After a turbulent spring and summer, the 2020 September issues of American Vogue addressed its long-rumored race problem by treating fashion lovers to a celebration of Black lives and creativity. Cover artwork was commissioned from acclaimed painters Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel; whose portrait of 15 Percent Pledge founder Aurora James gave a nod to her groundbreaking effort to improve inclusion in retail. The departure from fashion’s norms was meant to evoke the theme of “hope” that all of the global Vogue imprints were tasked with interpreting during the season, one we hoped would indeed usher in significant, systemic change. A year later, history (and January 6) would prove that while change is inevitable, things would get far worse before they got better.
In fact, are they better?
I think most of us can agree that in spite of some major historic triumphs and countless promises—including those made by Condé Nast Artistic Director and longtime Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour—not enough has changed since 2020. Nevertheless, the cover of this year’s September issue of Vogue looks a little different. Taking a tack that on its face some might dismiss as “all lives matter,” Vogue.com Contributor Maya Singer posits the bifold cover featuring a diverse and fresh-faced group of models gleefully laughing and applauding “collectively [represents] what you might call American beauty now.”
Of the eight models featured, half are white—with model Ariel Nicholson also identifying as trans (a first for an American Vogue cover), supermodel Bella Hadid also identifying as Palestinian (due to father Mohamed Hadid), and Lola Leon, daughter of Madonna, identifying as Latina due to her father’s Cuban heritage. For perhaps the first time, American Vogue also hosts two Asian women on its cover, with model Yumi Nu being the first plus-sized Asian model to be featured.
And then, there are two of our perennial faves here at The Root—both of whom are unambiguously Black. Anok Yai, whose stratospheric career memorably started at Howard University’s Homecoming in 2017, makes the cover’s front fold along with Hadid, Kaia Gerber and Precious Lee, whose steadily rising profile has long since eclipsed the ironically narrow margins of the plus modeling world.
“I always knew I’d be on the cover of the September issue. I won’t say I never doubted it would happen, but on a deeper level, I just knew,” says Lee, who actually starred on another September cover of Vogue last year—as one of Vogue Italia’s 100 diverse beauties. “I’ve manifested this much by believing in myself and standing my ground about who I am—no compromises,” the Atlanta native later adds.
“The barricades have fallen. Welcome to the new world,” crows writer Singer, though, when we consider what it has taken to get here—a decades-long fight for civil and human rights and equality, including an often controversial body positivity movement, ongoing battles over trans rights, and recent movements for both Black and Asian lives—it’s a difficult milestone to celebrate, even as the cover seeks to evoke exactly that emotion.
It’s a point Singer herself somewhat concedes, writing: “It is tempting to pan across the faces on these pages and see the shattering of beauty norms: There’s no dominant type, no singular standard for readers to measure themselves against,” she writes. “For far too long, that standard was bone-thin, painfully young, cisgender, and, by an overwhelming margin, white.”
Despite Vogue’s valiant effort at representation, the standard arguably still is. In the context of an ongoing quest for not only representation, but the type of respect that leads to true equality, even Singer admits “None of that will change as a result of a Vogue cover. Nor will racism disappear, or the 100-plus anti-transgender bills that have been introduced across the country this year be set ablaze by their sponsors.”
As model Nicholson further notes, “There are limits to what ‘representation’ can do,” So without profound systemic change, why should we care?
The obvious argument here is that star quality doesn’t have a look, and that, as slow as progress may seem, representation does matter. At least, that’s the message Lee is standing behind.
“Maybe some people think this is a trend, and everything’s going to go back to ‘normal’ soon,” she tells Vogue. “Sure. But good luck telling us to shut up. Why would we?”