In this paper I delve into the complex relationship between the fashion industry and the representation of Black models on high fashion runways. I discuss how Black models are represented on the runway and how diverse runways have actually become today. The discourse around Black representation in the fashion industry is relatively new, as diversification of all industries has only become a mainstream issue in the last one hundred years. Scholars have previously discussed the commodification of Blackness in the industry and that fashion is not interested in true representation, but simply the illusion of it. Along with this illusion, fashion has taken parts of Black identity and claim it as their own, leading to discussions on appropriation versus appreciation and where to draw that line. Through my case studies, I found that although some fashion houses may self-identify as being “diverse” the industry as a whole still has a long way to go in terms of true equal representation. True representation would be measured not only in terms of how many Black models are cast in the show, but also how they are styled and how they’re represented on the runway. Although there have been case studies similar to mine, I believe that by comparing two very different fashion houses, with different histories and public images, a better image of the industry as a whole can be understood. Also, by studying these two different sectors of the fashion industry, predictions and the future of the industry can be better understood.
As a young white girl looking at fashion magazines and runways, I never had to search long to find someone who looked like me. Granted the models were older, thinner, and “more attractive” by typical beauty standards, but I could always find someone who shared my same skin tone, hair texture, color, and style, or a few similar facial features. As I grew up, I began to notice that the majority of models I saw, shared similar features and the few Black models represented were always light skinned and had Eurocentric features. While flipping through a Seventeen magazine, in the hair tutorial section, there were styles for straight, wavy, curly, and relaxed hair, but no style suggestion for natural Black hair. Did that mean that no one was supposed to have natural hair, or were we just not supposed to see it in mainstream media?
For this case study, I analyzed representation of Black women in fashion, specifically on high fashion runways. While analyzing the Chanel and Marc Jacobs Fall/Winter 2020 New York Fashion Week shows, my main questions were: what percentage of the models are Black women? How are they represented/styled? What kind of Black woman is allowed to be present at these events and represent these brands? Through my data I will explore the range of Black women in high fashion and how that spectrum has led to the fetishization of certain physical attributes. This research is important because high fashion has historically been solely a space for white models. Although there has been an increase in diversity in the fashion industry in the last few decades, the few Black models that have come onto the scene in recent years have all had the same “look”: ultra dark skin with shaved or very little hair. This one look contributes to the fetishization of Black women and we need to normalize Black women of all shades, hair types and body types in fashion and all industries.
Historically the fashion industry has been considered a space “reserved for one demographic: rich, thin, and white.” 1 What we now know as “high fashion” was developed in Europe, mostly France and Italy, explaining why people of color were left out of the industry for so long. Due to the years-long absence of people of color from the fashion world, how were Black women specifically able to break through and make their place in the industry? Is there a real, equal place for them even now, or is there still a fight to be had to make their place?
Whitewashing and the value placed on Eurocentric features has dominated the fashion industry since its inception. In “The Blacker the Berry: Gender, Skin Tone, Self Esteem, and Self-Efficacy,” Maxine Thompson and Verna Keith discuss the issue of different skin tones in connection to self-worth and other socially constructed matters. The favoring of lighter skin tones and Eurocentric features exist both within and outside of the Black community. This article emphasizes that colorism has a much greater effect on Black women because “expectations of physical attractiveness are applied more heavily to women across all cultures.”2 In our society Black men and women are raised to believe that “lightness” is necessary for good job and marriage opportunities, so when they cannot achieve that lightness it can lead to self-esteem and feelings of incompetence.3
The issue of equating skin tone to worth directly connects to the issue of whitewashing in the fashion industry. In the chapter “Is Fashion Racist?” of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, Tansy E. Hoskins discusses how fashion of the twentieth century was heavily “whitewashed” and the only bodies that were represented in mainstream high fashion were white. She also discusses the lack of representation of models of color on the runways in the 2010s and the disgusting ways that the fashion industry utilizes minorities for their own gain.4 This lack of representation in the fashion industry, except in the cases of using people of color to make white models stand out, further perpetuates the ideals of colorism and contributes to the self-esteem issues that Black women in particular face on a daily basis in our whitewashed society.
On the other end of the spectrum, the commodification of Black beauty has also been an issue in the fashion industry. Taking elements of Black culture and claiming them as your own, also known as appropriation, has become an issue for fashion designers. In Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, Susannah Walker discusses how beauty products were marketed to Black women in the 1960s and ’70s and how it became a lucrative business during the “Black is Beautiful” era. Walker explains how natural Black beauty transformed from a political statement a symbol of liberation to simply a statement of beauty.5 The beauty industry realized that there was a completely untapped market in beauty products for Black women and that gap in the market was soon filled by both Black and white business owners alike.
