The imperfect progression of diversity of magazine covers

In 2017, out of 214 covers published by 19 of the bestselling magazines only 20 featured a person of colour, has diverse representation in terms of race, gender, size and age improved since then?

With more time spent on social media, the focus on celebrities continues to grow. We’re constantly exposed to those in the limelight, whether through our smartphones or other media types, where the diversity of magazine covers in terms of race, gender, size, and age is a major talking point.

Our own self-perception is influenced by many things, including the ever-present media. Millions of print magazines are circulated each year and can create unrealistic ideals for men and women worldwide. Slim, white, young, and attractive supermodels were the norm on magazine covers, especially during the nineties and noughties. This became problematic for those with different appearances.

Magazines have become more diverse to an extent; however, there is a long way to go. For example, research by the Guardian reported that of 214 covers published by 19 of the bestselling magazines in 2017, only 20 featured a person of colour. There was an improvement from 2017 to 2018, however. The Fashion Spot reported that of the 745 covers it reviewed, across 51 top international and domestic fashion magazines, 281 or a record 37.7% were people of colour. Unfortunately, from 2018 to 2019, there was no such progress.

Progress that has been made in the industry

British Vogue’s former editor, Alexandra Shulman, stepped down in 2017 after 25 years. Her successor, Edward Enninful, was British Vogue’s first Black editor. Enninful reinvented Vogue, which was once aimed at a narrow demographic of white, upper-middle-class women. It now speaks to people of many different demographics. Since the beginning of his reign as editor-in-chief, Enninful has produced some of fashion’s most discussed covers. It would appear that the world was ready for diversity.

At the end of last year, Enninful was appointed as Vogue’s European editor, operating in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. His approach to championing diversity is likely one of the key reasons for his direct success in the British Vogue revival. Having a Black editor of one of the most popular and influential magazines in the world is a step forward in achieving diversity in the world of fashion.

It’s encouraging to see one of the most prominent and influential magazines taking strides in the right direction; however, other magazines are yet to follow suit for it to become the new norm. While progress is needed for a fair representation of different ethnicities, some areas can be celebrated.

Transgender models

Laverne Cox reached a milestone for the transgender community and became the first openly transgender person to be featured on Time magazine’s cover in 2014. Caitlyn Jenner was featured on Vanity Fair’s cover in 2015 following her transition. The 70-year-old Olympic gold medallist was able to present her true identity to the world this way. Transgender people recreated their own Vanity Fair covers inspired by Caitlyn, which can be seen on Twitter at #myvanityfaircover.

There is a growing conversation around the transgender community and how to support them. Many years ago, it wasn’t the norm for openly transgender models to be featured on magazine covers. By changing this and featuring more models from this community, it is hoped that this helps support individuals who may be struggling. It can also provide an idol to look up to.

Older models

Unfortunately, ageism is rife in our society. Marketing and advertising of products are seldom targeted towards older demographics, leaving older people feeling alienated and invisible. This is incredibly disappointing, considering a significant portion of Vogue’s readership is women over 40.

However, The Gentlewoman broke the mould and embraced the older person with their fall/winter 2012 edition, which featured Dame Angela Lansbury, a British-American actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. Angela Lansbury’s image wasn’t photoshopped to remove her wrinkles and signs of ageing like other covers have done, portraying her as she is. Lansbury’s cover kept her real appearance which could have empowered older women and relieve societal pressure to look young and be unrealistically wrinkle-free.

Eighty-five-year-old Dame Judy Dench was featured on the cover of Vogue early last year, making her the oldest person to ever make it on the cover in the magazine’s 104-year history. There is a close up of the renowned actress, showcasing her skin’s natural lines and beautiful silver hair. What is more encouraging to see is that this wasn’t some patronising “special issue” dedicated to age accompanying the 85-year-old appearing on the cover. We’ve typically seen that when someone is featured on a magazine cover that is older or perhaps has a unique feature, the whole issue is dedicated to that theme, undermining the cover’s positive message.

Plus-size models

Tess Holliday’s 2016 Cosmopolitan cover was praised as a win for the body positivity movement. Tess Holliday is a UK size 26, a change from size zero supermodels on the runway, and currently promotes products such as self-tan drops on worldwide magazines. 20 years ago, this would have never been thought possible.

The modelling industry has had a historical lack of representation of larger bodies, with media reinforcing a certain standard of beauty for women. Including a diverse range of bodies helps push back against pressure to look a certain way, empowering women of different sizes to feel comfortable in their bodies.

Something different

Vogue’s July issue was a change from the norm, as it praised frontline workers of different ethnicities working in a pandemic. British Vogue featured three frontline workers – a train driver, community midwife, and supermarket worker. Edward Enninful said he could “think of no more appropriate trio of women to represent the millions of people in the UK who, at the height of the pandemic, in the face of dangers large and small, put on their uniforms and work clothes and went to help people”.

This is a drastic difference from the typical Vogue cover illustrating an A-list celebrity or politician. The cover celebrated all of the people in this country who aren’t usually given the spotlight or appreciation they deserve.

Although it is encouraging to see how magazine covers have progressed, it is far from perfect. With influential editors like Edward Enninful of Vogue pushing for a diverse and new norm in the magazine industry, it is hoped that others will follow suit if they want to remain relevant and popular with their readership.
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