Mirror, Mirror: When style is ‘ghetto’ on black women, ‘chic’ on whites (participation)

Published October 7, 2014 by djlwsu

Numéro magazine bronzed the body of a Caucasian model for this spread back in early 2013, and later apologized for it. A recent Facebook post about it went viral.
Numéro magazine bronzed the body of a Caucasian model for this spread back in early 2013, and later apologized for it. A recent Facebook post about it went viral.

POSTED: October 02, 2014

Something about the models walking the DKNY catwalk last month in coifs that Lucky magazine called “slicked-down tendrils” – known in my hood as baby hair – tweaked my Queens-reared soul.

I felt a similar pull in April when Marie Claire called Kendall Jenner’s cornrows “epic.” Hmmph – no one ever declared mine anything but necessary for swimming in the summertime.

That tug was followed by a twinge last week when Los Angeles Times reporter Ingrid Schmidt wrote a story about braids, referring to Bo Derek as their matriarch. Hello, what about Cicely Tyson?

Add Vogue’s recent article claiming we’re in the era of big booties – because Iggy Azalea and Kim Kardashian are making round backsides aspirational for the masses – and you might as well render me invisible.

My issue isn’t with borrowing elements of style that started in the heart of black America. Appropriation has been at the center of pop culture since well, the dawn of culture.

What’s difficult to digest is this “praise” of all things black – from cornrows and large booties to acrylic nails, door-knocker earrings, and tribal fabrics – only becomes “chic,” “trendy,” and “epic” when worn by white women. When these same cultural markers are on black women, they are “ghetto,” “urban,” and “ratchet” – meaning, unpretty.

“It’s offensive,” said Doreen E. Loury, director of Pan-African studies at Arcadia University. “The natural beauty of black women that has been historically demonized and classified as unattractive, is now the runway’s hottest new swag. And it’s not even being celebrated on black bodies.”

To make matters worse, black women are rarely, if ever, credited as these trends’ impetus. That distinction goes to the designers’ inspiration boards, so what could have been viewed as a form of flattery is now just an insult.

“What’s problematic to me is how these conversations, whether braids or butts, are happening without the broader social context from where they came,” said Tiffany M. Gill, associate professor of black American studies at the University of Delaware. “When braids are on black bodies, they are dangerous or subversive, but celebrated as fashion on white bodies.”

Last week New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley wrote an article calling actress Viola Davis, with her darker skin, “less classically beautiful,” and there were a lot of hurt feelings. Who’s making these calls? Why is darker skin desirable on white women, but not on black women?

All these hairdos, body types, and even accessories are pieces of our collective style stories as African American women. Although some are things we neither celebrate nor denigrate – cornrows – others we continue to struggle with, like the texture of our hair. Having now hit the runways, it’s only a matter of time before other women start copying these looks – but stripped of their history.

(For the record, “baby hair” is the hair at your hairline. Through the decades, in an effort to mask their hair’s natural texture, black women have used gel, pomade, even Vaseline to slick down the edges. In the ’80s, black teens made the gelled hair fashionable, said Ayana Byrd, coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.)

Even I first thought I was being oversensitive, having grown up at the dawn of hip-hop with parents who remember segregation. But it turns out that even millennials – in this “post-racial” society – feel disrespected.

“To me it’s as if the industry is making a mockery out of what we call ‘ghetto,’ ” said Isaiah Wall, a 21-year-old blogger from North Philly, who writes “The Timeless Aesthetic.” Wall was referencing an online editorial published last week by Vice magazine with a photo of two white women eating watermelon with obscenely long acrylic nails.

“Givenchy for men showed guys with do-rags [in August]. The baby hair at DKNY. These little things were once seen in a negative light, and now it’s OK because it’s been whitewashed,” Wall said.

In this age of quick blog posts and quicker social-media updates, I think the problem is more indifference than insidiousness. The fashion industry is only doing half the work. Yes, designers are inspired by the streets, but which ones? Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, or 52d Street in West Philly?

“What’s so disturbing is that there is just no attribution to the original,” said Nakia Thomas, 34, who writes the “Stylechile” blog.

Coincidentally, in many cases, it’s social media – especially sharp-tongued black Twitter – that’s correcting the spate of style-based cultural faux pas.

Numéro magazine bronzed the body of a 16-year-old Caucasian model Ondria Hardin for a spread titled “African Queen” – back in early 2013. But a recent Facebook post about it went viral, bringing renewed attention to the irony: At a time when black models are fighting for jobs on the runway and in editorials, we’re putting white models in blackface.

While Numéro apologized at the time, Vogue has yet to do so. But thanks to the recent #voguearticles hashtag where people suggest the next-in-line appropriation – my personal favorite, “Dreadlocks: Apparently not just for white hippies and backpackers anymore” – perhaps they will do a little more research next time.

