I can appreciate that Vogue is perhaps trying to improve upon its history of blind appropriation, cultural insensitivity and outright racism, but it’s hard not to walk away from its recent story on responsible adoption of cultural trends without scratching your head. Something about it just feels a bit off.
Vogue.com has published a rather lovely story about a beautiful and stylish young lady named Amy Sall. Sall is a graduate student living New York City whose parents are from Senegal and in the article, she discusses how Senegalese culture and women in other African countries have impacted her personal style.
“How One Grad Student Incorporates Her Senegalese Roots Into Her NYC Style” actually does a very nice job of exploring how to borrow aspects of other cultures to enhance your personal style without being offensive, but that’s probably because 90% of the piece was written by Amy Sall and not someone from Vogue. An excellent move on their part.
Perhaps it’s the way that the story is framed. Vogue does personal style profiles like this all the time, so it would have been nice if they had just focused on the fashion in general instead of making Sall explain cultural appropriation to white people. The focus is on her African-influenced personal style instead of her personal style that happens to include African-influenced aspects.
One section of the piece is includes the subheading: “How to Appropriate Style Respectfully and Fashionably,” and it goes without saying that Vogue would have done well to drop that last word. Sall writes:
I believe in terms of being respectful, it takes more than just liking something that’s African and trying to wear it. This is their everyday dress and some things signify rituals and traditions, like the birth of a child, a funeral or a marriage. So many elements are codified within these fabrics, dresses, and necklaces. When things are appropriated, they are extracted from that context. It’s important to know what these things mean and who these people are and not just label it as fashion. It’s beautiful, but it’s not fashion, it’s culture, and a representation of individuals and history. People have to be mindful of that and take the time to learn about it.
I don’t know Sall but I now love her because this is a perfect explanation of how to embrace other cultures without being an asshole and I can’t help but read it as her throwing some shadeVogue’s way.
The magazine isn’t know to handle diversity and racial and cultural sensitivity very well. You’ll recall when Lebron James appeared on a 2008 cover that many felt conjured up the idea of the “angry black man.” Earlier this year Vogue published a piece online titled: “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty,” which completely erased black and brown women from the equation. Of course there’s also the fact that Vogue magazine covers have historically been 99% white.
This is to say nothing of the Vogue brand’s international versions which routinely paint white models in blackface and generally just offend people of color by simultanously hijacking and erasing them from their cultures. It’s not that this isn’t a step in the right direction, but they still have quite a bit to make up for.
I will give Vogue this: they tried and it is great to see some color, even if its only online. Maybe this is just a smart one off item or maybe Vogue really is working on how it interacts with other cultures. If nothing else, Sall’s essay can serve as great advice to Vogue: an excellent way to be respectful to cultures outside your own, is to actually employ and listen to the people who are part of those cultures.