Over the years, there is one tale that has enchanted much of the fashion industry, that of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland – it is a story that ignites the imagination from its first illustrations in 1865 much has been made of this story, but more than that are the cast of characters and peculiarties. However, in all its rendition- and there have been many, none has been told like this; with a full cast of Black people, from all works of life, in all shades of Blackness. Alice’s story often runs the risk of being overplayed, ranging from the fantastical to the tepid, but there is something about the tale in itself, that no matter how many times it is imagined, it doesn’t lose much of its magic. The mad hatter’s tea party being one of the most iconic scenes in fictional history, one could say we have fallen down the rabbit hole in the state of the world today, and we are all guests at the Mad Hatter’s table. Who is the mad hatter? Pick a world leader, any world leader and they will fit into the narrative.
Alas, this isn’t about world leaders or politics, it is about fashion…but in a roundabout way it makes this political.
For it’s ’18 offering Pirelli once famously known as gauche lad-ish calendar is continuing in its renaissance- this time around with the help of Tim Walker, Alice In Wonderland is getting a reboot featuring an all Black cast. Ever since Vogue Black in 2008, I have been sceptical of anything that has to do with casting all-Black actors, actresses etc. for the simple fact that it screams tokenism, it is a reference to a point in time, and then we move on back to the norm. I’ll admit I too was swept up in the Vogue Black hype, queued up for one hour and bought all four copies, even though I did not, still do not, understand a word of Italian. At the time, I did not fully understand the bigger issues at play, I was simply a girl who loved fashion, happy to finally see women like me on the covers and in the pages of one the most iconic magazines in the world. Even if it was not the flagship, it was a version of VOGUE, at the time, the great. It was a moment in history that I was glad to be a part of in any small way. But then, the world moved on back to the status quo- whiteness. Vogue Black was for the moment, of the moment- almost as if the the fashion world was dangling the cool carrot in our faces before snatching it back out of our reach for another few seasons, years; so we don’t get to complain about their contrary attitudes and behaviours as they go back to their acceptable norms.
So when I heard of Pirelli’s 2018 calendar featuring an all-Black cast, I met it with a lot of skepticism, questioning its validity. Is this going to be the same thing where Black people are only invited to the table during special occasions? Is this another token gesture from the fashion world to prove how “inclusive” it can be when it comes to race, something it still struggles with and will continue to because of its inherent lack of understanding of cultures outside of its overarching whiteness? Or is this finally for real?
What is this?
With Tim Walker at the helm one can expect a typical artistry, a super imposition of a whimsical world, dark romanticism, its his aesthetic, often to the left and a little twisted, fitting if we think of it. He works with Edward Enninful, Editor of British Vogue, and together they manage to create something a bit more than the bog standard diversity trap that fashion doles out from time to time when they want to play up that silly little card. It is not just a cast of black models or actors and actresses, it is people from all works of life, and the different shades of Blackness there is. A completely Black cast is always going to draw the narrative that drives race and its precarious relationship with fashion, any artistic endeavours coming in as an afterthought. Until fashion can be truly diverse, where ethnicity is not seen as a prop or used as a token to drive a particular narrative, it will always raise such questions and reactions as to its validity.
Another issue this shoot raises is the bias within and different myths and beliefs surrounding those. As a left-handed child growing up in West Africa, the use of my left hand was a taboo, and in primary school my teachers tried to “correct” that but my parents stepped in and prohibited it. My dad, in his day, was not so lucky, or maybe he was because rather than stop all together he became ambidextrous, but it affected his more formative years as a child. To give or receive something in my culture with the left hand is still offensive to some, it is still seen as the wrong hand. Albinism has an even bigger stigma especially in the most extreme parts where it is likened to witchcraft. Twins faced that stigma as well. Seeing Thando Hopa amongst the cast reinforced the message of inclusivity but also reminds me of how, within our society, there are those who still are marginalised because of their shade, societal norms and cultural practices passed down over time.
Still, there is something more about this shoot that makes it bigger than the everyday fashion norm, from the cast of well-knowns, Sean Combes, Lupita Nyong’o to Duckie Thot, South Sudanese-Australian model, Whoopie Goldberg and Hopa, there is a message here of going beyond the intended narrative of any work fictional or otherwise, giving one’s self a narrative far beyond what the world attributes to you. It’s a concept I hope pushes the boundaries of this same conversation we have whenever it comes to race and fashion and the concept of inclusivity and norms. Norms matter, as do narratives but in the world as we know it, there is a need to go beyond the limiting quarters imposed by the status-quo. I hope this does it, or is at least the first step towards that.