Fashion magazines document the evolution of our society. The way we think about ourselves, fashion, and politics is described by fashion editors, the people who appear on the cover, and the narrative behind each edition.
As it happens in daily conversations, there's not one unanimous way of perceiving our surroundings. The way a TV channel narrates an event will be entirely different from the way other journalists in other media will describe it. This clash of ideas generates controversy. Can we agree to disagree? Can we all be right, or are we all wrong? Let's take a look at some historical moments from Vogue that generated controversy and made political statements through their fashion content and their fashion narrative.
A Natural Disaster as a Fashion Background
In April 2010, the largest marine oil spill in history was caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coastal waters of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were highly affected for months. About 1,100 miles of shoreline were polluted, around 11,000 people were temporarily unemployed, and the affected states' tourism industry had a substantial financial impact the entire summer as no tourists wanted to be near the polluted sea waters.
Amid a huge environmental and financial crisis, the August edition of Vogue Italy 2010 featured a fashion shoot inspired by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The model wears apocalyptic-inspired black clothes that included feathers, netting, black makeup, and dramatic body postures.
The team behind this concept described this shoot as an opportunity to give visibility to a very important event. However, the negative comments seemed to predominate as there were many furious environmentalists, journalists, and fashion editors who considered this shoot insensitive "glamourizing disaster." After all, the shoot did bring attention to an environmental event. Still, the narrative, and the luxurious clothes the model wears, didn't seem well-intentioned nor empathetic to the people and the sea life affected by the oil spill.
The Ministers of Spain lived a fashion dream, but it made people furious.
In the Summer of 2004, Vogue Spain celebrated eight women that served as ministers during Zapatero's administration. (The President of Spain from that time). The ministers remember the challenge of scheduling a photo shoot for eight different ministers that also worked with Vogue's fashion team. The edition finally came out, and there were many comments about the images and the participation of these women in Vogue.
Zapatero's presidency began in April of the same year. Under the premise of austerity, the President introduced a cabinet that showed huge progress toward gender equality in politics. However, the ministers appeared in Vogue wearing clothes from the trendiest Spanish designers, including Adolfo Dominguez, Roberto Verino, Loewe, and Roberto Torreta. To make things more complicated, you can see in the photographs real fur coats. So the picture received criticism from the opposing party, claiming that the message of austerity from their administration wasn't really honest. And they also got a complaint from environmentalists and animal protectors. (La Voz de Galicia).
There were good intentions behind celebrating the progress towards gender equity in the political environment of Spain, but the execution wasn't successful. For the most part, the problem was that the photograph didn't align with the message of austerity from Zapatero's administration. How can a government connect with the working class and claim to represent them when the clothes they show in Vogue are only affordable to the upper class? Fashion doesn't have to be expensive. Elegance doesn't have to be luxurious. And the clothes must be aligned with the messages of politicians or whoever is wearing the clothes. If not, controversies, rejection, and misunderstandings happen.
First Black Person on the Cover of Vogue
In the last couple of decades, we've seen a huge development toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in fashion. Mainly, this progress is due to consumers' demand and strong voices on social media and digital platforms. However, there have also been significant changes because of smart and talented people behind these fashion editorials that welcome people of different backgrounds and redefine the ideals of beauty on the cover of magazines. Let's take a look at some "firsts" in Vogue covers.
Only a few years after the Civil Rights movement, a young lady arrived at the building of Conde Nast in New York, with the strong desire to be a fashion model in a world that didn't have makeup for people of color or equipment to photograph people of color. The ideal of beauty was a white blonde skinny lady.
But in 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first black woman to appear on a Vogue cover. This was a huge moment in fashion history because the competitiveness in fashion made Johnson's career extremely challenging, and even after the magazine made it to the newsstands, the model didn't receive recognition or support from fellow models. In a recent Vogue interview, Johnson recalls how she made it to the newsstand happy to see her face on the cover, but the people around her, and the people in her workplace didn't seem to care.
