Graduate Student Unpacks the Issues of Blackness in the Fashion Industry

Katiti Karonde was the first black model to appear on the cover of  Glamour  magazine. 

Katiti Karonde was the first black model to appear on the cover of Glamour magazine. 

So often, blackness—and its gruesome history—can be rendered a garment that can easily be shed when a season no longer begs for its use. Regardless of its trendiness, its historical oppression and misrepresentation continues to be worn and experienced by those that it most truly represents­–black Americans.

The above is an excerpt from Rikki Byrd's essay, "Black: The Color We Wear, The Temporality of Blackness in the Fashion Industry," which was originally published in the online journal Notices. In the essay, Rikki provides a historical survey of how the Black body has come to fashioned from slavery to Fashion Week. Her rich research and hypothesis of blackness as a trend is a part of her thesis in Parsons the New School of Design's Masters of Arts in Fashion Studies program. Read the introduction to Rikki's essay below, and stay updated on her research on her blog

Black: The Color We Wear--Introduction

On April 11, 1969 a fashion supplement appeared inTIME Magazine. In it, an article titled “Black Look in Beauty” considered a trend of blackness in the fashion industry. The article reads that the fashion industry “has started thinking black.” It goes on to highlight the most coming-of-age black models during this time, such as Donyale Luna, Naomi Sims, Charlene Dash, Jolie Jones, Anne Fowler and Yahne Sangare, who were appearing in some of fashion’s most elite publications that before this time, were not featuring black models at all. This arrival of black models and the use of their blackness was assigned to what TIME wrote as “the temper of the times.” The article quotes photographer Bert Stern, who said that, “Negroes photograph better against white.” Unmatched fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert told the publication “this is the moment for the Negro girl. She has long legs, apt to be very thin and wiry. This is the look of now” (TIME Magazine 1969).

Lambert’s use of the word “now” holds true the implication that whom she states as the Negro girl is temporal–going in and out of style like many other trends in fashion. Sociologists have written about the short-lived trends in fashion: Werner Sombart writes about the “tempo of changes in fashion,” and if any “fashion” spans several years it brings into question whether or not it has become a national costume (2004, 313); Georg Simmel discusses fashion in terms of the distinction between its “simultaneous beginning and end,” writing that “fashion includes…the charm of novelty coupled to that of transitoriness” (2004, 295); Yuniya Kawamura boldly writes that, “the essence of fashion is change ” (2005). These concepts of temporality specifically focus on modes of dress and style in fashion, as it pertains to consumption and class. However, I wish to elucidate the temporality of blackness in fashion, as it functions as a trend, or in what Lambert states as “the look of now.”

In Skin Deep (Summers 1998, PXIII), former Ford Model and fashion scholar Barbara Summers writes: “It is ridiculous to think that skin color could ever be in or out of style.” Other writers on blackness and fashion have written about how slaves came to fashion themselves (Miller 2009), black women’s fashion and beauty magazines and advertisements (Rooks 2004), and the permanence of African culture through fashion (Griebel 1995). To consider race and fashion is to consider how the former is reconstructed into an aesthetic statement. Much like a resort collection that is temporal in that it is meant for warmer weather and months, or coats and boots from a fall/winter collection, blackness is also used as a means of display and consumption. The evolution of blackness can be studied as fashionable—from slavery to more recent examples such as the lack of diversity at New York Fashion Week.