Transcending Blackness in Vogue’s September Issues

In its 126-year history, Vogue turned its pages towards a new trajectory. For its 2018 September issue, its cover and accompanied editorial were graced and photographed by African-Americans; Grammy Award-winning artist Beyoncé Knowles-Carter was given control to conduct the creative direction of the issue’s cover and editorial, choosing the bourgeoning fashion photographer Tyler Mitchell to direct the photoshoot.[1] The final product materialized into a series of vivid elegant photographs that combine settings and high fashion inspired by fine art and Black culture. Moreover, she wore a cornrow hairstyle to express her cultural identity while simultaneously subverting high fashion. In addition to each theme and their titles, which were inspired by several of her musical singles including “Flawless” (2013) and “Sorry” (2016), this cover and editorial felt like an extension of Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade visual album, encompassing various settings and ensembles that allude to themes like the Antebellum South (In the US, the Antebellum South is typically associated with slavery.) or the Yoruba goddess Oshun.[2] Conversely, the poses that Mitchell captured highlight Beyoncé’s voluptuous silhouette, communicating how she embraced her body after the birth of her twins.[3] Beyoncé may have also used the September Issue to exude a perception of being seen on the same plane as Western Art as she did in her 2018 “Apeshit” music video.[4] Even on the Vogue cover, Beyoncé looks as regal as the 1536 Renaissance portrait of Isabella D’Este by Titian. Furthermore, this Vogue September cover and editorial represented more than a historic precedent of two African-Americans gaining temporary autonomy over a traditionally Eurocentric publication, it symbolized a transcendence of blackness into high art. 

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Beyoncé in Vogue 2018 September Issue, photographed by Tyler Mitchell

Vogue’s 2018 September issue was the fifth time in its history that a black woman has graced a September issue cover and editorial. In 2015, Beyoncé was also the face of the publication’s September issue. Unlike her photoshoot in 2018, she was certainly not in control of its artistic direction just as the other three women before her, including supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1989, Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry in 2010, and supermodel Joan Smalls in 2014. Despite not having the authority to exclusively control the artistic direction of their photoshoots, Vogue placed these women as the epitome of high style in contemporary fashion while gradually and subtly delineating a wider spectrum of blackness.

From the left to right Vogue September Issues: Halle Berry (2010), Joan Smalls (2014), Beyoncé (2015)

For instance, in Vogue’s September 1989 issue, many of the editorials that feature Naomi Campbell, like the “Straight and Narrow” and “Bronze Cast,” are simply style directives for the publication’s target audience.[5] Being that this cover was Anna Wintour’s first September Issue as Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, the mere fact that Campbell was on the cover was controversial. Wintour expressed on Vogue’s podcast in 2015 that executives were stunned at her decision to choose Campbell.[6] Furthermore, while modeling glamorous ensembles from sequined Chanel Jackets to Isaac Mizrahi gowns, Campbell’s statuesque body added a tremendous flair to the silhouettes of the fashions she wore, subtly showing blackness through her physical characteristics. Due to the fitness trend that was prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, supermodels like Naomi Campbell exemplified the essence of high fashion; her silky skin certainly made her unique amongst her peers.

Naomi Campbell in Vogue 1989 September Issue, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier

It is also important to note that Campbell has also recently been on the cover of Vogue Paris’ 2018 September issue; the editorials in the issue also featured many of her supermodel peers that rose with her during the 1980s and 1990s. On the cover, Campbell’s toned elongated body is more exposed in this drop-waist Paco Rabanne dress and is a primary aspect of the cover’s imagery, whereas comparatively, the sequined suit that drapes her body takes precedence on the cover of Vogue’s (US) 1989 September issue. Approximately thirty years ago in August 1988, Campbell was also the first Black woman on the cover of Vogue Paris, thus, her reprisal on the cover and accompanied editorial symbolizes her longevity as a fashion leader despite the ebbs and flows of fashion trends and body ideals. 

From left to Right: Naomi Campbell in Vogue Paris’ 1988 August issue, Campbell in Vogue Paris’ 2018 September issue


Similarly to Campbell in 1989, in Vogue’s 2010 and 2015 September issues, Halle Berry and Beyoncé’s physical traits, including their more voluptuous silhouettes, were the primary facets of their photoshoots. As seen prevalently in the editorial for the 2015 September issue, Beyoncé modeled more seductive fashions than Campbell in 1989. Moreover, in one of the photographs, Beyoncé poses in a black revealing silk mesh Versace Atelier mermaid gown, allowing her curvaceous shape to emphasize the gown’s silhouette. Certainly, there is a history of the sexualization of black women’s bodies dating back to slavery, but in this case, Beyoncé’s sensuality is hailed as a fixture of high style instead of as a detriment to the Black community.

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Beyoncé in Vogue 2015 September Issue, photograph by Mario Testino


Across the Atlantic, historic efforts were also made at British Vogue; its first Black Editor-in Chief, Edward Enninful directed his first September issue for the publication with its first Black face, Grammy-Award winning artist, Rihanna. Additionally, on the September issue for Vogue Arabia, rapper Nicki Minaj was the first black woman to grace its September cover and editorial. On one hand, having these Black women as the face of high fashion is quite extraordinary. Conversely, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj are also the leading musical artist of this generation. Placing these women in these coveted positions exemplify that Black culture by way of music has encouraged the presence of Black bodies on and within Vogue’s September issues, and it discretely recognizes that there is correlation between high style and Black music. What is also unique about these two covers is that they use Rihanna and Nicki Minaj as fixtures to the issues’ avant-garde imagery in addition to the eccentric fashions they wore and the eccentric styling of their photoshoots. When looking back to Campbell’s first Vogue September issue, it is very casual and light-hearted. In both 2018 September issues of British Vogue and Vogue Arabia, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj embrace more architectural fashions, which coupled with their eclectic posing emphasizes the voluminous or deconstructed silhouettes of the garments. In all things considered, like Beyoncé in Vogue’s 2018 September issue, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj represent the manifestation of Black bodies as an essence of high art.

From top to bottom: Rihanna in Vogue UK’s 2018 September issue, Nicki Minaj in Vogue Arabia’s 2018 September issue.


Prior to Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj’s permeation into the ranks of various Vogue September issues, there were Black women that paved the way for diversity in the fashion industry. In March 1966, Donyale Luna was the first Black woman to grace the cover of British Vogue, but ironically, majority of her face is covered. On one hand, the fashionable body ideal in the 1960s encompassed an emphasis on the eyes and a round face; it was very much in tune with the Space Age trend that was occurring in high fashion through designers like Courrèges and Pierre Cardin. Additionally, the eye makeup was clearly inspired by the makeup of Ancient Egyptians, framing Luna to represent a more “digestible” imagery for the magazine’s primary consumers. Moreover, for the first Black woman to be featured and have her face hidden on the cover one of the leading fashion publications insinuates the cautiousness of allowing Black bodies to illuminate in sync with the high fashion. It seems that this gesture implicated that the fashion industry was not ready to allow Black bodies to be expressed as equally as their White counterparts. In August 1974, Vogue (US) followed suit by having supermodel Beverly Johnson on its cover and accompanied editorials. Pat Cleveland, who was also a very prominent African-American supermodel, fled to Paris in the early 1970s and vowed never to return to work in the US until a Black woman was on the cover of Vogue.[7] Unlike Luna on the March 1966 British Vogue cover, Johnson’s face was the central staple; her bouffant hairstyle and radiant skin created a halo-like effect. It is as if this cover was meant to signal a new future for Black bodies as the leading faces in high fashion.

From left to right: Donyale Luna on British Vogue’s March 1966 cover, Beverly Johnson on Vogue’s August 1974 cover

Notes

[1] Constance Grady, “Vogue’s September Issue is Legendary. Here’s How Beyoncé Made it Her Own,” Vox, last modified August 6, 2018, accessed September 1, 2018,

[2] Darnell-Jamal Lisby, Dressing Queen B: Beyoncé’s Costumes and Fashions (New York: Fashion Institute of Technology, ProQuest), 73-76.

[3] Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, “Beyoncé in Her Own Words,” Vogue, August 6, 2018, 538. 

[4] The Carters, “Apeshit,” (music video), directed by Ricky Saiz, posted June 16, 2018, Tidal Music Streaming Service.

[5] "Fashion: Bronze Cast,” Vogue, September 1, 1989, 666-667. “Straight and Narrow,” Vogue, September 1, 1989,  693.

[6] Carly Stern, “Vogue editor Anna Wintour admits the magazine's execs were 'stunned' when she put a black model, Naomi Campbell, on the September cover for the first time in 1989,” Daily Mail UK, last modified September 15, 2015.

[7] Guy Trebay, “Pat Cleveland: Early Supermodel and Author With Many Tales,” New York Times, last updated June 15, 2016.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 








Darnell-Jamal Lisby