As elegant as she was innovative, fashion icon Eunice Johnson was at one time one of the largest collectors of couture fashion in the world, spending up to 1.5 million dollars per year on clothing. She bought not for the embellishment of her own closet, but for the over-the-top glamour that defined the legendary EBONY Fashion Fair runway shows.
For most fashion shows or photo shoots, designers would lend or rent clothing, but alas, the EBONY Fashion Fair is not most shows. The models who slinked and sashayed down those legendary catwalks were fierce feline Black girls. Mrs. Johnson generously paid for what was graciously given to others, as many designers did not want Black models touching their clothes, soiling them with their ethnicity, devaluing them with their dirty otherness.
So are we still facing this same infected thinking today? Do Black models muddy the message? Do Black bodies distract from the intended aesthetic? Do we disrupt the monomaniacal cultural imagination of mainstream designers? Of creative and casting directors? Years after Eunice Johnson's gracious entrance to the fashion party, industry vet Bethann Hardison may be ready to get gangster. “No one in power slaps these designers around,” as she was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article by Eric Wilson.
And just who is fighting the power? Maybe the slap needs to start at the top, shareholders, CEOs…perhaps it’s time for a trickledown beat down, as it were. I refuse to believe for all the intelligent, “creative” fashion professionals involved in producing a show or photo shoot, no one can see there’s something pretty primitive, flagrantly racist and culturally tacky about consistently using all-White lineups. No one is brave enough to call it out and do the work to change it? I know that challenging norms can be difficult, but this is fashion we’re talking about—an industry that’s supposed to be liberal and lead.
The fashion industry’s adoration for Michelle Obama has not disturbed it’s blatant parading of White privilege. And if really, if these designers find Whiteness to be so innovative, so hot and so expressive of their vision, Hardison tells the Times, “if you are going to be bold enough to do [that], please be bold enough to explain it.” Yes, please do tell us—and stop with the ‘agencies don’t bring us Black models narrative,’ because we aren’t buying it.
It’s time for industry folks to actually answer the ‘whys’ and particularly the ‘whats.’ Like, what do Black bodies do your clothes? If we’re ‘not the look you’re going for this season,’ which we’ve heard many times, you must be prepared to explain what is the Black look in the first place? And what is what season will you not be going for the Eastern European look? Because for real, y’all have been stuck on that block for a while. Why, really, if fashion is a community of creatives and innovators won’t your model and beauty aesthetics evolve? And if you do, really do, think Black models devalue your clothes, disturb your message, be brave, be honest and say it. And then be prepared to manage your position. The fashion industry has been it’s own ivory tower long enough, been cultural cowards long enough.
Who will have a public tête-à-tête with Bethann Hardison, with Iman? Who is going to change, for good?
Do you see how these narrow, cowardly images are what contributed to arguably one of the most famous wealthy women in the world, being refused the possibility to even touch an expensive handbag? Do you understand why a simple saleswoman did not want Oprah to handle her employer’s most precious purse? Nowhere in her limited intelligence could she even imagine a Black woman having access to such luxury. The fashion industry, the image-makers made her, made her uninformed, culturally cretinous and now, ashamed. Because not enough designers, editors and advertisers repetitiously integrate models—and senior staff—of color (a guilt laden once-a-decade “special” Black edition or a Black girl on the catwalk every other season don’t count) the fashion community suffers from some kind of image imbalance affliction.
As Hardison states in an open letter that went to designers who were guilty of putting their name on all-White shows, “Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.” The world is changing and the fashion industry must follow suit—or else. I owe a great gratitude to Eunice Johnson, for her defiant dignity is legendary, but today I’m weary of politely asking for attention, equality and diversity from the mainstream fashion industry. Today, I’m ready to roll with Iman and Bethann, I’m ready to get gangster.
—Michaela Angela Davis