The September issue of Essence marks the magazine’s 40th anniversary — and the debut of Ellianna Placas as the new official fashion director. The appointment of Placas, who is white and has been freelancing for the magazine over the past six months, drew a lot of criticism, which Robin Givhan addresses in the Washington Post today. While Givhan feels none of the concerns regarding the hire should be discounted, she argues:
[Essence] treated a black woman’s sense of style as though it was unique: the “special” beauty of black women.
That perspective is moving toward obsolescence. Models such as Liya Kebede and Queen Latifah have won lucrative cosmetics contracts from Est?e Lauder and Cover Girl, making black beauty more mass market than ever. Black models have starred as Victoria’s Secret angels – the contemporary version of a popular pin-up. Fashion designers vie to dress stars such as Beyonc?, Paula Patton and Viola Davis with the same ferocity as white ones. Black actresses regularly entrust their public image to white stylists. And designers of every race and ethnicity salivate at the prospect of dressing the first lady and a rainbow coalition of them have helped her look her best.
Givhan attempted to speak to Essence editor Angela Burt-Murray for her story, but she “declined to comment … preferring to pass on a discussion of the magazine’s anniversary if it included a conversation about Placas.” Though Burt-Murray defended her decision in a piece she wrote for the Grio, Givhan wishes she’d take a more vocal approach:
Instead of wishing that the brouhaha over Placas would die down, Burt-Murray should take to the airwaves and hold up her decision as a sign that Essence isn’t just about black women. Black women aren’t “special.” They are individuals and they are universal.
Just as surely as a black woman can develop the skills and sensitivity to someday hold sway over the entire fashion industry, a white woman can learn to seek out a diverse range of designers and a beautiful mix of models. And if the mainstream glossies keep to their mostly homogenous ways, so be it. That’s another battle. Essence shouldn’t aspire to be just like all the other magazines. It should aim to be better.