Black Face: Why I Surround Myself with Images of African-American/Black Beauty in Fashion

Why are 3 out of 4 magazine covers black rather than white? Ooh, I’m in the “bad” part of town. by anokarina via Flickr (license)

When I was a little girl fashion was one of many escapes from my reality.

Catalogs and magazines were the fodder on which my dreams were built. I could sit for hours upon hours looking at the same garments again and again, imagining how I would have styled them. I learned about brands, labels, designers and what would be the latest and greatest through magazine articles. Studying the drape of a dress, the hem of a skirt, or the silhouette of a blouse, I taught myself how to sketch out the outfits that lived in my head. I kept countless notebooks and sketchpads of my illustrations. I learned about the fit of a garment, the terminology, the difference between an A-line versus a full, circle skirt. Or why a sheath dressed worked better on my sister’s athletic build instead of my pear-shaped physique. I designed my own prom dress, as well as dresses for several of my friends in high school. Fashion, catalogs, magazines… these were my windows to escape my reality.

I once harbored dreams of working for a magazine, doing write ups on the next must-have it item. But somewhere along the way, I became disillusioned by magazines and publications. This happened around the time I entered undergraduate school. My disillusionment came from a lack of representation by the big names in fashion publications. I made a choice to stop reading Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and other mainstream publications for years because, as much as I dreamed of those clothes, I always felt that some how those garments were never really meant for me; and by me… I mean women like me: Black women.

I have a rather extensive collection of children’s books, but I make it a point to pick up books featuring black children. From left to right: “Henry’s Freedom Box” by Ellen Levine, “I Had A Favorite Dress” by Boni Ashburn, & “The Hello, Goodbye Window” by Norton Juster. Image taken by A. Renee W.

I grew up poor, yes, very poor. Yet, I was fortunate enough to have a mother who instilled some since of pride in me and my sister. The lesson being that as Black women, society would be harder on us than any other demographic. However, that does not mean I should be ashamed. She did not blatantly state this in so may words, but her actions showed us. During my childhood she was careful to buy Black dolls for us to play with — though if we had asked for a doll of a different race, she would not object. She bought books or read books that featured Black characters, my favorite book being Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. As we grew up, she shared her favorite Black writers, poets, and celebrities with us. We read and discussed The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison together while I was in high school. She encouraged me when I wanted to read more Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou poetry. She kept magazine publications that featured Black celebrities such as Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazine. As a result, in my adulthood, I began to keep my own collection of books for adults and children that featured Black characters, biracial characters, as well as characters of other races and ethnicities.

You would think that would have been enough for me… it is not. I understood, without ever really being told, that the need for Black publications came from a need for our faces to been seen in a world that rarely, if ever, showed people of color at all. This was the source of my disillusionment. I enjoyed reading the mainstream magazines because of how much they had to offer. The plethora of information was like a manual on how to live stylishly. The ads were just as dreamy as the products they sold. I thoroughly enjoyed these magazines, but there was always some disconnect. As much as I enjoyed reading and learning about the world of fashion, in my heart I felt as though I could never, truly, be a member of it. Finally, I asked myself, why did I need to read exclusively Afrocentric publications to see women like me being featured? Why was seeing a women of color in Vogue magazine such an exception that I would mentally applaud the editor for something that should be done anyway? Why did there need to be a divide in fashion and fashion publications at all? Could not fashion be a platform for all races and ethnicities to be featured?

I hated that divide. I still do.

Vogue Magazine — September 1924 by clotho98 via Flickr (license)

To think, if I ever want to see women like me, my best bet is to exclusively lean towards Black focused publications. This is only a small cross-section of a larger, fascinating industry. It was not, and is not fair. Nor does it make much sense for magazine publications that have existed for decades, heavily ingrained in American pop culture, to still struggle with the issue of representation. Harper’s Bazaar, known as the oldest fashion magazine, began its publication in 1867. Vogue, with all its influence, began in 1892. More than a century since their infancy. So, one is left to wonder what, exactly, is the hold up? Representation comes sparingly and unequally. The need for people of color to create and build their own platform is still a necessity in our “modern” society. That is why we have such productions as The Wiz, and channels like BET or TVOne on television.

