like changing babies (that are actually dolls), and grocery-shopping with their babies in tow. It wouldn't be the first time low-income women of color were associated in the media with teen pregnancy and single motherhood. Vibe further points out
the hair styles of the models can be seen at almost every black hair show. It is very clear that the theme of the shoot was "ghetto", "ghetto fabulous" to be exact. However, in trying to achieve fabulous, it wandered in to ignorance.
Vogue Italia and Meisel are known for pushing edgy concepts: covers have taken inspiration from the Amish, rich women for whom plastic surgery is sport, starlets who go to rehab, stalkerish paparazzi, and even the cult sci-fi show The Tribe. But there are different structural issues at play when a magazine associated with high fashion takes a culture that is not traditionally associated with its audience and makes it the object of parody. Socialites who use a bit too much botox may be offended by Meisel casting his gimlet eye on cosmetic surgery, but that set — its vast monetary wealth, its cultural capital, its predilection for designer goods — is still fundamentally embraced and served by Vogue Italia. This looks awfully like Vogue Italia making fun of people who are already marginalized.
Says one commenter on the Fashion Spot, where the "Is it racist?" discussion is in full swing,
"Dressing people up in a cavalcade of tackiness and having them stand around a diner... am I supposed to be impressed by the team sticking on false nails and using four shades of eyeshadow on a bunch of models? There are people who actually put their heart and soul into dressing like this, and this flat pastiche doesn't really say much in comparison. I see none of the wit that was present in stories such as the plastic surgery one."
There's a wig made of dollar bills...
And here's a wig made of dollar bills.
Vogue Italia has perhaps made more gestures at inclusivity than many other similar magazines. It has invested in an entire web channel, Vogue Black, and supports numerous black fashion writers and stylists. Editor Franca Sozzani and Meisel also put together the famous "All Black" issue of July, 2008, to underscore fashion's failure to embrace black and white models on an equal basis. And this very issue has a black model on the cover — Joan Smalls, who also features in the editorial.
Of course, this issue is also the first in four years — since the "All Black" issue, in fact — to have a black cover model.