I’m not sure what to make of the French Vogue fashion shoot that features model Lara Stone—she of the pale complexion—covered in black makeup. But one thing is certain: I’m not angry. It may be that I’m just exhausted from trying to dissect the fashion industry’s tortured and puzzling relationship with race. (I’m reminded of a Viktor & Rolf fashion show from 2001 in which the models were covered in black body paint. The designers said they were inspired by “black holes.” Chalk their callousness up to an astronomy project.) Here’s an industry that recently had to be bullied and guilt-tripped into putting more black models on the runway, going through all sorts of cosmetic contortions to seemingly make a white model look black. If that doesn’t require therapy, I’m not sure what does.
But I’m going to tread carefully here and not give in to cynicism. A lot of people have used the term “blackface” to describe Stone’s appearance, but I think that over-simplifies things. Blackface implies something rudimentary and mocking. And from the images I’ve seen, there’s nothing crude or vaudevillian about photographer Steven Klein’s photographs. In pure aesthetic terms, the pictures are quite beautiful.
If the editors could have brought themselves to simply photograph a black model, the images could have been just as stunning, but they would not have been provocative. They wouldn’t have made us pause, dig through the baggage of generations of overt and covert racism and ask ourselves, what’s bothersome about these pictures now, in 2009?
Those are all good questions. But what’s aggravating is that the fashion industry hasn’t earned the right to push the envelope on matters of race. It hasn’t earned our trust. We’re disinclined to engage in a dialogue because fashion has a history of turning a deaf ear to tough talk.
I’m not advocating for more white models dipped in chocolate. But I’d love to see a fashion industry with the stature to lead a debate about why such images matter.