While we are far from fully eradicating racist practices in the fashion industry, the HBO new series “About Face: Supermodels Then and Now,” which premiered last night, explores how bigotry affected supermodels of yesteryear. Legends Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, and Beverly Johnson open up about the overtly racist incidents they experienced as models and agents working in fashion in the 1970s. Via Jezebel:
Hardison, who went on to work as a modeling agent, talks about trying to change the minds of clients who wanted 35 white models for their runway show — and one black model. Today on “Fresh Air,” Johnson recalled finding out from talking to her white model friends that she was regularly being paid less by clients for the same work.
Machado says that in 1958, in order for Harper’s Bazaar to publish the iconic Richard Avedon portrait of her, Avedon had to threaten to end his contract with the magazine. It was the first time a non-white woman had been featured in the pages of an American fashion magazine.
Cleveland talks about finding her place in the industry as a mixed-race woman: “I’m an eighth black, Irish, Cherokee, English, Scottish, German,” she says. “Avedon used to say to me all the time, ‘Oh, Pat, I want to use you more, but they just don’t know what you are.’”
The Ebony Fashion Fair, the traveling fashion shows organized by the magazine, was her first big job. Cleveland tells a harrowing story of an incident where the Ebony bus was attacked by a group of armed white men in the South in the 1960s after they stopped to try to use the bathroom. “We see these guys coming to the bus. And they’re really angry, and they’re carrying sticks and stuff,” Cleveland says. “And the bus driver says, We’ve gotta get out of here. But the bus doesn’t start. They started banging on our bus. They were trying to turn our bus over, and the bus driver was trying to get the bus to go. It was so frightening, and I kept peeking out and to see these ugly faces. And that didn’t happen only once.”
Tales of buses almost being overturned by armed, hateful men are terrifying. But what I find even sadder is how subtle racism, like being paid less or being told you can’t “be used” in fashion shoots, is perpetuated today. “About Face” shows just how hard supermodels of color fought to be acknowledged and how racism persists in the fashion industry decades later.
Watch the trailer below: