The Archives: Vintage Covers of Ebony Magazine From the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s
When British Vogue unveiled its February 2022 issue, featuring nine dark-skinned African models—Amar Akway, Majesty Amare, Akon Changkou, Nyagua Ruea, Abény Nhial, Maty Fall, Janet Jumbo, Adut Akech and Anok Yai—on the cover, it was a historic moment.
The cover stars were selected as a representation of a shift in the fashion industry that has seen more Black models, especially those of African origin, walk the runways of traditional European houses such as Prada, Valentino and Burberry. The magazine’s Ghanaian-British editor-in-chief Edward Enninful commented that “the rise of African representation in modelling is not only about symbolism, nor even simple beauty standards. It is about the elevation of a continent. It is about economics, access, culture, perspective, difference and wonder.”
Despite this, the cover and its corresponding editorial shoot were met with some criticism about the models’ appearances. The images have been called out for being poorly lit and making the models appear even unrealistically darker than they actually are. And even though the shoot was produced by a team of Black stylists, photographers, make-up artists and hairstylists, it was accused of still catering to a “white gaze”, and participating in the fetishization of Black skin.
While a lot of progress has been made when it comes to representation of Black people in the fashion industry, the lesson in this particular scenario is that there is still a long way to go, and the small details matter as much as the big picture.
It is worth noting that while it is still seen as “historic” and “important” for many American and European magazines to have a Black woman on the cover, publications such as Ebony, Jet and Essence have been dedicated to showcasing and celebrating people of color for many decades. Founded by publisher John Harold Johnson in 1945, Ebony shone a spotlight on the achievements of influential Black people in the worlds of fashion, beauty, entertainment and politics.
The print version was discontinued in 2019 (Jet also went digital in 2014) but Ebony magazine will always be regarded as an important part of the history of the Black press in the United States, with a legacy that lives on today.