For years Vogue Magazine has sat atop the fashion food chain, launching the careers of new designers, influencing everyday fashion with an Adam Smith like invisible hand. It’s influence and reputation, which spreads across 23 different countries world wide, once made household names of the models that graced its cover and now stands as an affirmation that “you’ve arrived” be you a budding or established Hollywood starlet. But for us non-starlets and non-models a Vogue cover is only something we look at. It’s something that tells us, “this is what is beautiful.” So what does it mean when black girls and women in America only see faces like theirs on a Vogue cover about 30 times throughout the magazine’s roughly 100 year history?
It’s not new news that the media influences the way we perceive ourselves; it influences whether or not we think we’re good enough based on the standards and the images it does and doesn’t perpetuate. The lack of women of color on the covers of American Vogue tells a story, a big one. A story can also be seen in the black women Vogue has chosen to feature. History has shown that to be black and on the cover of Vogue, you have to be exceptional, exceptionally so. While women like Sienna Miller land three covers as a result of dating someone famous. Nevertheless, the scarcity of black Vogue covers offers us a glimpse of the story of accomplishment in a still very homogenous arena. We take a look at that story as well as the hair that was there.
models pave the way
Beverly Johnson paved the way with a voluminous blow out in 1974 as the first black woman featured on the cover of American Vogue. The Civil Rights Act had been passed just 10 years prior and the complexion of mass media had gradually begun to change. Peggy Dillard followed Johnson in 1977 with the medium-sized afro she was sporting at the time. Three years later Sheila Johnson entered the circle in 1980 with a short relaxed look and a slight bang.
Through the 1980s and 90s, models continued to dominate magazine covers. Black models like, Shari Belafonte Harper, Louise Vyent, Kara Young, Karen Alexander and a young Naomi Campbell all snagged a cover or two. But by the late 90s/early 2000s, models had to make way for actresses and the criteria to land a cover changed.
In 1998, Oprah Winfrey had yet to become the billionaire media influence she is now but she was pretty close to it. Yet, even Lady O was subject to the stringent physical criteria of Vogue. Vogue editor Anna Wintour, famously asked Winfrey (who at the time had starred in the film Beloved) to loose weight for the shoot. Given her lifelong battle with weight, the media mogul succumbed to suggestion and dropped 20 pounds. In her interview for the magazine, Winfrey likened being on the cover to the big house of the plantation in Ernest Gaines’s book A Lesson Before Dying: “I’ve been fighting weight all my life, definitely never even thought of myself as an attractive girl. So why would I be dreaming about Vogue? …Vogue is the big house! Didn’t think I’d be sittin’ at that table!” Lady O graced the cover voluminous, elegant, big-barrel curls.
oscar winners take the stage
Halle Berry was one of the first black actresses featured on the cover of Vogue, following her historical and emotional Oscar win in 2002 for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She graced the cover in a slightly “longer” variation of her famous pixie cut. Eight years later, in September 2010, she was featured again, this time wearing a cheek bone-length blunt bob.
Similar to Halle, Jennifer Hudson landed the coveted cover after her 2006 Oscar win. She appeared on the cover of the March 2007 issue with long flowing waves that complemented her curvy physique–another Vogue rarity.
2008 was a historical year for the United States, with the election of the country’s first black president. So naturally, Vogue would deem his second half worthy of their cover. Michelle Obama appeared on the cover in March 2009 with her then signature, shoulder-legnth, straightened hair, making her one of only two first ladies ever featured on a Vogue cover. She appeared again in April 2013, this time wearing a whole new ‘do: her newsworthy bangs. At the time many had criticized the First Lady for being overexposed, especially after her Academy Awards appearance. In response to the scrutiny she said, “Shoot, my bangs set off a national conversation. My shoes can set off a national conversation. That’s just sort of where we are. We’ve got a lot of talking going on,” she said about reactions to her media presence. “It’s like everybody’s kitchen-table conversation is now accessible to everybody else so there’s a national conversation about anything.”
pop stars shine bright
Two black singers have appeared on the cover of Vogue, both having appeared two times each. The first was none other than Queen Bey, herself, who had been solo for six years before her Vogue debut and had racked up armfuls of Grammys, sold millions of records, been nominated for a Golden Globe for her Dream Girl’s performance and had sang for the then newly-elected President of the United States, Barack Obama. The April 2009 cover featured her with a sleek pony tail of a darker hue than her typical blonde. Her next cover would follow four years later in March 2013, during a time when it was almost impossible to not hear about the super star given her electrifying Super Bowl performance, a new tour and the release of her HBO Documentary, Life is but a Dream. In her second cover she wore a Sophia Loren-esque up do with a swooped bang.
It didn’t take nearly as much time or accolades for Rihanna to find herself on the cover of Vogue. Maybe because by 2007 the pop star carved out a place among fashion’s elite with her pitch black bob and self-described “punk futuristic” clothing choices. The fashion world took notice and was quick to nestle her into the “it girl” clique. Her first cover, released in April 2011, featured the songstress with “Rihanna Red” hair, which was styled into an old Hollywood side-swept body wave. Only one year later, in April 2012 she appeared on the cover again. This time with a completely different look: a super short pitch black pixie.
a small model moment
For the most part celebrities have maintained their stronghold on magazine covers. But in 2005, model Liya Kebede, a Vogue favorite, was one of the first models (black or white) since the late 90s to be photographed alone on a cover. Her long straight hair was styled simply with a center part. In recent years, several of the international versions of Vogue have featured ethnic models, such as Lais Ribero for Vogue Germany in 2012 and Joan Smalls in a 2012 issue of Vogue Turkey (both pictured above respectively). It’s worth noting that Ms. Joan Smalls, has graced the cover of at least six international issues of Vogue.
vogue finally talks race
The more welcoming arms of Vogue America’s foreign counterparts might be a result of less cultural baggage or a result of the collectible 2008 Vogue Italia black issue, which was released with four covers, each with its own brown-skinned beauty. The issue sold out in the US and Britain and had to be reprinted to meet demand. The issue made a social statement and stirred up important discussions about race, beauty and the fashion industry. But on a less important note, it also made a hair and fashion statement–hats were back!
Also in 2008, American Vogue stirred up a little race talk of its own, featuring the first-ever black male on its cover (only three men in total have made the cover of Vogue). Some criticized the LeBron James and Giselle Bündchen cover, likening it to images of King Kong and a white damsel in distress. Per Wikipedia, “further criticism arose when the website Watching the Watchers analyzed the photo alongside the World War I recruitment poster titled Destroy This Mad Brute. James, however, reportedly liked the cover shoot.”
It’s nice to look at these covers because, well, they’re pretty and there’s significance in gaining entrance into a garden whose high walls are hard to penetrate. It’s nice to cheer on the ones that broke through. But as more women look elsewhere for content and imagery that speaks to them, as technology levels the playing field of media and as print sales continue to decline, gated gardens like Vogue stand to become relics of an exclusive approach to beauty. And the changing media landscape will lessen the rarity of black imagery and open the floodgates of all the shapes, colors and sizes that are beautiful.