The 126-Year-Old White Gaze of Vogue

It’s no breaking news that Vogue, controversially considered the world’s ultimate fashion bible, will finally have a cover shot by a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year-old existence. The magazine’s iconic September issue, the most esteemed and awaited of the year for which even a documentary film was released, has been “lent” to Beyonce this year. She apparently has free reign over the creative production in exchange for her presence on the cover, and has picked the African American photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot it.

Trevor Noah’s reaction to the news is my favorite, because it’s both celebratory and uncomfortable, like good alcohol – “Finally a good headline with the words “black person” and “shoot” in it! This is dope!”

What is undoubtedly a cause for excitement is also a prime opportunity to examine the historically dominant whiteness of media outlets that control the circulation of images and perceptions of global trends. Who are the major puppeteers of what’s deemed “hot or not” and why are their channel-flip-fast trends so colorful yet their playing fields so colorless? Why does it take a black person, whose extreme levels of fame and global influence almost elevate her above conventional race hierarchies, being given the opportunity to temporarily control a historically white space, in order for young black, talented creatives to break out in the absolute upper echelons of their industry? One could argue that the Vogue cover, normally coordinated by the steely hands of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is typically reserved for highly established photographers. But why are no black photographers considered highly established, or plainly speaking, good enough? The deeper issue is that creative industries of fashion and other arts continue to be white dominated arenas where we have to constantly be questioning whether white people and people of color are being given equal opportunities and advantages.

It all boils down to: representation matters. The truth is I could’ve tweeted about this news but I chose to write this piece instead because even now, not enough people get it to take action.

So I’ll break it down here. Why does it matter so much to have a black photographer shooting the cover of Vogue?

A photograph, although static, still serves as a medium of narrative. Images tell stories and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about Instagram and how our timelines make us feel everyday. We wouldn’t pin ourselves to screens – TVs, laptops, iPhones, magazines. Our generation has simply never been more visually generated and motivated, and the effects of this reality can’t be judged with accuracy either, because we are the first generation to live this way.

A photograph on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world has the power to influence millions of people worldwide. This means its narrative is scarily pervasive around the globe. Rihanna’s recent Vogue cover, the one with her skinny drawn-on eyebrows, has thrown the world into a tizzy, questioning the entire culture of eyebrows, and spawning think pieces on the evolution of eyebrow styling and its impact on style and beauty perceptions. See what I mean by scary influence?

When we analyze the narrative of an image, we look at several factors: what/who is in the photograph, why are they there, how are they positioned and placed, and who put them there. The creator of the image is important because in their creation, we are seeing through their eyes. The image is a product of its creator’s specific bias and perspective. If the holy grail of fashion produces images that are always shown through a white lens, then we always experience a white narrative. The positioners and placers, the narrators of high fashion, are white, so our views of style morph into constantly examining high fashion through a white lens. And this, today, is simply unacceptable. No one should have to be writing a think piece about why style, image and creativity are produced equally well and thought-provokingly by all races and cultures, and that displaying their diversity not only matters, but just signifies common sense.

Tyler Mitchell is a 2017 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He grew up in Atlanta, becoming a photographer in his teens, taking pictures of fashion and youth culture, particularly surrounding the local skateboarding scene. In 2015, he self-published a book, El Paquete, containing photographs of skateboarding youth, architecture and fashion in Havana, Cuba.

He has come to be featured in several prolific media outlets such as Complex, i-D, Teen Vogue and Lomography. His cover for Teen Vogue featured gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin, wearing all-black in perhaps a nod to the outfit of historic freedom fighters, the Black Panthers, with the hashtag #NEVERAGAIN.

“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell stated in a New York Times profile last year. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”

 

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Tyler Mitchell, 2 Men (2016). Photo courtesy of the Aperture Foundation.

Mitchell’s work is currently on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16), in the show “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now”. His vivid portraits, showcasing a refreshing tenderness, introspection and hope, of young black men, are partly inspired by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, and serve as a response to Mitchell’s own coming-of-age struggles as a young African American.


“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”

Looking at Mitchell’s work, it seems fitting why Beyonce chose him. Although a weak song, Beyonce’s music video for “Apes**t” with husband Jay-Z also employs image as narrative in a powerful way. The couple often stand in statuesque poses in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum, what is known as a historically white space. The most famous artworks displayed at the Louvre are almost always white images and thus, white narratives, with occasional displays of people of color either as slaves, servants or savages, or depicted through a completely orientalist lens. In the video, Beyonce and Jay-Z literally place black bodies amongst the white marble floors and statues of the Louvre to assert black presence and excellence into the artistic narrative of the space they’re in. A row of black women dance in front of the painting of the coronation of Napoleon, one of history’s biggest colonizers, while Beyonce sings “I can’t believe we made it”. Jay-Z raps his verse in front of the painting “The Raft of Medusa” which depicts survivors spotting their rescue after their boat suffers from a fatal crash; the comparative slave boat narrative becomes apparent. An image of a painting where a white woman hugs a white man with a stab wound, is recreated with a black man and woman, and the stab wound morphs into a symbol of police brutality. This is emphasized further by an image of black men kneeling outside the museum, literally “taking a knee” in reference to NFL football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at their games to protest racism and police brutality. Even the censored title becomes a symbol of erasing black presence and excellence out of global artistic, social and political narratives for centuries. And plenty more metaphors abound, too many to recount in full here.

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What this video and the upcoming Vogue issue can remind us of is that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to diversifying the arts and its various narratives. As a society that is increasingly interconnected through media and its distribution of the arts, we need to do better when it comes to being aware of what we’re consuming and producing, and through what particular shade of lens.

 

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell

Why Write About Fashion?

This article marks the introduction of a new Postscript column called Style Odyssey which will feature critical and creative discourse on various aspects of fashion as an art, concept and industry.

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Fashion, what art thou?
Capitalist frivolity! Useless pandering to the senses!
Aesthetic masturbation! Narcissistic fantasy!
Fashion, thou Art
A mirror, perhaps. A tale to tell.

Humans, in some way, are just trying to tell a story. Life itself is a kind of narrative we are constantly trying to shape, regardless of whether we succeed in controlling it. When I wear a leather jacket, I am shrugging on not just a piece of clothing but a swatch of some identity. When I wear a band t-shirt, I am moulding the malleable clay of my personal narrative and how it occupies public space, how the performance of “me” and my “self” projects to the public eye. “Clothes contain memories and reflect our personality. As we all have and wear clothes, they can act as a vehicle to talk about our lives” states an article on Google Arts & Culture. Even a decision to “not care” becomes a stylistic choice, immediately reflecting a mood, a statement, a lackadaisical attitude, even a kind of passivity towards this “materialistic” shaping of personal narrative.

In that sense, clothing and fashion are performative. If the body is a canvas, then clothes are our painterly tools and fashion is an artistic medium. If the body is an empty stage, then clothes are our props and staging, and fashion is a theatrical production.

Not only does our clothing perform our identities but it can also act as a personal political platform. This idea is echoed in a Google Arts & Culture piece on the importance of fashion: “Fashion has the ability to change and shape lives through its personal connection to us all…it is this intrinsically human relationship between us and our fashion that makes it political. Whether you are wearing a knitted pink pussy hat on a march, wearing an item of dress that expresses your beliefs, or using your business to improve working conditions, fashion can play a significant role in articulating your beliefs.”

To expand on the notion of fashion’s performativity, one could make this analogy: just as a rich literary text is complex with influences, references and implicit quoting of other ideas and writers, so is fashion a kind of visual text that incorporates various political, cultural, artistic and personal ideas. People often regard fashion blogs as sites of narcissistic frivolity but it is precisely these blogs that can act as archival documents of style as narrative.

For example, an English blogger can break down her outfit as such: necklace and earrings from local handicrafts seller in Jaipur, India; white tee from H&M; leather belt from local thrift store; blue jeans from Levi’s; oriental-looking bangle from Forever 21 (actually made in India and costlier than her necklace and earrings); and boots from Topshop. Brands such as Topshop and Levi’s, firstly, are an indicator of the blogger’s fairly upper-middle class. From her accessories, we can tell she clearly has an interest, whether informed or not, in Indian aesthetics and jewelry, showing some kind of contact with this culture. But what is interesting is the Forever 21 bangle. Such a bangle comes from the same origin as the woman’s necklace and earrings, but by the nature of getting labelled with this American brand, its price is higher and its accessibility more limited to a higher, international class of people. It also reflects a mainstream fascination with Indian aesthetics as a trend because a brand such as Forever 21 is extremely aware of market trends and what is considered “cool” and produces items accordingly in response —- indeed, such a bangle would be found in all sorts of such American brand-name stores during Coachella season, a music festival that is now a hotbed for culturally appropriative aesthetics and fashion. And this is all just one example of a single outfit emitting both a personal and a larger-scale social narrative and commentary.

In another example, the rich body of work by late designer Alexander Mcqueen also contains nested eggs of influence, inspiration and adaptation, A profile on him in The New Yorker describes how his clothing carried with it the residues of consuming both high and low culture, and reflected the designer’s affinity for Flemish masters, Gospel singing, Elizabethan theatre and its cross-dressing heroines (a line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was tattooed on his right biceps), contemporary performance art, punk, Surrealism, Japan, the ancient Yoruba, and fin-de-siècle aestheticism. From this, we can infer that fashion is also a site for appropriation in various ways —- whether these are problematic, successful or just plain fascinating and innovative is a separate topic to explore altogether, but again conveys the complexity of fashion as a medium.

But not only does fashion reflect a narrative, it can also be used as an instrument of narrative. If the body is a blank sheet, then clothing is the pen and ink, and fashion becomes literature. For example, in 1992, Alexander McQueen presented a master’s-degree collection entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” (At Givenchy, he based a collection on the character of a “mad scientist who cut all these women up and mixed them all back together.”) There is a lot of sympathy for the Devil in McQueen’s work; his clothing collections become chapters and chapbooks on violent power dynamics, on the nuances of relationships between predator and prey, on the nature of consumption and evil. He tells his own story about another story and how that has filtered into his personal story and creates an entirely new story out of this whole process.

Aside from being both artistic, personal and political, fashion is also an important site for expressing emotionality. In the same profile on McQueen, writer Judith Thurman states:

“Therapists who treat children often use dolls’ play as a tool for eliciting their stories and feelings, and one has the sense that the dolls’ play of fashion was such a tool for McQueen…his work was a form of confessional poetry.” Clothing was the ground on which McQueen could lay bare his feelings on the genocide in which his Scottish ancestors were killed, for instance. He could let it rip, both literally and figuratively, all the darkness stewing within him.

Why is fashion as emotional expression important? Well, simply because feelings are important. As humans, however rational and logical we’d like to be, we are too often governed by our emotions. The way our feelings manifest into the narrative we create with our clothing remains a key factor in how we relate to each other, how we forge snap judgements and choose to develop these further into some kind of relationship. Many were drawn to the darkness in McQueen’s clothing, for example, because they could relate it to their own struggle, their own conflicts between internal predator and prey, and they adopted the narrative McQueen created with his darkness into their own personal sartorial stories.

We must not forget that fashion is also a business — a significant thread in the gigantic tapestry of capitalism and commercialism. Google Arts & Culture states that “globally, the fashion industry is valued at $3 trillion. It’s the second biggest worldwide economic activity for intensity of trade  — employing over 57 million workers in developing countries, 80 percent of whom are women.” It’s no secret that fashion as an industry is exploitative — horror stories on sweatshops are just one example — and often breeds immensely misogynist, unhealthy and toxic standards and ideals for the human body, particularly for women. In that sense, writing about fashion also becomes an avenue for talking about important strands of feminism, sexism, eating disorders, capitalist ventures, third world exploitation and much more. Each of these could elicit an entirely different article altogether but combined, they illustrate the immense social power that the fashion industry exerts and exercises upon our global consciousness. Writing about them becomes a no-brainer then as a first step towards increasing awareness and combating such issues.

Despite its faults however, one of the things fashion can do is spread an idea around very powerfully and coherently, and then arguably most importantly, make it cool. One example of this is Professor Helen Storey MBE and chemistry Professor Tony Ryan’s project Catalytic Clothing, which explored how textiles can be used as a catalytic surface to purify air. They designed and created the catalytic dress ‘Herself’, which is impregnated with a photocatalyst that uses light to break down air-borne pollution into harmless chemicals. In that sense, fashion becomes both an instrument of awareness and resistance against climate issues. Because fashion is an artistic medium of storytelling, more visually engaging than a research paper or dry documentary for instance, it becomes a powerful platform for inciting and realising social change. And because fashion is so often predicated on what is trendy, on how best we can both fit in and stand out within the public style narrative, the social issue at hand too becomes the latest trend to rock and indirectly, sows the seeds of a positive movement.

An article on Bullett Media aptly states that we don’t yet have much in the way of a popular critical discourse on fashion. This is true: discourse on fashion is very much a dichotomy with serious, staid research on one end and fluffy blog pieces on the other. It’s about time we integrate fashion into our elitist tradition of cultural criticism (and, hopefully, actually, dilute that elitism somewhat.) That is why precisely we are starting this Style Odyssey column.

Bullett Media also neatly weaves together the various complexities of the concept of fashion in this statement: “Fashion can be art. It is psychology, sociology, history, identity (religion, sexuality, gender), politics, and commerce. It is the material of the everyday and a vehicle for profound human performance; shelter and superfluity.”  We are not too smart for thinking about fashion, for thinking it is child’s play, for thinking it’s as simple as throwing on a T-shirt before heading to the metro in the morning, That one T-shirt has a narrative, a history rooted in travel, cultural appropriation, capitalism, exploitation, and as you pull it out of your closet onto the blankness of your body, it melts into your own narrative and becomes a megaphone for who you are and who you could be.

 

Photograph from Vogue USA’s September 2007 issue, shot by Mario Testino, styled by Grace Coddington.