Kerry Washington's Vanity Fair Cover is Smokin' — But White People Still Might Not Notice It


African-American actress Kerry Washington is on the cover of the August issue of Vanity Fair. Her appearance is the rare instance when a black women is showcased in the mainstream fashion industry. Images that celebrate the beauty and talent of African-American women are so rare in the mainstream fashion industry that Washington’s appearance is somewhat of a milestone achievement. The last time an African-American appeared on the cover of the magazine was in 2005 and this is the first time a black actress has appeared on the cover alone.

Rarer than seeing an African-American woman on he cover of a mainstream fashion magazine, is seeing one on the runways of fashion shows. The lack of diversity signals that beauty, as perceived by the fashion industry, is still defined by white European standards and ignores a growing demographic that would like to see broader representation.

Former supermodel and successful entrepreneur Iman and progressive fashion icon Bethann Hardison have a plan to address the problem. They are starting a social media campaign to draw attention to the lack of black models in high fashion runway shows, magazines, and advertising. Iman and Hardison note that the black female model is disappearing and they hold designers and casting agents accountable for it. Iman described the situation as “terribly wrong” to the New York Times and Hardison said that designers and casting agents “have a lot of explaining to do.”

Once upon a time black models like Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell ruled the runways and magazines fought to get their faces on the cover. They generated sales and earned top dollars. Casting agents and fashion designers sought after the next black supermodel. However in recent years the trend has been towards less diversity. The number of black fashion models at this year’s fall New York Fashion Week, for example, dropped from 8.1% to 6%.

Photo Credit: Annie Liebowitz, Vanity Fair

It’s not as if there aren’t black models that fit the stereotypical eurocentric aesthetic of a model. In 2008, the Italian edition of Vogue produced a whole magazine dedicated to tall, thin black models with aquiline noses, large eyes, oval faces, and silky hair. The issue sold out in 72 hours in the U.S. and UK. To its credit Vogue is one of the few mainstream magazines that supports diversity. Vogue Black specifically caters to women of color, including a section that highlights “new faces.”

Photo Credit: Italian Vogue, July 2008

Hardison, who has been fighting the battle for inclusion and diversity since she started her own modeling agency in 1984, is planning to launch the media campaign during Fashion Week in New York, which begins September 5. She and Iman will be specifically targeting the designers that do not use black models. Hardsion told, “All these years later, we’re still talking the same stuff.”

Michaela Angela Davis, a fashion expert, celebrity stylist and “image activist,” agrees with the campaign, explaining to The Huffington Post that “there needs to be a decided outing of who's doing this and who should be held responsible."

Iman, who in 1988 co-founded the Black Girls Coalition with Hardison, would like to bring economic pressure to bear including boycotting designers who refuse to use black models. She told the New York Times “If you engage the social media, trust me, it will hurt them in their pockets.”

Washington, meanwhile, is enjoying her relationship with Vanity Fair. The Emmy-nominated actress was #1 on “Vanity Fair's International Best Dressed List of 2013” and the magazine's website has an exclusive look at the evolution of her fashion style as a companion piece to the August issue.

Hopefully her success will result in greater diversity on the covers of mainstream fashion magazines.