What do you put on the cover of a fashion magazine when the fashion industry is sorting out its cultural relevance and racial justice has rolled to the forefront of an industry that has dragged its feet in making inclusivity an imperative?
InStyle settled on Zendaya as its cover star with the photographs crafted by a village of Black image-makers — from her longtime stylist Law Roach to the designers whose work she wore, such as Christopher John Rogers. British Vogue dedicated its September cover to a foldout checkerboard of global activists such as Angela Davis and Adwoa Adoba. Harper’s Bazaar featured Rihanna because, well, apparently Rihanna is a woman for all seasons.
American Vogue chose Kerry James Marshall. Specifically, a work it commissioned by the lauded African American artist. This isn’t the first time Vogue has put a painting on its cover, and the commission doesn’t absolve the magazine of its many sins — from hiring practices to unconscious biases. But the painting is captivating and it gives the mind — as well as the eye — much to consider. Marshall, 64, is a master.
Vogue also asked Jordan Casteel, a 31-year-old female Black artist, to create a cover image. Each was asked to use the word “hope” as the seed for their vision. They could paint a portrait of a real person or one taken from their imagination.
Casteel chose to paint the designer and activist Aurora James. She’s wearing a flowing blue dress from Pyer Moss and is sitting on the rooftop of her Brooklyn apartment, high above the trees and overlooking a cityscape. She is set apart and in her glory. She’s barefoot and looking slightly away from the viewer, as if she’s lost in her own thoughts.
It’s a contemplative, confident pose for a woman who’s taken decisive action within the fashion industry by founding the 15 Percent Pledge, which challenges large companies to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. Vogue is also taking James’s pledge, and beginning in 2021, will make every effort toward ensuring that at least 15 percent of its freelance contributors are Black, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour said to her staff in an email.
In some ways, Casteel’s cover feels a bit like a visual news release — an artful act of public relations. That doesn’t lessen the beauty of her work, but it does take a bit of the wind out of its punch.
Marshall’s character is a fantasy, although she is wearing a ball gown from Virgil Abloh’s brand Off-White. In Marshall’s hands, the white and gray dress’s awkward asymmetry is offset by the model’s elegantly asymmetrical pose: One hand rests on her hip while the other is raised to her heart. She looks as though she is feeling its rhythm, sensing her own vitality and drawing confidence from that.
Marshall exchanges the original dress’s neon green details at the waist for a less acidic grass green. The woman is depicted in front of a window, and outside sits a little house with a pink door surrounded by a white picket fence. The house is tiny compared to the woman in the ball gown. It’s too small to contain her. Or perhaps the perspective is simply skewed and we see the woman as outsize and more overwhelming than she really is.
Her connection to her environment is unbalanced, but the scene is nonetheless beautiful.
Mostly, this woman is Black. Marshall paints her skin, her features, her hair, in dark and complex hues. Her Blackness is potent. One can be overwhelmed by it and see only the color. Or one can get lost in its depths and become transfixed by the subtle nuances within the shadows.
As he has done before in other work, Marshall reveals the complexities and the simplicities of color in this portrait. This imaginary woman isn’t an exaggerated statement on nobility. She’s not excessively glamorous. Her kiwi green fingernails give her a touch of rebellious style. Her hair is braided and then twisted into a chignon and she wears tiny gold earrings. As the eye zooms in, more details are revealed, such as the bit of color rimming her lower lids or the perfect lines of her lips.
The magic of Marshall’s fictional woman is in how she expands the cultural conversation beyond personalities, initiatives, hiring practices and statistics. He asks viewers to look closely at her unavoidable Blackness and consider what they see. This cover beauty doesn’t tell a singular story but rather an entire culture’s history.
Correction: This story originally quoted from an email that Anna Wintour sent to Vogue staff. The quote was planned to be included in the email but was reworded before it was sent. The information in it did not change.