Fashion, as a concept, is older than the constructs of race and racism. 170,000 years ago humans began to wear clothes, and only 400 years ago in 1619, when the enslavement of Black people in America began, did the idea of race fully solidify itself in the world’s hippocampus. However, the business of fashion magazines is 150 years old, originally finding its roots in England during the 1870s.
While these dates may seem distant from the beginning of Anna Wintour’s reign at Vogue and Condé Nast, they are necessary roots to examine when inspecting the details of Vogue and Condé Nast’s current trouble with their racial pitfalls. After all, a woman whose official title is “Dame” stands at the forefront of both Vogue and Condé Nast. The aforementioned time periods simply explain that racism, for all of Vogue’s relevant existence and all of Anna Wintour’s life, has determined how Black people are treated and how this treatment has dictated white people’s position in the world.
This mutual existence of fashion and race has been a running dialogue between the two for centuries — regardless of whether Vogue and all of its editors-in-chief since 1892 have acknowledged it. In its 127-year lifespan, Vogue has published one cover shot by a Black photographer (whom the dame didn’t select herself), and only 21 Black women have appeared on the cover. So why is it now, in 2020, that Anna Wintour and Condé Nast are being forced to reckon with the fashion industry’s racism despite Black creatives, models and editors suffering from it for decades?
In 2013, supermodels Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Bethann Hardison took to Good Morning America to directly call out the lack of diversity on fashion’s runways. “I feel very responsible for young models of color,” said Campbell. “They come to me and tell me they’re not getting jobs, and I do what I can to speak up for them. This year has not been great. It’s so disappointing. I feel it very personally. I’ve given 27 years to this business and things haven’t got any better. It is shocking.”
Anna Wintour, unsurprisingly, said nothing.
Lindsay Peoples-Wagner’s 2018 article “What It’s Really Like to Be Black in Fashion” was expected to blow a hole through fashion’s race issue because it featured opinions that came directly from Black individuals within the industry. “People don’t want to admit it, but there’s still a contingency that you have to be the ‘right’ kind of black for fashion to fully accept you,” an anonymous source told Peoples-Wagner. Corey Stokes, fashion editor-at-large at Highsnobiety, told Peoples-Wagner that Black people in fashion are seen as “one-dimensional” and that many white people who are “thriving” in the industry are only excelling because they’re white.
Anna Wintour, unsurprisingly, said nothing.
Former Vogue editor André Leon Talley’s recently published memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” set off alarms about the industry’s racism, Vogue’s in particular, a month before George Floyd’s murder sent the country into widespread racial reckoning. Specific to Vogue, in “The Chiffon Trenches,” Talley wrote that when he penned a Washington Post op-ed praising “the historic Blackness” of Wintour’s choice of Beyoncé photographed by 23 year old Tyler Mitchell for the September 2018 issue, Wintour, nor anyone at Vogue, acknowledged his laudation.
Anna Wintour, unsurprisingly, said nothing.
But on June 4, 2020, according to PageSix, the Dame broke her lengthy silence. Wintour chose to email her Vogue staff about the publication’s “hurtful and intolerant” relationship with Black people. She wrote:
“I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.
It can’t be easy to be a Black employee at Vogue, and there are too few of you. I know that it is not enough to say we will do better, but we will — and please know that I value your voices and responses as we move forward. I am listening and would like to hear your feedback and your advice if you would like to share either.”
The reasoning behind Wintour’s sudden sympathy for Black people is allegorical to what some claim is the bedrock of fashion: trend. This time around, the trend in question was not whether to make celebrities coverstars, which Wintour is largely responsible for, but instead speaking up about race.
Would she continue to ignore the industry — and the world’s — racism for 32 more years, or would she finally step into the truth of how her whiteness has contributed to fashion’s whiteness?
With that email, Dame Anna Wintour strategically continued to present her and Vogue’s lack of recognition that Black people exist; but behind a facade that expertly manifested her lack of concern as responsibility.
Refinery29’s editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, stepped down the day before Wintour’s letter in an attempt to make spaces for the Black people she admitted had been left out of Refinery29’s leadership. On the same day, Adam Rappoport, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, resigned after images of him in blackface surfaced and multiple staff members came forward with stories of the foodie magazine’s anti-Black and colorist environment. James Bennett, opinion editor of the New York Times, also recently stepped down regarding an op-ed by Tom Cotton that Black readers, New York Times staff included, found dangerous for Black people.
So, on June 4, Wintour probably sat at her laptop, peering at an email composition box determining how she could avoid the racism-accountability guillotine that had already swallowed up some of her peers, and was threatening more. That fear wasn’t enough to prompt her to thoroughly question the whiteness in her authority; rather she wrote an email that is so obviously an attempt to get ahead of any horror stories about being Black at Vogue, (which she didn’t escape), that it can only be described as an admittance of guilt instead of repentance for her sins.
Neither Wintour, nor even those who only loosely follow fashion, are ignorant to the power that she holds in the publishing, fashion and artistic worlds. She wrote that Vogue had not “found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black people” — as if Blackness had been omitted from the over three hundred issues she has edited by some inconceivable force.
There is a force responsible for this omission — it just happens to don a bob and Chanel sunglasses.
If Anna Wintour wants to truly “take full responsibility” for keeping the pages, covers and masthead of Vogue as lily-white as they have always been, then she would have to start by being honest with herself about who she is. But what her letter to Vogue’s staff indicates is that she realizes that such a reckoning could be her own nadir and strip her of the very power she has accumulated by being comfortable in her whiteness.
Anna Wintour and the rest of the white companies, white publications and white people that have only recently realized why Black people are shot eight times in their sleep and knelt on until they cannot breathe are not symptoms of the problem: they are the problem.
The same day that PageSix released its story on Wintour’s empty apology, Harper’s Bazaar announced that Samira Nasr, a Black woman, would be taking over as the magazine’s first Black editor-in-chief in 153 years.
Nasr’s ascent places Harper’s Bazaar directly in front of Vogue’s queen on fashion’s chessboard. This is not to say that Harper’s history with racism will be expunged because they are finally giving Black people the credit they deserve. Instead, the sheer symbolism that Samira Nasr possesses as a Black woman and the history that she has created without even releasing an issue fulfills more of Anna Wintour’s empty promises than her own actions have.
Anna Wintour has finally said something about the entanglement of fashion and race, but the way that she said it and when she said it completely discredits its validity. Her email bleeds so heavily with the racial blindness that is specific to the people who think of themselves as “white” that she may as well have said nothing.
Perhaps André Leon Talley said it best in his interview with Sandra Bernahrd June 10:
“The statement came out of a world of white privilege. I want to say one thing: Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad. She’s a colonial Dame…she’s part of an environment of colonialism. She is entitled, and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.”
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