Maxine Leeds Craig, in her book Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, explains how Black hair and its various styles have been perceived over multiple generations and how they have come to represent different movements and social meanings. At one point, “good hair” was a means to deny racist assumptions and the condition of hair reflected not just the individual, but the entire race. The shift is clearly seen as the older generations believed that straightening one’s hair was the only proper way to present oneself and to represent the entire race. Later, the hot comb became seen as a sign of oppression to the younger generation and demonstrated how hair is more than just something that grows out of your head. Hair can be a form of resistance, such as when people in the early 1960s began to wear Afros and were seen as powerful forms of protest, even if the older generation did not approve. This was a significant component of the “Black is Beautiful” movement.6
But as the politics of Black beauty and hair specifically became more open in the beauty industry, it gave these new styles a spotlight which non-Black people took as a sign to create something trendy. Minh-Ha T. Pham outlines the ideas of “cultural appropriation” and “cultural appreciation” in the world of fashion and the ideals of beauty in “Racial Plagiarism and Fashion,” Pham offers the term “racial plagiarism” as an overarching definition for the “racial relationships and inequalities that are obscured by terms like cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, and piracy.”7 Pham defined racial plagiarism in the fashion industry as: “when a designer copies racial and indigenous styles, forms, practices, and knowledge without permission and without giving adequate (or any) attribution to the source model and community.”8 Cultural appropriation is not exclusive to the fashion industry, but it does show up very prominently and often. The industry seems to be very contradictory in that they lack representation, but then take from Black culture, when in reality it is all connected and is brought back to the idea of whitewashing and claiming everything as Eurocentric.
Elizabeth Wissinger, in This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour, grapples with the two sides of the fashion industry where a Black model either has to look Eurocentric and “white” or highly exoticized and emphasize their “otherness” to book jobs.9 The industry takes “Black is Beautiful,” but does not allow it to be used in the complete form. Their slogan instead could be “Only this type of Black is Beautiful” which does not create diversity, but instead leads to the fetishization and commodification of certain features. As more Black women have become part of the public eye, interest in Black women’s fashion has skyrocketed. But visibility does not mean that they are necessarily being praised as their white counterparts.
In “Phenomenal Woman: Michelle Obama’s Embodied Rhetoric and the Cultural Work of Fashion Biographies,” Stefanie Schäfer discusses Michelle Obama’s impact on the role of First Lady and traditional conventions of femininity.10 When former President Obama ran his first campaign in 2008, Michelle Obama fell under high scrutiny from the public, perhaps even more than her husband. But Obama was able to turn the narrative and scrutiny around and use fashion and its cultural meaning to a strong, personable First Lady persona that pushed back against harsh stereotypes of Black women. Michelle Obama was able to be a voice and vision of the “average” Black woman and did not let herself be openly criticized. She fought back and made her voice and place known.
Methods and Data
For this case study, I compared the Chanel and Marc Jacobs Fall/Winter 2020 shows from New York Fashion Week. I analyzed these two shows sides by side, comparing the number of Black models compared to total models in the show and how those Black models were styled compared to the other models. Also, taking into consideration if the models interacted with one another or were directly next to each other became an important factor in their comparison. These two shows are on opposite sides of the spectrum of the fashion industry. Chanel is a traditional, fashion house that originated in Paris in the 1800s. Marc Jacobs founded his fashion house in 1970s New York. By analyzing these two shows, a more complete view of the fashion industry of the past, present and maybe even future comes into view.
When I first watched the Chanel show I was not expecting a lot of diversity as Chanel has a reputation for lack of representation and favoring one, very specific look: white and thin. My predictions were not entirely incorrect. In the entire show there were only three, maybe four Black models. The first Black model is not seen until the tenth look. This model is fairly light skinned, but her hair is styled in a short afro. Several of the models walk together up until this point, but this first Black model walks alone, singling her even further. And then the trend continues throughout the entire show, up until the last Black model. The second Black model is not seen until look twenty-three. This model again walks alone, and her hair styled in a short afro. It seems that this is the only way that the stylist knows how or is willing to do Black hair, is to maintain its natural state. Chanel may think that this is a positive way to represent Black women, but only one small sector of representation can be just as harmful as no representation at all. The next Black model is seen in look sixty, again walking alone. This model has an ultra-dark complexion and a shaved head. This is the highly exotified and fetishized view of Black models that has become increasingly popular in the last few years. This model’s all white outfit further emphasizes her ultra-dark skin and makes her stand out as different from the rest of the models. The three Black models thus far in the show have progressively gotten darker, with the “average” Black skin-toned model being hidden in the very middle of the show.
The last models of the show are three models, one Asian, one white, and one dark-skinned, ethnically ambiguous model. It is difficult to tell if this model is in fact Black or if she is just part of an ethnic group with a darker skin complexion. Unlike all of the other Black models, she walks alongside two other models and has her hair styled the same way. This continuity between the three models makes them cohesive and connected unlike the rest of the Black models who were singled out and made a spectacle all their own. Gigi Hadid, one of the most famous models in the world is one of these three models, meaning that whoever is walking beside her will probably not matter as much, because most eyes will be on Hadid.
