The Fraught Path to Diversity in Fashion Media

I remember flipping through the glossy pages of the September “Vogue” issue on a chilly middle school day and feeling like I was glimpsing into another world. The sheer opulence looking up at me from the magazine — all the sophisticated models adorned by beautiful material luxuries — was so foreign to me. Still, all that glamour felt emphatically better than the mundane realities of my life. Sensing my insecurity, the magazine surrounded these fascinating images with simple instructions on how to enter this mesmerizing world. With the right routines and elaborate purchases, I could theoretically buy membership into this stylish, elegant, predominantly white realm, at least until the trends shifted. 

The fashion and beauty industries are fundamentally predicated on peddling doses of exclusivity to eager ordinary consumers. Magazine headlines such as “How to Recreate Kendall Jenner’s ‘90s Summer Wardrobe” and “How To Look Like A Beauty Model” entice tepid readers to aspire to buy celebrity. In a profitable, self-fulfilling cycle, lifestyle magazines create insecurity in consumers by showing them the possibility of glamour and then perpetuating that feeling through sly product placements. In fact, the basic premise of these businesses is that through following a series of prescriptive, purchasable directives laid out by fashion and lifestyle magazines, it’s possible to become one of the “it girls” represented by them. But this hypnotic idea presented to consumers is logically flawed: if anyone can become an elite, then its very definition is compromised.

This contradiction is why the recent rise in inclusive marketing and diversity efforts within lifestyle media companies such as “Vogue” and “Refinery 29” confuse me. With lifestyle and fashion media possessing a continued history of constantly trying to sell an image of exclusivity, how is this compatible with their seemingly intensifying efforts to become more inclusive in their employment and content? Seeing socially conscious, inclusive content right next to blatant advertisements for exclusive products seems contradictory and perhaps distasteful. It seems as if having a certain amount of “woke” content gives these media companies a license to continue their exclusivity.

This contradiction is exemplified by the building controversy around Vogue, which has been blasted for its late and flawed attempts at diversity. A recent article in The New York Times details “Vogue”’s complicated relationship with diversity. As a proudly highbrow magazine in both content and composition, “Vogue” has historically employed only thin, wealthy white women. As such, the lack of diversity in the publication’s creative talent is reflected in many culturally insensitive, disconnected pieces of content. 

For example, a March 2017 Japanese-inspired shoot for “Vogue”’s “diversity issue” styled white model Karlie Kloss as a traditional geisha, inserting her into culturally specific settings. It’s jarring that “Vogue” chose to “Asianize” a white model instead of giving space for actual Japanese models in the shoot. Although Kloss and the magazine apologized after the shoot was denounced as a glaring example of cultural appropriation, similar incidents have continued to accrue. Most notably, Kendall Jenner was praised by the style section of “Vogue” for sporting fake gold teeth, a move many again saw as clear cultural appropriation.

 In response to this growing criticism, “Vogue” has publicly committed to increasing internal diversity, with American “Vogue” editor in chief Anna Wintour stating in June 2020, “I know “Vogue” has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers, and other creators … I take full responsibility for those mistakes.” 

Still, relevant action steps have yet to be announced.

The acknowledgment alone may seem like an important first step, but it’s hard to determine how sincere it really is. There have continued to be reported attempts at cultural “fronting” within “Vogue,” with BIPOC junior employees often being called into meetings solely to approve culturally adjacent projects. For instance, a Black junior employee was called to a high-level meeting with actress and October 2016 cover star Lupita Nyong’o to voice her thoughts on an Afrocentric shoot but was never approached for such a meeting again. As this responsibility is not typically part of the junior employee role at “Vogue,” this practice is deeply insincere. 

“Vogue”’s public promises to make amends seem to only manifest in superficially shuffling BIPOC employees around to cover their bases in terms of cultural credibility. Instead, “Vogue” could avoid these situations by actually hiring or promoting senior BIPOC editors, meaningfully increasing the diversity within their ranks. However, there still have not been any apparent changes in the publication’s upper leadership in response to such criticism, although many Black employees have called for the removal of Wintour herself to make room for more diverse leadership. In response, Condé Nast only reaffirmed Wintour’s position at “Vogue.” Moreover, she continues to lead its Diversity and Inclusion Council, ironically occupying a seat that should represent the council’s commitment to diversity. 

Accordingly, I wonder whether similar broad moral commitments to diversity by magazines such as “Vogue” are just a way to insulate their existing power structures from criticism. Fashion has long profited off of the “othering” of marginalized groups. By prioritizing an exclusive ideal of beauty — generally white, slim, and wealthy — magazines such as “Vogue” socialized BIPOC individuals into aspiring to an ideal that could purportedly be achieved through certain products. This is apparent in early advertising of beauty products associated with fair, Eurocentric facial features and bodies, which often pushed BIPOC individuals into chasing an unattainable image of beauty.

As it has been historically more profitable for fashion and beauty to center around an elite, exclusive narrative, it’s hard to see how diversity meaningfully fits into the current fashion system. Certainly, independent art, which can include fashion pieces, should not face any obstacles in truly embracing and celebrating cultural diversity. However, when this art is inherently tied to profit-making through the fashion industry, I wonder how a true diversity reckoning will occur. Does diversity need to be profitable for it to be truly instituted?  

Beyond just “Vogue,” other magazines have also undergone similar diversity-related scandals, which have prompted public ethical commitments to inclusion. Both “Bon Appétit” and “Refinery 29” saw significant changes in upper leadership due to allegations of toxic workplaces riddled with racial discrimination. Compared to the “Vogue” situation, are these changes sufficient? I’m not sure. They seem like a logical response to the criticism, and I don’t know what alternative immediate measure would have been more effective. I’m simply wary of any moral proclamation by corporations because it’s hard to know what ulterior, profitable motive lurks. 

As fashion and lifestyle magazines continue to grapple with implementing diversity policies, it’s crucial to continuously question their mechanics. All too often, lofty moral aspirations are accepted as appeasement without a rigorous critique of their literal implications. Corporate leadership has a natural desire to retain their power even when they are part of the problem which needs to be addressed. I don’t know if there exists a golden path to true diversity in these industries; I suspect it is much more complicated than changing the publications’ content itself. But as long as we continue to stay engaged with these questions, I think we can find progress. 

Image Credit: Image is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

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