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Repeat Offender: The Fashion Industry’s Continuous Use of Blackface

BY MONICA VEGA

The fashion industry can be described as innovative, dynamic, and as a field for self-expression. More so, however, the fashion industry has always been prone to controversy. In an industry where shock value is everything, it seems only logical to introduce a dose of controversy. But when you walk this line, it is easy to go from controversial to plain out offensive.In the fashion industry, this line has been crossed multiple times with the use of blackface.

Some argue that fashion is an art and artists reserve the right to artistic expression. Others argue that the use of blackface is not simply for artistic purposes but rather is a racist and offensive act that perpetuates longtime stereotypes of African-Americans.

Blackface was a theatrical make-up technique popularized in the early 19th century as a form of entertainment. It consisted of white and black entertainers painting their faces using burned bottle corks mixed with grease paint or shoe polish to give the appearance of a darker skin tone. Entertainers also usually painted their lips to make them appear thicker and wore wigs, gloves, and gaudy combinations of formal wear such as swallowtail coats, striped trousers, and top hats[1].

This costume served to exaggerate African-American appearance in a caricatured way and stereotyped them as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious and go-lucky. The performance of blackface was called minstrelsy and consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music.

It was a very popular form of entertainment in the United States, Britain, and other European countries up until World War 1. Afterwards, it died off although some people continued to make use of it in vaudeville, film, and television. [2] Today, any form of purposeful darkening of the skin can be considered blackface because of the offensive connotations associated with it. Minstrelsy shaped the white American’s views of black Americans because blacks were continuously presented as racially and socially inferior.

Knowing the history of blackface and the negative connotations associated with it, it should be logically assumed that it is simply not okay to purposely darken your skin or someone else’s. This logical assumption has not been assumed by many in the fashion industry, or rather has been largely ignored. There have been a significant amount of blackface scandals within the industry.

One of the most influential fashion magazines, Vogue, has committed crimes of blackface multiple times. In 2006, Vogue Italia published an editorial shot by Steven Klein in which a white model was made to look black by dramatically darkening her skin. This issue of Vogue Italia was further criticized for not portraying any models of color in their editorials.[3]

In 2008, possibly in response to the criticism, Vogue Italia made fashion history when it published its “Black Issue” which featured only models of color. The issue was a huge breakthrough but received some furrowed brows due to a beauty editorial featuring Chanel Iman, a black model, in which her face was painted a darker tone than the rest of her body.[4]

Once again in 2009, Vogue made headlines. This time it was due to pictures of model Lara Stone in Vogue Paris (once again shot by Steven Klein) in which her body appeared painted a much darker tone. [5]

Another publication which has been a repeat offender is the French magazine, Numéro. In 2010, the magazine published an editorial that featured model Constance Jablonski (who is fair-skinned) wearing an afro and bronzed, almost dark skin. Jablonski is pictured alongside a little boy who is African-American. The shoot was presumed to suggest a mother-son relationship between the pair. Many found this to be blatantly offensive and asked why the magazine did not just use a black model if its intention was to portray a black woman. [6]

Numéro came under scrutiny once again in 2013 when it featured an editorial titled “African Queen”. The only mistake? The model was not African. Instead, they once again used a white model and painted her skin a darker shade. [7]The title of the editorial made the appropriation of African culture very obvious.

Numéro issued an apology for the controversial shoot and assured that they were merely supporting the artistic judgment of its photographer, Sebastian Kim, whose work “insists on the melting pot and the mix of cultures, the exact opposite of any skin color based discrimination”. [8]

Designers have also come under fire for the use of blackface. In 2013, designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua, along with other Italian designers made headlines after attending a “Disco Africa” themed Halloween party dressed in blackface. In this instance, the use of blackface cannot be excused by the “right to artistic expression”.

The costume was outright offensive. Dell’Acqua’s face was painted black with white paint around the lips which made him appear almost clownish. He wore a suit with a red bowtie and white gloves, similar to the way blackface performers used to dress. Other guests at the party were also dressed in blackface along with cheetah and zebra prints, tribal designs painted on their faces, and other inappropriate costume interpretations of African culture.[9]

In a more recent blackface controversy, designer Claudio Cutugno sent his models down the runway at Milan Fashion Week 2015 with their faces painted in black glittery make-up. The Italian designer apologized for his choice of make-up saying, “I am extremely sorry if many people thought this make up would result offensive and also that I am racist, but that was not my intent. I am extremely respectful of the Afro-American culture… furthermore my inspiration was coming from a completely different idea which has nothing to do with the theme of Afro-American culture.”[10]

The insensitivity of the fashion industry to the issue of blackface is evident. After repeated use of blackface by magazines and designers, it seems that they choose to ignore the backlash that it creates. In many cases, the use of blackface seems to be used as a tool for exploiting the issue of ethnic diversity in the fashion industry.

An important question to ask in the case of the magazines that used white models and darkened their skin is, why not just use actual black models? Although not abundant, a black model is not difficult to find. The poor choices made by magazines and designers of using blackface or giving the appearance of blackface speaks to their lack of cultural sensitivity.

Furthermore, by choosing to cast white models and painting them a darker shade, the fashion industry is perpetuating the idea that dark skin is okay as long as it is accompanied by European features. The continuation of this practice gives the impression that European features are preferable and superior to those of Africans and African descendants because it is the girls with the European features that end up on the cover of the magazines. This embodies and perpetuates the same ideas from the caricatures by blackface performers in the early beginnings of minstrelsy shows.

Although their intention may not be to perpetuate negative African-American stereotypes, this is exactly what they are doing. By choosing to cast a white model instead of a black model they are cultivating the same stereotypes that blackface did in the early 1900’s.

It should be common knowledge that using or suggesting blackface is simply not okay to do. The fact that the fashion industry continues to ignore this is a testament to its lack of principles.


[1] http://www.ushistoryscene.com/1800-1850/stephenfoster/

[2] http://black-face.com/

[3] http://jezebel.com/5383411/fashion-photographer-steven-klein-has-done-blackface-before/ç≈

[4] http://www.buzzfeed.com/alexrees/15-terrible-blackface-fashion-moments#.es5Qnd6xQM

[5] http://jezebel.com/5379708/oh-no-they-didnt-french-vogue-does-blackface/

[6] http://www.styleite.com/news/numero-magazine-blackface/

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/25/numero-magazine-african-queen_n_2761374.html

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/27/numero-magazine-blackface-apology-african-queen_n_2772670.html?1361973455

[9] http://fashionbombdaily.com/2013/10/28/fashion-designer-allesandro-dellacqua-wear-blackface-african-themed-disco-africa-halloween-party/

[10] http://www.eonline.com/news/630246/models-walked-the-runway-in-glittery-blackface-for-milan-fashion-week-and-backlash-quickly-followed

Featured Image from Numéro Magazine via Buzzfeed

1 Comment on Repeat Offender: The Fashion Industry’s Continuous Use of Blackface

  1. All of these could be considered blackface except for the one where she was literally the color black and had glitter pained on. That has no correlation with Africans or African Americans

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