In 1992, Richard Gere became the first man to appear on a Vogue cover. Next to his wife, the supermodel Cindy Crawford, this cover started the conversation about fashion not being exclusively for women.
First man to do a solo Vogue cover
In December 2020, Harry Styles made history, becoming the 10th man to appear on a Vogue cover and the first one to do it solo. In previous editions, Ben Stiller posed next to Penelope Cruz to promote a movie. Justin Bieber made it to the cover next to supermodel Hailey Bieber to celebrate their marriage. Styles's edition is unique because it reinforced the conversation around fashion being a matter of interest for people of all genders, not just women.
Harry Styles became a relevant figure in fashion, particularly after becoming a close friend and muse of Alessandro Michelle, Gucci's creative director since 2015. When Styles co-hosted the Met Gala in 2019, his transparent black outfit celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion made it to the Best Dressed Lists.
But Harry Styles, with his fashion style, is not everyone's cup of tea. The British singer has been recognized for his efforts in wearing genderless fashion and delivering a speech through his clothes about manly men able to wear skirts, red nails, and pearls. But the questions are: Is he really the first man delivering this message of masculinity? Haven't there been LGBTQ+ people in the entertainment industry like Billy Porter or Lil Nas X who made these statements before yet received pushback and judgemental criticism from the same media outlets embracing Harry Styles? Why does it seem like internalized racism and prejudices come in even with topics around inclusion?
In fashion and politics, it's hard, if not impossible, to make everyone happy. The truth is, Styles's Vogue cover gave genderless fashion global visibility and opened opportunities to other cisgender men to be curious and playful with fashion, an idea that for decades wasn't really heard of. But it's also true that the path toward inclusive fashion is still in its early stages, and there is still a long way to go, and so many underrepresented communities to show on magazine covers, such as LGBTQ+ people of color.
First Female Vice President on the Cover
People make history. Fashion makes history. Fashion magazines become photographs of people making history while delivering messages with their clothes. A truly historic Vogue cover is the February 2021's Vogue USA cover. This edition featured Kamala Harris, the first female, first African-American, and first Asian-American Vice President in the history of the United States.
Throughout the campaign, Harris made a Political Fashion statement with her now signature Converse shoes as she visited several cities within a matter of hours. This footwear illustrated an active politician ready to do the work needed. As the first female vice-president, there were many "firsts" for her. Many mass media outlets focused way more on her appearance than on her proposals and vision. So these shoes became a visual representation of how Ms. Harris didn't plan to be a stereotypical female figure with high heels who couldn't move quickly and actively.
So the Biden-Harris administration took office in January 2021, and Kamala Harris became the Vice President of the United States, so when Vogue showed the cover of this historical event, many readers were disappointed with the way the Vice President was portrayed.
On the cover, we see Harris with a green background. A somehow messy pink fabric hangs from the wall and lays on the floor. The Vice President holds her hands and wears her iconic Converse shoes and pearl necklace. But the lighting doesn't seem right, and the casual look belongs to a Vice-presidential candidate, not a current Vice President.
The controversy increased to the point where Vogue's Editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour spoke about the decision process of the photography that ended up on the cover. She said that the "cleaner" version didn't represent the situation that the United States, and the whole world, were going through. Wintour claimed that the "organic photo," with a natural pose and the Converse shoes for which Ms. Harris is known, seemed like a lively portrait of this new chapter in American history. (New York Times)
In the end, supporters of Ms. Harris and readers, in general, didn't seem fully satisfied with the edition. Especially because the controversy of not lighting people of color with respect and accuracy has been around for several decades in fashion editorials, and there still seems to be areas of opportunity in this aspect of photography.
More Historic Vogue Covers
And the list will continue throughout the years because our strong wish for diverse stories to be told through fashion and fashion editorials becomes bigger day after day. Many of them will be controversial, many of them will be a matter of celebration, and some of them will question if the path we are going towards is the right one. It’s all about perception and understanding that in fashion and in our society, it’s worth sharing stories from people of different backgrounds and paying attention to those that have been unheard of for centuries.