Despite the fact that we spend nearly $20 billion a year on clothes, in both editorial layouts and on runways, black women have long been treated like the red headed stepchild of the fashion industry. A 2008 article in the UK paper The Independent blew the lid off of the level of racism and discrimination that has continued to permeate the global fashion industry, even as the rest of the world begins to embrace a more multicultural future. According to its findings, a typical 362-page issue of Marie Claire had eight total photos of black women in it while a 312-page issue of Glamour had four. The New York Times recently exposed the practice of numerous modeling agencies and scouts to exclusively recruit new models from the parts of Brazil with the whitest ethnic makeup.
The lack of black models used for both fashion campaigns, advertisements and runway shows is such a widely acknowledged, and unfortunately accepted reality, that even those black models who have “made it,” so to speak, have spoken out about the issue. Among them are supermodel Naomi Campbell and former model and agent Bethann Hardison, who spearheaded a series of roundtable discussions on the lack of diversity in fashion here in the industry’s capital of Manhattan. But perhaps the greatest acknowledgment that there is a problem came in 2008, when Italian Vogue published an all black issue; an issue that would not have been necessary if many of the models featured were working regularly in any of Vogue’s other incarnations. (For the record, the special issue sold out around the world. So clearly there was an audience for it.)
So when it was announced that actress Halle Berry had snagged the coveted cover of the September 2010 issue of Vogue magazine, I was not the only one who erupted with glee. I traded e-mails and Twitter messages with ecstatic friends who, like myself, all vowed to buy multiple copies. The reason? Because the September issue is the most financially important of any fashion magazine and women of color almost never appear on it. In fact, Berry was the first woman of color to do so in twenty years. She acknowledged the significance of the cover by explaining that while she has turned down recent interview requests, she agreed to Vogue’s because:
“What that means for a woman of color and what that means in the fashion world, what that means to pop culture, there was no way I could say, ‘No, I’m not going to be on the biggest issue of the year.’”