Everyone has heard of Naomi Campbell, for her modelling or otherwise, and even though hailed as the first black supermodel, there were in fact others before her, who paved the way and carved a route into the predominantly white fashion industry. Even though there are plenty of beautiful black women strutting down the runways today, they are still a minority, with people asking why it is so hard for black and ethnic women to break into the industry and address the balance of representation?
Where it began
Born in 1937 in New Jersey, Helen Williams became the first black female model to break into mainstream fashion. As a child, she studied drama and dance and enjoyed making her own clothes and ended up working as a stylist in New York. Sammy Davis Jr and Lena Horne were struck by her beauty and encouraged her to take up fashion modelling. She did just that, but unfortunately, it wasn’t her fellow Americans who welcomed her. At the time, apartheid excluded black women from fashion modelling and those who were in the black modelling circles, deemed her ‘too dark’ to be accepted. Paris didn’t though, and was mesmerized by her black beauty, and she was snapped up to work with designers like Christian Dior.
Despite her success in Paris, on returning home to America, attitudes had still not changed, agencies would have the one ‘token’ black girl and it was clear there wasn’t room for equal opportunities in the fashion industry, so Helen Williams took her case to the press where she was listened to by very influential white journalists Earl Wilson and Dorothy Kilgallen. They highlighted the prejudice in fashion and uncovered the ways in way black women were pushed aside and it seemed to do the trick. As a result she was booked for major campaigns and was pivotal in leading the way for other black women.
Black Models today
Times have certainly changed since the days of Helen Williams in the 1950’s but there is still a huge void in the representation of black and ethnic minority women in fashion today. Take fashion week in Rio, Brazil, only 10% of the models were black despite it being the epicentre of racial diversity! Editor of Italian Vogue, Franca Sozanni is one woman prepared to speak up and admit there is still prejudice in the industry and wants to see that change. Despite believing it is nothing to do with racism, she recognises that black girls just aren’t booked up by clients, but her crusade alone won’t change attitudes. A recent study in Canadian ELLE magazine concluded that women are more likely to buy products and clothes that were advertised on women that looked like them in size, colour and age. So if that is the case, do only tall, white, skinny women wear clothes and accessories? Why isn’t the industry targeting all of its market including black and Asian women? The way to change the face of fashion is for the big names to start booking more black models, US and UK Vogues having black women on the covers and ad campaigns that don’t solely consist of white women.
A Models life Isn’t an Easy One
While the glamour of having your hair and make up done and taking planes to exotic locations all over the world might be appealing to young black girls, even the women that do break into the industry face a tough career ahead. Racism, abuse, eating disorders and addiction can be some of the many obstacles a model will face in the industry. In the 1990’s ‘heroin chic’ was all the rage and runways were full of anorexic looking young girls with sunken eyes and grey skin, putting pressure on all women to follow the look if they were to be booked. Drugs are often used as appetite suppressants in the modelling industry, with girls under pressure to use anything from laxatives to cocaine, leading to addiction and in some cases, death. As Kate Moss once said ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ – a statement to be etched in many a young models mind as they struggled to battle their eating disorders.
Today’s black supermodel of the moment, Jourdan Dunn, is the first black model to walk in Prada’s show in over a decade, won Model of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in 2008 and has graced the covers of Italian and teen Vogue. But even she has experience racial prejudice like that of Helen William’s era, when she recently revealed how a white make up artist refused to touch her black skin and how when going for castings she was told they ‘didn’t want any more black girls’.
Modelling is a tough business; unfortunately, it’s tougher for some. The fashion industry appears to turn a blind eye to racial insensitivity, routinely Photoshop’s black skin to be lighter, puts a limit on black girls on the books and those that do make it through, still feel the need to fight for their place as they strive to put more colour on the catwalk.