On Monday, the New York Times published an article discussing Brazil’s model export business. Brazil seems to churn out tons of successful models, girls with the right mix of height, lanky limbs, long hair, light eyes and tan skin. The secret, according to model scouts interviewed in the article, is the right mix of German, Italian and Russian or Slavic genes. The problem is, this mix does not represent greater Brazil.
The article admits that the debate over the composition of Brazil’s population is confusing; the country is populated with people from many different nationalities. But the nation-wide search (with particular focus in Rio Grande do Sul, which seems to have a high percentage of girls with these desirable traits) reflects the state of race in the fashion industry as a whole.
For several years, the fashion industry has been accused of white washing its runways. Only a handful of non-white models regularly walk the shows, and prominent designers (Prada, Armani, Jil Sander, to name a few)have cited aesthetic vision as the reason behind the homogeneity. Since the trend for models today is to be more coat hangers for clothes than anything else – such as the supermodels of the 90s, who were known for personality as well as looks – then, the designers rationalize, it makes sense of walk a bevy of identical models in order to keep the focus on the clothes.
From a purely aesthetic point, this argument is flawed. Darker-skinned models wear pale and bright colors beautifully – the contrast pops against their skin, whereas lighter-skinned models can look either washed out or overwhelmed by the clothes. (As an extremely pale person – I practically glow in the dark – I know that certain pastels and all shades of beige look chalky and just ugly against my pigment-less skin.) Plus, showing identical models is just boring. But aesthetics aren’t the only problem.
The fashion industry has tried to make runways and editorial spreads more diverse. The July 2008 issue of Vogue Italia featured only Black models, and it was so successful it was reprinted – which doesn’t usually happen. American Vogue and other fashion magazines seemed to be making an effort to feature more Black/Indian/Asian/Hispanic models, but the same handful of models are appearing over and over again. There is an unofficial cap on the number of non-white models that can be successful enough to walk the runways and appear in magazines, meaning that many tall, thin, beautiful girls are stuck waiting for a spot to open up.
The current look for models is doll-like, with big eyes and pale skin. It is not particularly inclusive. Every so often, a magazine or designer will champion a non-white model as the next big thing (see the June issue of Vogue, which features a model whose parents hail from Puerto Rico and St. Thomas), but it is still the same coterie of established white models that land the major editorial spreads.
Things have started moving in the fashion world, but it seems more effort is needed. I’ll stop for now – I wrote my Master’s project on how the editorial content of American Vogue and Vogue Paris represents each country’s social identity, culture and politics, and could thus blather on endlessly on this topic (so apologies in advance) – but not for good. Race is played with constantly in fashion (how about the blackface editorial in the October 2009 issue of Vogue Paris?). There is a difference between artistic/aesthetic vision and bland uniformity.