Words by Raquel Fernández Sobrín
Despite how hard September is looking from its beginning, when it comes to the fashion industry there is some space for optimism. It is too soon to find out if fashion week season is going to be as boring as it seems calendar in hand, but it is possible to say that both magazines and brands have tried their best to start paying their debt with racial diversity this month. The wave has even reached Spain -a country that usually plays deaf when the matter comes up-, although it is necessary to say that the only non-shared cover is the one starred by Moroccan-British model Nora Attal in S Moda.
After months of civil protests, some voices found the move opportunistic, but as pointed before, we are here to look to the bright side. Of course, that doesn’t mean stop acknowledging that there is still a long way to walk even the one that has taken us to this point has been even longer. Long, painful and full of horror stories that we shouldn’t forget.
Pat Cleveland, along Donyale Luna, Naomi Sims or Marsha Hunt, is one of the models that opened doors for the supers of today; and her autobiography Walking with the Muses is full of incidents helpful for those willing to understand the dimensions of the problem. Like the time she had to run away from a crowd of armed man at diner in the middle of Louisiana back in 1966, when the Civil rights Act signed during Lyndon Johnson’s tenure was two years old. Big changes take time, so it wasn’t equally assimilated along the country.
Cleveland was part of the model crowd of that year’s Ebony Fashion Tour, an itinerant show that was the only chance for middle class black women to experience high fashion and for black designers to gain recognition all over the United States. Started in 1958, it was pretty much a tour, with models and dressers traveling in a bus (Pat traveled with her mother that year, but she also invited her boyfriend at the time, Muhammad Ali to join them). The incident happened during a breakfast stop with a sign at the toilet that said “Whites Only” and ended with a ragged runaway.
– Your nigger friend here has to go ‘round the outhouse. We don’t want no coloreds filthying up out toilets.
This place is an outhouse, I thought. And it’s the filthiest one I’ve ever seen.
While tension grew at the toilets, it became evident that things at the diner weren’t any better:
I looked around and noticed one of the other models running to the bus. […] We reached the bus and banged on the door. Mom pulled the lever and we all scrambled into our seats. ‘What’s wrong?’, she asked, but before anyone could answer, the other models were rapping at the bus door to be let in. I opened it as fast as I could, and as they burst in, they said ‘They wouldn’t serve us! They told us we had to leave’. […] Ben (the driver) was just about to get off and check to make sure the doors to the luggage compartment were firmly closed when he saw several of the men from the diner marching toward us. Three of them were carrying rifles. Ben quickly changed his mind, hopped into the driver’s seat, and closed the doors fast. He started up the motor, but it didn’t catch. ‘Ladies, I believe we’ve just run into a pack of Ku Klux Klan boys, and I have a pretty bad feeling. So stay seated and hold on’.
The engine took its time, enough for the men to multiply their number until they became strong enough to shake the bus: “This is a good catch of niggers!”
The next sound was the sweetest I’d heard in many a moon: that of a motor revving up. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. As we peeled out of there, I couldn’t resist a tiny peek out the window. In the quickly receding distance, I saw a hateful, distorted face screaming something that, thankfully, I could no longer hear.
Cleveland, by the way, is between the stars of the 100 September covers of Vogue Italia. Hers could perfectly have been the only one.