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Real Talk: Are We a 'Haute Mess?'

Is Vogue Italia glorifying what we don't want seen?
Last week I was privy to a fashion editorial in Vogue Italia called “Haute Mess,” a shoot that mocked the reigning hood fashions of the day. You know the kind: They’re the pictures that are forwarded to us in emails, photos of the girls with Bronner Bros.-style ‘dos — candy wrappers or dollar bills weaved into brightly colored blue, purple or green tresses sculpted to resemble a parade float. They’re the girls with caked-on makeup and Day-Glo eyeshadow, with nails (both sets) color-coordinated to match their loud getups. They’re the club pictures of drunk girls in cheap outfits and horrific weaves, posing with their bootys on display for the camera.

It was clear that Vogue Italia and photographer Steven Meisel were mocking girls whose images we often gawk at, women who make us offhandedly scrunch our faces and label them “ghetto” or a “hot mess,” much the way the Italian Vogue editors did. But as so many Black viewers saw the pictures and cried “Offensive!” at the statuesque white models inside the issue appropriating a particular brand of Black-girl style, I wondered if the charge is valid this time, or if we are deflecting to avoid addressing the leopard-print, neon-pink, Lucite-heeled elephant in the room.

Making the situation more complicated is the fact that the cover model, Joan Smalls, is Black — the first Black woman to cover the magazine in years. It’s… uncomfortable that when a Black girl finally makes the coveted cover, her layout is “hood chic.” I get the ire. And I understand the argument from women who saw the magazine’s inside pictures being celebrated in some places, and wondered why when white women slap in bamboo earrings and gold teeth and post up at fast-food restaurants it’s called “edgy” and “avant-garde,” but when a Black woman with a multi-syllabic name that includes a odd apostrophe does it, she’s the poster child for all that’s wrong with America.  

But as I looked at the models with bad lace-front wigs and weaves with the tracks showing, wearing enough gold jewelry to rival Mr. T’s personal collection, I concluded that some our cringing is also because of the worldwide display of a brand of Black women that the ESSENCE-reading type doesn’t publicly like to acknowledge. Yes, Black women are all things beautiful, chic and lovely, but this here? We are also this too.

Perhaps because so many images in the media are of Black women who don’t show the best of what we offer, we roll our eyes when we see her elevated, wondering why, out of all the ways to “celebrate” Black culture, “this” (said always with disdain) is what was chosen. Why is it somehow believed to be okay for us to look down on women who dress or accessorize this way, but when someone else — someone white or non-Black— does the same, it’s so problematic? It’s a bit like the N-word in that way.

Were you offended by the “Haute Mess” editorial?

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk