VOGUING YOUR CULTURE
Updated: May 6
Ah, ethnicity, how can you be so controversial?
Recently, the world's most commercially known fashion magazine, Vogue, got into a hot water with various covers and editorials that are deemed as whitewashing and cultural appropriation. Is there a legit problem or are we (or them) really read too much into it?
First, (well not REALLY the first time of this kind of controversy for Vogue, but whatever) was when Gigi Hadid was on the cover of Vogue Italia sporting a full blown candy colored afro and a more tanned skin. The internet was on fire and quickly bashed the Italian Vogue, asking why can't they just hire a black model. Some are pointing out that it is a double standard as most black women receive tons of shit for their real afro hair (because of the so-called beauty standard) while white women can just put an afro and it is cool.
Well, I am not black, probably I am not the best person to judge this fairly. So I reached out to my friend who is Nigerian (and fabulous), and of course i brought the receipt!
She shared her point of view which I think is important for me in order to understand this whole thing subjectively. She pointed out that it is important that the image does not mimick the afro culture in a negative light. The fact that Gigi appeared to be tanned, however, is not really appropriate and quite disturbing.
She also said an interesting point that an afro hair does not just represents black. Black is more than just afro hair and the bling. A white girl can have a somewhat frizzy hair that looks almost like an afro, especially the redheads, and black girls also like to wear straight hairs like white girls.
Problem is when you try to mimick being black, when you are not. Here in this Vogue Italia cover, the problem lies in the tanned skin Gigi appears in.
So, is there a certain degree of cultural appropriation here? Judge for yourself:
[Gigi Hadid for Vogue Italia. Shot by Steven Meisel]
Since then, Vogue still can't catch a break. Recently, American Vogue's Diversity issue featured models of various race and body types on the cover. Including body activist Ashley Graham, Iman Hamaam and Chinese model Liu Wen. Seems nice, but when you open the magazine that is where it rubs people the wrong way.
Inside, there is a spread featuring supermodel Karlie Kloss, shot by Mikael Jansson in Japan. The spread features Japanese culture heavily and Karlie is dressed to look like a Geisha complete with a kimono, posing next to a sumo wrestler and pouring a Sake. To me this spread is simply stunning. Phyllis Posnick, legendary stylist who styled the issue, definitely killed it.
However, people don't really just see that as another stunning fashion spread. But They question why do they try to make Karlie Asian? Why can't they use a Japanese model? People also quickly point out that Liu Wen, Asianmodel, gets one page spread and Iman Hamaam, who is Moroccan, also gets one page. Let's not forget also that the issue is called the diversity issue. People can't stand the irony of it.
This is not the first time Karlie Kloss is involved in a racial controversy. She aleady received alot of shit from people criticing her appearance on Victoria's Secret fashion show wearing a native American headress on the runway. Victoria's Secret got so much heat that they had to cut the footage for the airing of the show.
However, the reaction from Japanese people in Twitter defintely sings a different tune. Japanese people on Twitter commented on how the photos look more like an hommage rather than appropriation or even racism. Some mentioned how they don't understand the backlash and criticized back those who call these photos as being racists (read the whole reactions summed up here).
Having said that, we need to see the market where this spread was made for. It is NOT a Vogue Japan fashion spread, it is for American Vogue. Asian-Americans have been a subject of countless stereotypes and generalizations (often being compared to/mistaken as Chinese or Korean). The fact that recent Hollywood films casted Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton to portray a Japanese character was insulting enough to the whole Asian-American community. This is where it becomes a problem, and one that Asian-Americans are not too pleased about.
I am not Japanese, but as an Asian, I love these images. I see it as an hommage and an appreciation in an art form. I personally love Japanese culture and I love my own Indonesian Javanese culture. If a magazine like Vogue wants to shoot Karlie in a kebaya (click here to know what a kebaya is), I for sure would applaud them and scream YAAAAAAS MAMA SLAAAAAY instead of shaming them for it. However, I am not a part of the Asian-American community.
In another world. The Arab world to be exact. A historical cover raises eyebrows. Vogue Arabia, the title's first middle-eastern branch, received another backlash when the cover star, Gigi Hadid, wears a veil and a hijab in the spread. People on social media are not happy, and boy, the heat is hotter than the Arabian sun.
Critics on social media, in which plenty of them are people of Arabic descent, criticizes her of appropriating hijab. While Hijab itself does not represent a culture, it represents Islam, a religion.
Gigi is half-Palestinian. She mentioned it in her social media account when revealing the cover. But people quick to slam her for 'being Palestinian only when it's convenient', and asking why she never speak up about Palestinian issues (it means, THAT is not enough Gigi!) Moreover, the fact that she- a priviledged rich white American girl- wears hijab like it's a hot accessory while muslim women wear it as a symbol of respect to their religious tradition, clearly does not sit well to muslim women.
[Images: Vogue Arabia/Inez and Vinoodh]
To me, Gigi's appointment is a no surprise. Because it's Vogue. She is the model of the moment. Like her or hate her, she is a social media star that apparently generates enough power for the fashion world to embrace her. A corporate star like Vogue wants to sell, especially that it is the print issue and time is tough for print media these days. So i get the business side of it.
Also, Gigi is an American girl and is famous in the west and globally. Looking at the title: Reorienting Perceptions, I guess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, the editor-in-chief, was trying to find a middle point between the middle east and the west. For those reasons, Gigi is a safe choice to be the poster girl for the magazine's first issue.
However, next time if Vogue Arabia wants to put a women with a hijab, they can call Halima Aden (Didn't she slay the CR Fashion Book? we talked about that). And hey, she is Somali-American. Somalia is a part of the Arab League so that should counts. Book her now Vogue Arabia!
It is probably to early too judge, but as for models, Vogue Arabia should give a platform to oriental beauties that we don't get to see enough. How many Arab models do we know so far?Vogue Arabia, here is a note, we need to discover the undiscovered beauty in your world in order for us to get our perceptions reoriented.
Vogue is a pioneer in so many ways when it comes to fashion publishing. They love to provoke with art and so should they. As a brand and a very much publicized magazine, they have a huge responsibility. Calling an issue a Diversity Issue, for instance, should be a platform to create a huge awareness about beauty diversity that transcends age, size and ethnicity. It should be more than just putting the IT girls on the spread. Moreover, putting a white girl for a whole spread portraying another culture might not be the best place for it.
At the end, it's all about the context. If the context is about appreciating a certain culture, and not mimicking it in a negative or stereotypical way, I am definitely down with it. Because at the end we cannot please everybody..and people are very sensitive these days..i mean, VERY sensitive.
I will still look forward to see what Vogue is going to offer next. There are many barriers that still need to be broken and as Anna Wintour herself said it, nothing is more boring than mediocrity.
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