The Marc Jacobs show was far less traditional than the Chanel show. The show opened with dancers coming on the runway and they continued to perform throughout the entire show. The Marc Jacobs show had too many Black models to go through them one by one, which seemed to be a positive sign. Out of the eighty-nine models in the show, twenty-one of them were Black. These models had almost every hairstyle including shaved heads, cornrows, dreadlocks, and their natural hair pulled back. Not only was there diversity within the models, but there were also several Black dancers also with a variety of hairstyles.
Unlike the Chanel show, the Black models in this show did walk in groups and were not singled out or made to stand out any more than any other models. They looked cohesive with the rest of the show, which is how a show should look regardless of who the individual models are. However, the Marc Jacobs show did still have instances of ultra-dark models solely with shaved heads and perpetuating that specific look. It could be seen as less of a problem in this show since this was not the only look among the Black models in the show, but it is still a fine line to walk between representation and fetishization. This brand has also had problems in the past of cultural appropriation on their runways, such as putting white models in fake dreadlocks.
Older fashion houses such as Chanel will not give up their strongly cultivated image easily. The public is pushing for diversity, so they attempt to appease, but this lackluster effort just furthered the commodification and fetishization of Black women and Black features. Only 4.5 percent of their models were Black or had dark complexions. They might put on a show of “inclusion” by including a few Black models, all with “Black” hair, but they are not doing it to be inclusive or promote diversity as much as to save face and keep the public happy. Even fashion houses that pride themselves on diversity and make an effort to close the gap and give equal representation, such as Marc Jacobs, have a long way to go. Only 23.5 percent of their models in this show were Black, still a very low percentage. Marc Jacobs is on the right track, by including more models of color, both men and women, in their shows. This fashion house is setting the pace for how the fashion industry will grow, but the industry will never truly change unless the demand from the public cannot be ignored anymore.
In terms of the commodification of Black beauty, it seems that although there is higher representation across the fashion industry, the Black models are still being used as sort of pawns. These designers and brands are becoming more inclusive not because they thought of it themselves, but because the public demands it and they want to be represented. All of the pieces
in my literature review back up the findings from my research. Although there were not specific instances of appropriation in these two shows, I know that it is a problem in the industry as a whole and these instances are not difficult to find.
Cultural appropriation can also connect to the term of fetishization that I have brought up throughout this study. This is an issue of only favoring certain features and considering them the only way that Black beauty can or should be represented. This can be extremely harmful to the “average” Black woman who does not look that way. It also creates harmful stereotypes and furthers the ideas of “otherness” from white people. The fashion industry has a history of manipulating certain features and putting emphasis on a certain “look” and then moving to another “look” a few months later. So it is important that we stay aware and make sure that the trend of hiring Black models is more than just a trend. We need to make sure that the demand and diversity only grows.
Black public figures such as politicians, actresses, and models also set the tone for representation and who should be included in the fashion spotlight. Figures such as Michelle Obama, who at first might not seem connected to the fashion industry at all, set the tone for what is “fashionable” and accepted in society. Although they may be criticized for certain aesthetic decisions they make, it shows young Black girls that there are successful, accomplished, self possessed people out there just like them. It builds their confidence and allows them to truly embrace the term “Black is Beautiful,” even if society tells them something else is more beautiful.
This case study opens the discussion for the future of the fashion industry and if old fashion houses that are not open to true diversity will have a space in the future. But diversity is not only a problem within the modeling industry, diversity must be implemented in all sectors of the fashion industry from casting, to bookings, to design, and any other role you can think of. Once there are more Black and other people of color in charge of the big picture, diversity in every other sector will follow. The issue of cultural appropriation will continue to be a delicate subject matter in which non-people of color should not, but do continue to have a voice. Continuing to fight for equal share of the industry and spaces for everyone to voice their opinions and share their strife, will ensure a new path away from a hurtful and offensive past.
- Tansy E. Hoskins, “Is Fashion Racist?,” Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, (Pluto Press, London, 2014), 128–147.
- Maxine Thompson and Verna Keith, “The Blacker the Berry: Gender, Skin Tone, Self-Esteem, and Self-Efficacy,” Gender & Society 15, no. 3 (2001): 336-357.
- Thompson and Keith, “The Blacker the Berry.”
- Hoskins, “Is Fashion Racist?”
- Susannah Walker Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975 (University Press of Kentucky, 2007).
- Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2002).
- Minh-Ha T. Pham, “Racial Plagiarism and Fashion,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 4, no. 3 (2017): 67–80.
- Pham, “Racial Plagiarism and Fashion.”
- Elizabeth A. Wissinger, This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour (NYU Press, 2015).
- Stefanie Schäfer, “Phenomenal Woman: Michelle Obama’s Embodied Rhetoric and the Cultural Work of Fashion Biographies,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 60, no. 2/3 (2015): 235–254