Why the world still favours white models

Dolce & Gabbana fashion show during Milan Fashion Week Womenswear in February this year.

Dolce & Gabbana fashion show during Milan Fashion Week Womenswear in February this year. Photo: Venturelli

The fashion industry is not known for its racial inclusivity. In its entire 118-year existence, Vogue has featured just 14 people of colour on its cover. Likewise, the organisers of the 2008 edition of Brazil Fashion Week thought 28 black models out of a total of 1128 was a fair representation of racial diversity. For the record, blacks make up more than 50 per cent of that country's population.

Sure, there are some black models out there, but as the designers who informed black Victoria's Secret model Chanel Iman that they "have already found one black girl. We don't need you anymore", reveal, their presence is largely tokenistic.

No less disturbing is the fashion world's racial insensitivity. Even as it bluntly admits favouring white models because "black girls don't sell", fashion exhibits a remarkable fondness for painting white models in minstrel-style blackface makeup with alarming regularity.

Most recently, Vogue Netherlands showed off blonde model Querelle Jansen in blackface, complete with imitation Afro wig, in a feature that was supposedly intended to pay homage to black style icons Grace Jones and Josephine Baker.


This comes just two months after French magazine Numero thought that it would be a pretty good idea to photograph white teenage model Ondria Hardin, sporting deeply bronzed skin and "traditional" African clothing, in a spread tactfully titled "African Queen".

The industry maintains that it is merely giving their audience what it wants. Sadly, this is partly true. Since much fashion is aspirational, its success hinges on romanticising the idea of unattainable sophistication. And, as the fashion editor of Brazil's Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper notes, the industry clings to research that suggests "their clients still reject the combination of black [models] and luxury clothing".

To put it bluntly, non-white bodies are simply not something to aspire to.

Although often dismissed as silly and shallow, the fashion industry nonetheless acts as mirror and representation of Western society's attitudes to race. The under-representation of people of colour in fashion speaks to the implicitly accepted, but largely unacknowledged, position that whiteness is, as Salon's Kartina Richardson writes, the default position against which all other races and experiences are measured.

In other words, white people are people; everyone else is something "other". And since whiteness is associated with luxury, beauty, and aspiration more than all other races, then whiteness simply matters more.

The consequences of this "default" position is that other races are marginalised in a way that undermines their humanity. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in the mountains of essays written on the way fashion photography – on those occasions that it does actually employ people of colour – uses them as exotic background objects rather than actual human beings. 

As former model, and now sociology professor, Ashley Mears writes in her expose, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, when people of colour are included in fashion spreads and advertisements, they are overwhelmingly used in a manner which, while giving a superficial appearance of cultural and racial diversity, actually cements whiteness as the central human experience by almost always casting a white, Western woman as the main subject in the image.

The latest culprit, Sports Illustrated, shot its recent swimsuit edition in "exotic" locales on all seven continents, using the locals as little more than props.

In the desert of Namibia a white model poses with a native African man wearing loincloths and carrying spears, while in China a white model reclines on a water raft as a local "peasant" man acts as her chauffer. The locals are used not as subjects in their own right, but to place the Western model, the centrepiece of the image, in a particular location.

In Antarctica, where there are no native humans, Kate Upton pouts into the camera while penguins frolic in the background. Can you honestly imagine a scenario where white people would serve the same function as penguins?

Furthermore, such images only serve to cement a one-dimensional view of life in non-Western countries. As Salon points out, would you ever guess that "Namibia is not just one big desert?" and that both Africa and China are home to teeming mega-cities and generic shopping malls?

The ultimate consequence of this objectification of non-white bodies is the failure of the West to fully appreciate the complex humanity of people of colour. Their lives are imagined to be so different as to have little to no relevance to our own. It is for this reason that tragedies that befall Westerners have a deeper resonance – and far greater media coverage – than similar tragedies elsewhere.

Melbourne blogger Lia Incognita writes: "White people experience trauma, sins and tragedies, while everyone else's suffering is part of their natural condition." This is the difference between sympathy and empathy. I have previously written for this site that, while the West's relationship to the non-Western world is often largely sympathetic, it is also sadly lacking in empathy due to the West's difficulty in seeing itself reflected in the experiences of non-Westerners.

Consider, for example, the way in which the Asian tsunami has been referenced in the films The Impossible and Hereafter. Concerned that audiences would not relate to the locals, both films deliberately focus on white, Western tourists in order to make the story more appealing to Western viewers. So while the West felt enormous sympathy for the local tsunami victims when the tragedy struck, when it comes to actually picturing themselves in that situation, Western audiences seem to require the experience of other Westerners as their lens. 

Which brings us back to the fashion industry. As long as the West continues to accept the portrayal of people of colour as generic, interchangeable bodies (objects) with which to contrast modern, individual white models (subjects), then there can be no room for empathy; they will remain the "other".

Self-criticism is a fundamental and essential trait of any society that wishes to progress. The issue of race is a fraught one but one which the West must face head on and admit that we have not come as far as we may think from our colonial past; we only need to hold up the latest issue of virtually any fashion magazine as proof.