Fashion has always been political. It can’t help it. It reflects what’s taking place in the world at any given point in time. So when Vogue decides to relaunch its website using a Palestinian-American model for the reproduction of an iconic photograph which previously featured Israeli model Michaela Bercu, it means something, especially at a time when the conflict in Gaza has been raging once again.
The original photograph also caused a stir for very different reasons when it was first published in 1988. Anna Wintour had just been appointed editor-in-chief at American Vogue when she booked Bercu for a shoot.
However there was, in fashion terms, a meltdown that day. Some of the clothes they’d lined up for her didn’t fit so she ended up being photographed wearing her own stonewashed jeans with the Christian Lacroix top she was meant to be modelling. Back then, high street style and high fashion never met so this ensemble was entirely ground breaking. Wintour liked the look of the images and chose one snapped out on the street for the cover of the magazine. This relaxed, natural shot was a world away from the usual formal house-style, so much so that it caused a sensation. With her first cover Wintour had made her mark.
Given its significance, it’s not surprising that this pivotal image has been meticulously recreated for the recent re-launch of Vogue.com. But the choice of rising superstar Gigi Hadid as the model is what’s making headlines around the world – especially in the Middle East.
You may have seen Gigi Hadid (almost) baring all in the recent Tom Ford “Velvet Orchid” fragrance campaign, but I bet you never thought much about her nationality in spite of her surname.
To all extents and purposes, Hadid is an American girl born and brought up in California. However, her father, the property mogul Mohammed Hadid is Palestinian, and it’s Hadid’s Palestinian heritage that Vogue has chosen to highlight in its brief description of the model accompanying the new photograph. She’s also pictured holding a copy of the original magazine with Bercu on the cover – and guess what? The two women look incredibly, uncannily alike.
Dressed in similar clothes and with the same mussed up tresses, they could almost be sisters. So what exactly is Vogue trying to say? For my part it’s hard to see these two almost interchangeable women and not reflect on the only thing that ‘separates’ them – their nationality. It makes me think about the pointlessness of war; the lives lost; the fact that the circumstances of our birth can dictate so much.
Dressed in similar clothes and with the same mussed up tresses, they could almost be sisters. So what exactly is Vogue trying to say? For my part it’s hard to see these two almost interchangeable women and not reflect on the only thing that “separates” them – their nationality. It makes me think about the pointlessness of war; the lives lost; the fact that the circumstances of our birth can dictate so much. There but for the grace of God … etc etc.
For other analysts though, the image has a more direct political message.
“Is Palestinian the new Israeli?” screams one headline. “Is the Israel-Palestinian conflict being fought on the cover of Vogue?” inquires another. So is Vogue making some sort of pro-Palestinian point? Well, we don’t actually know. We’ve not been told. It’s all a matter of interpretation and perception. It’s art.
Generally speaking it’s quite rare for a model’s background or ethnicity to become the story. But sometimes it happens. When Beverly Johnson became the first black model to appear on the front cover of American Vogue 40 years ago, she was breaking racial taboos. She was unaware of it at the time but when the phones started ringing off the hook she realised something was up.
Hitting the right note
More recently, the Sudanese British model Alek Wek has chosen to use her supermodel status as a platform for speaking out about women’s rights. A talent spotted in London in the late 1990s, Wek came to the UK from South Sudan as a teenager after civil war broke out. Her dark skin and Dinka features made her stand out from the modelling crowd and she hit the right note at the right time. Soon she was being booked by the likes of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Anna Sui and was named Model of the Year by i-D magazine. Now, Wek also works as an ambassador for the UNHCR and regularly visits South Sudan highlighting the conditions in refugee camps there.
Of course there can be risks in tying your work up with your politics. Just this month it was rumoured that actress Penelope Cruz had been blacklisted by certain Hollywood executives after she signed an open letter in a Spanish newspaper denouncing Israel’s bombing of Gaza. And back in 2011, British actress Tilda Swinton divided the blogosphere when she was photographed for British Vogue wearing a knitted “Palestine” scarf designed by Bella Freud for the Hoping Foundation that supports Palestinian refugee children. We’re told that all the clothes were the model’s own – but presumably the editor (and Swinton) knew the scarf would cause a stir.
The fact that we’re all talking about Vogue‘s Bercu/Hadid photoshoot means it’s been a huge PR success story. A clever calculation I’m sure. But whatever the “meaning” of the image, it highlights the hidden power of fashion to make us stop and think – and that can only be a good thing.
Mary Jane Baxter is a fashion writer and broadcaster and worked as a correspondent for the BBC before retraining as a milliner and launching her own label. She is a regular contributor to British style and interiors magazines and is the author of “The Modern Girl’s Guide to Hatmaking.”