Sunday, 23 August 2009

Black models as 'Wild Things'

So, we all know there are myriad reasons why the fashion industry is terrible for women (and I say this as a Vogue reader who wrote 1000 words on what to wear to 2008 Christmas parties). It makes us feel bad or not being sample sized, for not having enough money to buy designer or keep up season to season. But one of the things that has really struck me over the last few years of being a fashion junkie, is that it is often blatantly racist. I'm referring to the lack of black faces in magazines but also to the way black model are exotisised and fetishised when they do grace the pages.

I was going through a pretty heavy obsession with Stefano Pilati's YSL Autumn/Winter 2008 collection when I found this quote from the man himself on black models:

“To me, it is a matter of proportions and the bodies I choose. My fit model was a black model. When I wanted to translate what I put on her, it was a disaster. It would need 13 times more work in the atelier to modify it to put on a more Caucasian anatomy. Sometimes, it’s not your choice. You can’t find “black models” that are beautiful and with the right proportions. I prefer them with lean proportions with no big hips.”

Wow. This is the current creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, a label who were among the first to regularly use black models in their catwalk shows. So we're supposed to accept this as an explanation? That black women never have both beauty and the 'right proportions'? I call bullshit. If Pilati can't make his clothes fit, that's his problem. He can't blame ALL BLACK WOMEN for his shortcomings. Models are considered to be the most beautiful of all women. If black women aren't represented in the industry, it's tantamount to saying they are not the right kind of beauty.

And if a black woman does make it into the big time as a model, she can expect to be treated pretty much as a novelty. A sexy, exotic novelty. I writing about this now because of this. What a surprise, the fashion industry's chosen black woman cavorting with animals in Africa. The spread is even called 'Wild Things', implying that Campbell is 'wild' like the animals that she's photographed with. All woman have suffered from this idea that women are close to nature and somehow more earthy and elemental than men, but black woman are constantly portrayed in this way. Photographs of black models are often far more sexual than those of their white counterparts, they are naked far more often. It seems to me that the fashion industry views black women as wild and sexual and white women as beautiful and ethereal.

It's interesting then that Naomi Campbell appeared naked on the cover of i-D magazine with Stefano Pilati last year. She hasn't shied away from calling the industry out on its prejudices saying,
“Women of colour are not a trend. That’s the bottom line. It’s a pity that people don’t always appreciate black beauty. In some instances, black models are being sidelined by major modeling agencies.” (

The pictures of her, naked and pressed up against Pilati fit in perfectly with the way that black models are sidelined. The things is, it is hard for black models, even those as famous as Campbell, to be constantly addressing issues around racism. What they say would no doubt be distorted by the media, and often the problems are so complex that they would never been given a platform to express them. They are expected to be spokeswomen where white models never are. There's certainly an argument to be made that if black models turned down these jobs, the industry would have to change. This isn't necessarily the case though, and in such a precarious and fickle industry, it would be easy for photographers and editors to simply replace models who refused shoots. Far more problematic though than Campbell appearing in this shoot, is Pilati's involvement. Does he really think that embracing a naked black women absolves him of racism?

Campaigning for representation of women of all ethnic backgrounds in magazines is important. What may be more important is ensuring that the industry does not get away with vile, racist stereotypes when they do decide to use black models.

(The quotes from Pilato and Campbell come from


  1. you shouldn't have to justify this stance by saying you're into fashion!

  2. it's not a justification, i just don't want to misrepresent myself. i wanted to convey that although i'm interested in fashion, i am critical of the industry.

  3. Oh Lydia, I need to show you the magazines I'm reading. The ones that not many people read because they actually represent black women as they should be represented; as themselves.

    Come to my house for a Dariafest and then I'll show you why I totally agree with you.

    Black women are educated too. They are just like other women; how often do you see a 'wild thing' of any other race?



    please please read that Lydia-omg, completely off topic but worthwhile

  5. I'd love to take a look at those magazines.

    I can't really think of women of another race who are portrayed in this way. They are other horrible representations of women of other races of course though. Like Japanese women often being infantilised, whilst being sexually objectified.

    The 'Wild Thing' idea certainly seems to imply that black women are not intellectual because it positions them as closer to animal than to human. Which is one of the things that really makes it so disgusting and blatantly racist.

  6. I'd love to see a gaggle of white English models in a field with the entire farmyard, covered in mud. Not sure it would happen!

  7. LYDIA; YOU ARE AWESOME. i am now following your blog