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6 comments on “Mirror, Mirror: When style is ‘ghetto’ on black women, ‘chic’ on whites (participation)

  • This article really openened up my eyes, I read magazines looking at new styles of clothing and hair all of the time, but have never once thought where did this style origionate from? Styles from the past are always coming back, for instance leggings, when they first came out I remeber my mom telling me leggings were something she used to always were back in the day and she found it amazing that now I was wearing them at the same age she did. Styles from the past that were origionally white styles are always acknowledged, stating something like “The 80s style is back in.” But when styles that were origionally black styles are now “chic” on white females, there is no mention of where the inspiration came from. The article mentions specifically how Kendal Jenners hairstyle of corn-rows was epic, but was never mentioned epic when worn by the million of other black woemn who have been wearing this style for decades. The term “stripped of their history” really pin points what is going on in the fashion world right now.
    In class it was mentioned that less than 4% of models on the runway are non-white, meaning most styles are seen on white females and males. It is astonishing how blind people can be to the racial inequalities that are still going on. Race is the fashion world is a bigger factor than one would think to be. When a style is seen on a Black, White, Asian or Hispanic women, that style is considered to be a style for that race only. So when over 96% of women walking the runway are White they are representing the newest styles for other white women. Going back to the hairstyle of corn-rows, now when seen on a white women she will be seen as fashionable, but when seen on a black women she would be seen as ghetto. Women and men who are looked at differently when wearing the same clothing style or hairstyle because of the race they are is just another form of racism.

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  • “Who’s making these calls? Why is darker skin desirable on white women, but not on black women?”
    This article doesn’t really surprise me. I have found myself asking these questions several times a week for the past couple of months. More frequently after I decided to join the Greek community, more frequently now that I attend more parties, when I walk across campus, even in my own building-on my own floor. I ask these questions because I’m usually the only girl of “my” color at parties. And the times that I actually do see girls of the same color, they’re usually in a state of solitude, or with other girls of “my” color. I do feel that black women are the most undesirable group out there, to guys that range from white guys to the blackest of black guys. I guess that a lot more things look desirable when a white woman is on a magazine cover (so desirable that they bronzed a white model and had the caption named “African Queen”) therefore our society forms a perception that white is beautiful and black..is not. I’ve started realizing that even at parties, when everyone is supposed to be having fun and enjoy being young; no one tends to talk to the black girl. No one tends to dance with the black girl. It seems like since they are black females; they automatically become invisible once the black lights come on.

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  • I couldn’t agree more with this article. It seems that clothing and hair textured are often being whitewashed and given a sudden positive meaning. But whats also interesting is what happens to clothes brought by a mass of black people . Example:(http://madamenoire.com/424635/tommy-hilfiger-says-hip-hop/. ). Tommy Hilfiger and other brands that are predominantly worn by whites starts getting a black crowd and the company gets upset.Yet we see here how the same thing is happening here in this article. Part of white privilege is being able to change your skin tone easily. instead of hiring models of color , they transform white women . one of the rising examples of black fashion trends being apprtiated to be cool is done by Miley cyrus (http://www.autostraddle.com/top-ten-instances-of-open-and-unapologetic-celebrity-cultural-appropriation-in-2013-210371/) In alot of the music videos we often see black background dancers centered by a white celebrity adorning the same fashion but viewed differently.

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  • This article really struck me as I have never thought about how unjust recent styles are being towards the black community. I think one of the most obviously awful parts is the photo at the very top of the page that shows a white model that was painted to look black for an ad. Why couldn’t a black model have done the job? Further on, it makes a great point about how when style’s come in people always discuss how they’ve “come back from the 80s” yet there is no reference to how these styles, such as cornrows, are a current style and also a decades long tradition for the black community. It is simply looked over.

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  • As discussed in class today, issues like can be seen as whether they are relative or in what context they are being set in.
    This article dissects certain trends that are becoming popular in the fashion world that are traditionally a part of black culture. Put a trend like cornrows or tribal prints on a white woman and suddenly it becomes trendy and chic. Context.
    One example that came to mind when I was reading this article is the ever popular Miley Cyrus. People like to say she is taking on thie ghetto black person persona. Wearing what is seen as black clothing, being rachet, and twerking. Would the media and society be talking about this is Miley Cyrus was a black girl? Put a wholesome white girl on stage and have her dance like a “black girl” and media goes crazy.
    To me, this article furthers my dissapproval for how the fashion industry portrays young women in america (which is apparently a young, skinny white girl with a kim kardashion ass). Airbrushing a white model to be black and labeling her as an “african queen” just shows the desparate lengths the industry is willing to go. The fashion industry is perhaps the industry where you can see racial inequality and privledge the most becuase their industry relys on image. We frequently are affected by the images we see but maybe need to start asking what they photographers, editors, publishers are trying to accomplish.

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  • This article amazes me because it shows how time and time again white people manage to take credit for things that black people have started. It also shows how little white people care about stealing the credit for their fashion. The fact that the fashion industry will go as far as painting a white model black baffles me though. I feel like for an industry that revolves around image they would rather have a genuine black woman be their model, but the mistake has already been made. What upsets me further though is the fact that despite Numero apologizing, Vogue still refuses to. Maybe some actual progress could be made towards accrediting black women with their fashion if Vogue could just apologize for painting a Caucasian model in blackface.

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