Once Again, White Is the New White

Exceptions to the rule: Liya Kebede, Iman, Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell at a
Exceptions to the rule: Liya Kebede, Iman, Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell at a "Blacks in Fashion" panel discussion in New York. (By Rob Loud -- Getty Images)
Sunday, September 30, 2007


The spring 2008 fashion shows, which ended Friday in Milan and continue this week in Paris, went off as usual, with a mob of breathless editors and retailers surging through the streets of the Italian fashion capital in search of the next new thing. The models were the typical young thoroughbreds, some of them still in their gawky teenage years and not yet at ease with the striking features that have propelled them into the spotlight.

And, as usual, models of color were an uncommon sight.

At the Jil Sander show, for example, the models were so homogeneous that they were virtual clones: overwhelmingly tall, thin, pale and with hair ranging from platinum blond to honey blond to the occasional warm brunette. There is such a runway tradition of "white preferred" at this house -- going back to when its namesake was at the helm and continuing with current designer Raf Simons -- that one wonders whether anyone at Jil Sander has noticed that brown people actually exist.

Similar whiteouts occurred on the runways of Prada and Marni in Milan and at Calvin Klein in New York. The explanation for these choices always comes down to aesthetics, which is a designer's prerogative. The models have been chosen because they fit easily into the samples. Because they have a certain look. Because they convey a single, uninterrupted message on the runway. Because they do not distract from the clothes.

The average person might find it difficult to commiserate with a 21-year-old black girl's complaint that she doesn't get to sashay in expensive clothes before an audience of dilettantes. If modeling is ultimately all about the luck of the gene pool -- the right height, the right chin, the right eyes -- how does one argue that anyone has a claim on a successful career doing it?

But sitting along the runway in Europe, surrounded by an international audience, one realizes the power the fashion industry has in shaping our vision of beauty. A single room contains the imagemakers: the designer, magazine editors, photographers and stylists whose job it is to tell you how you'll want to look in six months. They sell fantasy, romance, sex appeal and power through their glossy images. They bombard the public with information about what is mainstream and what is subversive, about what is rarefied and what is dross.

We put beauty on a pedestal as something admirable, desirable and valuable. Beauty -- unfairly or not -- has its privileges. And by defining which people are beautiful and which people are simply invisible, the fashion industry helps determine how much cultural currency someone has at his or her disposal.

This isn't the first season that black women have gone missing from the runway. Styles go in and out of favor and so do models. But ever since the demise of the supermodel in the early '90s, the fashion industry has been stubbornly unwilling to make room for more than one black model per show. Other than the occasional star -- Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede and now Chanel Iman -- black women go unrepresented.

The topic of diversity in fashion entered the conversation anew thanks to industry veteran Bethann Hardison. Just after the New York runway shows ended, she organized a town hall meeting and invited models such as Campbell, Kebede and Iman to participate, along with editors, photographers, agents and others in the industry.

Hardison, who is black, worked as a model in the 1970s. She ran her own model agency and guided the career of Tyson Beckford during his days as the iconic face of Polo Ralph Lauren menswear.

At Hardison's urging, African American designer Tracy Reese talked about the difficulty of getting model agencies to send her black women. Agents complained that some designers won't even consider black models for their shows. Editors of publications aimed at black consumers described the politics of booking models for their covers. Some black models fear being pigeonholed as too ethnic, a label that can prevent them from being featured prominently in more mainstream publications. And a lawyer dissected the difference between making an aesthetic choice, which is legal, and a biased one, which is not.

Ultimately, it's hard to know precisely where to place the blame, of which there is plenty to go around.

People seem to understand the power of Hollywood to shape opinion about America and Americans on a global stage. Italian Americans have long argued that the movie industry's relentless portrayal of them as Mafiosi promoted an inaccurate and damaging stereotype.

The NAACP demanded more positive and more diverse representations of blacks in film and on television. If every black person is portrayed as a criminal, an unwed mother, a delinquent father or a buffoon, they said, that sends the wrong message to global consumers of American culture. Even Oprah Winfrey chimed in, noting that the characters on "Friends" didn't seem to know any black people.

So what happens if women of color are not included in the conversation about beauty and femininity? What happens when those lighthearted stories about how to apply the latest shades in makeup never include examples of ebony skin? Or when the most influential designers say through their aesthetic choices that dark skin is not part of their vision? Audiences applaud and cheer the landmark diversity introduced on television by "Ugly Betty" and its fictional Mode magazine, but no one is objecting to the lack of diversity at real fashion magazines.

Some of the most enduring cultural images have come from the fashion industry. The glossy black and white pictures of wavy-haired ladies in pumps and day dresses defined the conservative and formal '50s. The pictures of Twiggy with stick-straight hair and wearing a miniskirt call to mind the '60s with their emphasis on youth and the sexual revolution. There is no better shorthand for the 1980s than the image of a woman with her hair teased high and shoulder pads bulking her up to the size of a linebacker.

Some of the most provocative statements about youth, sexuality and aging have been made in the name of fashion -- Brooke Shields in her Calvins, Dove's Real Women campaign, Benetton's multicultural advertisements. Those images endure in our memory and help us understand the world around us. And when whole groups of people are left out of the picture, our world view is equally diminished.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company