However, for me, the damage was done. I was turned away, and for years I gave up reading magazines. Even with the temptation of an interesting headline or a face I recognized, I turned magazines away. Eventually, I turned to social media and online platforms for my information. I wanted — craved — diversity. Online I could get that in abundance. As anyone can find with a simple Google search, there is a blog, message board, website, social network, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram account for every interest, demographic, and niche out there. From caring for natural, Black hair to Lolita Cosplay among Muslims to garments made exclusively of African fabrics. There is something out there for everyone. This helped to satiate my need to see a diverse and creative world. However, I still struggled with deciding on which publications I wanted in my household.

I suppose you are asking, what did it matter if I could find what I was looking for online? It mattered to me because, while online sites provided a minority perspective, I still wanted a perspective from the larger macrosphere. To me, being well rounded means knowing about the minority and majority. I can never know it all, but I wanted to be as informed as possible. Eventually, I settled on an answer for myself.

I went back to reading and owning the larger publications. I also discovered and incorporated indie publications. Like Darling magazine and Kinfolk. However, I also decided that it was crucial that I support the need for Black women to be featured. So, as a general rule, I buy magazines that feature Black women. I like to think that in this small way, I am showing the larger publications that there is a market for magazines featuring people of color. That it is not relegated to ethnocentric publications. That if you feature a Black woman on the cover of a magazine there will, in fact, be an audience out there who will buy it. Examples of this are ,the October 2015 issue of Vogue magazine featuring Lupita N’yongo, and the latest Vogue December 2016, which will be the final issue to feature the ever lovely and elegant Michelle Obama.

1964 Beauty Ad, Raveen Hair & Scalp Conditioner, “For Lovelier Hair” via photopin (license)

However, it does not end there. My choice to buy publications featuring Black women also extends to address the issue of colorism within the Black community. Though Ebony and Essence magazines are meant for the Black audience, there can be a lack of representation there. Growing up, for years, the only Black models I saw in abundance were Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Alek Wek; of which, Alek Wek was the only deviation.We are a diverse group of women, which is the strength of our beauty. However, having long been bombarded by European standards of beauty many African-American women feel they are not acceptable unless they fit into that image. That image being: lighter, skin complexions, long, straight hair or hair of a softer, looser curl pattern, and light brown or fair colored eyes. We do not all look this way. Personally, I only fit 1 out 3 requirements. My two younger sisters do not fit any of the criteria at all.

Imagine living in a world where not only are you told by the general public that you are not beautiful enough, but, also, your own community tells you that you are not up to standard. You are unacceptable to all, beautiful to none.

Now, try holding onto what is left of your fragile confidence and self-esteem with this message being constantly repeated to you. It takes a strong will and an even stronger support system to combat this sort of defeating narrative. This was only one of many struggles.

Ebony Magazine, Spetember 2015 issue. Vogue Magazine, October 2015 issue. Image taken by A. Renee W.

So, my second rule in regards to publications in my household is to show representation of all types of Black women. One of my favorite issues of Ebony magazine was the September 2015 issue, which featured an array of Black, female models who covered a spectrum of skin tones, hair textures, and hair lengths. On the cover there is the hugely popular Chantelle Winnie (@winnieharlow), who became infamous for breaking into a harsh industry despite her skin condition of vitiligo, which has only serve to add to the depth of her natural beauty. There is was also a model I had never heard of before named Diandra Forrest (@diandraforrest. A lovely albino woman who further displays the complexity and versatility of Black women. There are of course more, but these two publications have a special place in my heart.

In these issues I saw the diversity I longed for in my youth. Images of not only Black women, but various types of Black women. When Black youth are shown these types of images, especially our girls, we help to create a community of proud, confident young people, which we desperately need.

I have made it a point to collect these sorts of publications because they serve not only to reassure myself that there is a place for me, but also because I hope to pass on the lessons my mother inadvertently taught me to my own children — should I ever have them. I want my future daughter to see that she is beautiful, and I want my future son to see the beauty in all Black women — not just a certain type of Black woman.

Furthermore, my passion for writing has been reawakened within the past few years. However, it has now evolved into something a bit more mature than just the desire to write. It is my hope to take part in what is clearly a growing movement towards more representation. I feel passionately about the need to see not only Black people, but people of all races and ethnicities regularly featured. It is my hope that, someday, this will become such a commonplace occurrence that it will no longer turn heads because of the color of the model’s skin, but because of the excellence of the clothing she or he is in.

That is my hope, and that is why I surround myself with images of Black people.

To read more of my writing in fiction, personal styling, and more visit my personal blog, Darling Afflatus.