Is Blackface Becoming More Popular in High Fashion?

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.

What Not to Wear: Amanda the Blogger in Baggy Clothes

Tonight on What Not to Wear, Stacy and Clinton ambushed Amanda, an editor-in-chief of a website devoted to Texas culture. Amanda films and blogs about live events, interviews notables for the website, and meets with important people as a representative of the website. All this and 36-year-old Amanda is wearing bulky tops and hoodies down to her knees, baggy pants five sizes too big, and sheepskin lined Ugg boots.

What Not to Wear: The Secret Footage

Amanda was shocked to see how terrible she looked in the What Not to Wear secret footage. She confessed, and her husband confirmed, that she’d lost confidence due to a financial setback in her past. Amanda opened a business in a struggling part of town to try and help revitalize it, and after three years lost everything and had to give up.

A lot of What Not to Wear makeover recipients cry on the show, and there’s a whole range of tears from minor glassy eyes to all out bawling. Amanda was a crier that just hit us viewers in the gut–we could feel her utter anguish over not succeeding in something that was obviously a very important dream of hers. Stacy and Clinton are used to the emotions of their contestants, but Amanda visibly got to them, too.

What Not to Wear: Trying to Look Younger Makes You Look Older

One of the side effects of her baggy, shabby clothing and pinned up hairdo was that Amanda had previously been mistaken for her young husband’s mother. It can be difficult enough to deal with an age difference without constant reminders from strangers. Amanda clearly needed a What Not to Wear makeover to change her style from frumpy to fashionable.

Stacy and Clinton often tell What Not to Wear makeover recipients to stop trying to dress younger than their age. It’s one thing to keep up with fashion trends and be stylish, another to try and dress like a teenager. Amanda’s slouchy just-rolled-out-of-bed college student look didn’t help her keep pace with her younger husband. Stacy and Clinton noted that dressing too young made Amanda look like she was trying too hard, and it actually aged her rather than keeping her youthful.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s just another version of the main What Not to Wear rules. Wear clothes that fit and flatter you, instead of clothes that look good on someone younger else.

What Not to Wear: Retro Clothes Make You Look Younger?

Amanda early on showed a preference for retro looks from the 20s to 40s. Drop-waist flapper style dresses weren’t right for her figure, but Amanda discovered some 40s tailored styles that showed off curves perfectly. Stacy was pleased that Amanda followed her What Not to Wear advice and found retro style clothes that had modern details to update them and keep them fashion forward.

Amanda was made for the fitted and structured dresses that were classy enough for work but sexy enough to keep her youthful. She practically glowed when she put on a red-orange dress with a zig-zag cut neckline that tastefully showed off a bit of cleavage. Add some chunky bright 40s-inspired mod shoes and Amanda was revved up and ready to launch her new style and self on her life back home.

What Not to Wear: It’s All in the Posture

Last week I talked about how What Not to Wear proved confidence and posture can make or break an outfit, no matter how well-designed it is. Amanda came to this same conclusion, noting numerous times to the camera and to Stacy and Clinton how her posture had changed dramatically and how different she looked because of it. In Amanda’s case, she had decided to let go of the past and her disappointments, and opened herself up to finding attractive clothes that suited her work life and where she wanted to go in future. Amanda was the exact opposite of last week’s What Not to Wear makeover recipient Jessie, who couldn’t let go of past hurts or old-fashioned styles.

What Not to Wear: Tattoos Tell the Story

It’s always surprising to me when What Not to Wear makeover recipients like Amanda, who shroud themselves in blanket-like clothing and don’t want anyone to look at them, are shown to have numerous tattoos under those hoodies. Tattoos are definitely attention-getting, and Amanda’s were prominent on both her arms and on her ankle. I wondered if she’d gotten them when she was younger and more confident, or if they pointed to an inner desire to be noticed that she hadn’t gotten comfortable with yet.

As Amanda progressed through the What Not to Wear makeover, shedding her baggy clothes and stepping into chic retro style, the girl who’d chosen those tattoos started to emerge. By the end of the reveal, she was posing like a model, draping herself over couches and sashaying off set with attitude.

What Not to Wear: Age-Appropriate Doesn’t Have to Be Frumpy

Stacy and Clinton are all about “age-appropriate” on What Not to Wear. Sometimes I think they emphasize it too much, and a few makeover recipients may have been tamed too far to suit their personalities. That didn’t happen tonight, though. Amanda’s red-orange dress was a knock-out, and she got some fantastic pairs of shoes that mixed vibrant colors with exciting textures and super high heels. Stacy and Clinton took into account that Amanda’s web-based blogging job allowed her to be less conservative than other offices might require, and her sexy secretary-inspired outfits will be great for interviewing the creative types she deals with in her career.

Hair stylist Nick worked in yet another What Not to Wear bob haircut, but the layers hit her face just right and suited her retro wardrobe. Carmindy always does beautiful, natural looking makeup, but I thought Amanda could have used a brighter lipstick–perhaps a true red to go with those retro 40s clothes.

After last week’s fiasco, it was refreshing to see a What Not to Wear success story. Amanda was a sweet and grateful guest, and it was lovely to hear her Texas manners as she replied “Yes, sir” to Clinton and “Yes, ma’am” to Stacy as they helped her on her What Not to Wear journey. All Amanda needed was to be jolted back to her true self, and along with her husband, coworkers, and friends, What Not to Wear helped her do it.

After all, Amanda has a great job, an interesting life, and an adorable young hubby. She’s got a lot going for her, and now has a fun and classy wardrobe to help her make the most of it.

Check out:What Not to Wear: Jessie the Texan with 80s Hair and
What Not to Wear: Chelsea the Roller Derby Queen