If you’ve been paying attention, you have probably been made aware of an interesting trend in the couture fashion industry. In an attempt to promote their avant-garde proclivities, some designers are resorting to using models in blackface. The use of blackface, a theatrical practice from the 19th century, has long been synonymous with racial bigotry. The controversy is rooted in the belief that dark (almost black) skin is considered unattractive-and should thus serve as an object of humor. This is one of the many reasons why the practice has been so damaging to African American culture.

Fashion designers have always reached for bizarre ways to shock audiences into becoming interested in their creations. Some designers and advertisers find that provoking audiences is a great way to draw attention to whatever it is they’re trying to sell. As “provocative” as these editorials are, many are questioning the purpose behind using this cosmetic effect.

What are designers really trying to say?

Some would argue that being edgy is the ultimate goal. For example, Dutch Model Lara Stone was photographed in black make-up for one shot. In another shot she is shown wearing an orange wig and cracked white make-up. The shots also show the model in suggestive crotch-bearing poses. As such, some question whether the point of contention should be hinged upon the inappropriateness of Stone’s poses, as opposed to her appearing with blackened skin. In other words, people are wondering whether one offense should cry louder than another. The argument in this regard, focuses on whether art directors should be allowed to “play with make-up” colors to broaden their creative expression. In effect, are they really promoting blackface? Or simply extending their creative license to include all shades in the make-up rainbow?

“Mistaken Identity”

In August of 2007, i-D magazine ran a fashion photo featuring what appears to be a black female model wearing blackface. A few days after the ad was run, the editor of the magazine addressed multiple responses of those who were offended by the ad:

“We’ve received a lot of feedback about this photo recently printed in i-D magazine. Many people have been deeply offended by the photograph. We want to make it clear that this photo is not an American Apparel ad. We truly appreciate the opinions of our readers, and we’ll attempt to convey your sentiments to I-D magazine.”

What is interesting about the ad is that some commenters loved the artsy, high fashion aspect. Others wondered why someone who was already of African descent would need to be dressed in “blackface” make-up. In short, the imagery shown in the ad (dour female expression, exaggeratedly pink lips, and head wrap) infuriates those who have likened the appearance to the unflattering caricatures of yesteryear. While some viewers feel that using an African (American?) model doesn’t promote racism, others find the image blatantly racist.

So why not just use black models in their natural state?

Much of the blackface controversy exists because mostly white models have been seen donning painted exteriors. While many designers and photo shoot stylists maintain that the portrayals are a celebration of dark skin, most wonder why women who are naturally dark brown aren’t employed to highlight this celebration.

One blog commenter of Indian descent admits to finding it offensive when white citizens pretend to be ethnic for the sake of being artistic:

“…i guess its okay when white people pretend to be “ethnic” because its cool and edgy but ethnic people cant observe their own culture or live in their own identity without being made to feel like the ‘other’…”

This is the sentiment echoed by many African Americans who feel particularly challenged in landing acting roles in Hollywood or on haute couture runways.

Ultimately, the wide chasm left for artistic interpretation is what separates the offenders from those who are offended. It would seem that where black face paint is concerned, a Catch-22 exists: If the model is non-black, the make-up is seen as an overt slight of models whose skin is naturally “black.” If the model is black, then the message conveyed is that black is only beautiful when “exaggerated” by artistic directors.

Perceptions of beauty may have evolved over the decades. Interpretations of that beauty will probably continue to be controversial. But until art directors and stylists like those from French Vogue utilize models that actually look like (naturally) the ideals of beauty they’re emphasizing-audiences will continue to be offended.