In any field, there are markers of success, indicators that you’ve really made it big. Often, these are set by Western, predominantly white institutions whose approval becomes the highest badge of honor. In the fashion industry, this would be the recognition awarded to anyone featured in Vogue, particularly Vogue US.
Many big names have come in and out of fashion over the years, and yet Vogue, as the name implies, continues to hold an enviable position in popular culture. To be known as someone that has worked with Vogue is to be catapulted into fame. This comes with access to an influential network of creators and the availability of many professional opportunities. The role that the sheer ubiquity of Vogue’s name-recognition plays in this is not to be underestimated.
Questions about whether we should continue to hold Vogue in such high esteem, idolizing it as the ultimate platform in the fashion industry, were quickly raised in response to the #VogueChallenge. This challenge was created by Salma Noor, a Black Muslim student in early June when she posted a photo of herself on Twitter. It was edited to look like a Vogue cover with the words “Being black is not a crime” written on it:
— S Λ L M Λ 🪐 (@capricornbbyy1) June 2, 2020
This went viral on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok as people selected their favorite self-portrait and emblazoned it with the prestigious label of Vogue. It’s important to note that this momentum was mainly about showcasing Black talent and using the platform of the Vogue brand to uplift Black creatives. Nevertheless, members of other marginalized communities, such as Indigenous women in Australia, also saw the power in this hashtag that appropriated Vogue’s fame and joined in as well.
This momentum was mainly about showcasing Black talent and using the platform of the Vogue brand to uplift Black creatives.
In Noor’s words, “I chose Vogue because it’s the standard one strives to reach, and it is one of my favorite magazines.” In an interview with Vogue, she shared, “I would [also] like to see more models of different ethnicities and skin colors, [exposure for] those without a big platform.” Of course, Vogue readily embraced this good publicity. They were, after all, in severe need of it. As the Black Lives Matter movement shed light on the lack of representation of Black experiences in media, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue U.S. released a memo acknowledging that “Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black…creators.” The memo did not include any action plan to remedy this.
Vogue is a media giant whose milestones in Black representation are too recent for comfort. It was only in 2018 that Vogue published its first ever cover shot by a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, at the request of cover star Beyoncé. Just last month, Beverly Johnson wrote, “I was the first black model on the cover of Vogue. The fashion industry still isn’t fixing its racism.” Even looking back at the past week, the release of the Simone Biles cover was met with backlash as people questioned why Anne Leibovitz, a white photographer who couldn’t even light the photos properly, was hired for the shoot.
Why continue to put Vogue, a company that has historically failed Black people and other people of color, on a pedestal as the highest recognition in fashion?
This is where the criticisms of the #VogueChallenge are relevant to consider. Why continue to put Vogue, a company that has historically failed Black people and other people of color, on a pedestal as the highest recognition in fashion?
Thus, the counter-movement #ESSENCEChallenge was formed. Turning away from “seeking validation from white entities,” this was a call to support Black-owned publications such as ESSENCE magazine that have always uplifted Black creators. In one Instagram user’s #ESSENCEChallenge post, the caption included #ThisIsTheFuture, perfectly encapsulating the purpose of the challenge.
Vogue has had plenty of chances to center Black voices and has overwhelmingly failed to go beyond performative activism and allyship. As we work towards the future of non-white representation in media, our imagination can’t be constrained by the current standards of success and the big names that historically dominated their respective industries. This is clear from headlines that were trending on Twitter just this past week, with Valentina Sampaio becoming the first transgender person to model for Sports Illustrated Swimwear and Viola Davis’ cover on Vanity Fair being the first one ever shot by a Black photographer in the magazine’s history.
We should not ignore the harm perpetuated by continuing to uphold such recognitions, such validations, as the ultimate goal to strive for.
Similar to the moment when Mitchell photographed Beyoncé for the September 2018 Vogue issue, these events mark belated progress in how these magazines represent marginalized communities. Even as we celebrate the talent of the creatives involved in these issues, we should not ignore the harm perpetuated by continuing to uphold such recognitions, such validations, as the ultimate goal to strive for. Nor should we entrust institutions that have consistently failed non-white communities with the task of uplifting them, especially when there are other companies more worthy of our support.
We cannot forget the future we should be aiming for, one that doesn’t center acknowledgments from white, Western establishments as the ultimate seals of approval on of the kind of talent, and the kind of creators, that we should value.
The phrase “a seat at the table” comes to mind, one that artists such as Solange have played with. When I think about the movement to stop settling for bare-minimum representation, I’m reminded of the words of Viola Davis: “We will no longer beg for a seat.”