An Auto-Ethnographic Text: Cara Delevigne for Vogue Brasil, February 2014

Cara Delevigne dominated the front cover of the February 2014 edition of Vogue Brasil, which was shot by the internationally-acclaimed Brazilian fashion photographer Jacques Dequeker. Dressed in a sparkly blue minidress by the Brazilian brand Bo.Bo., and accessorised with heavy gold jewellery designed by Lanvin and Dior, she is framed, hands on her hips, against the colourful backdrop of the Santa Marta favela. The Santa Marta favela (commonly referred to in Brazil using the more politically correct term ‘morro’, which translates literally as hill) occupies the Botafogo and Laranjeiras region of the Dona Marta hill in Rio de Janeiro. It received global media attention in 2010, when Dutch artists Jeroean Koolhas and Dre Urhahn (known as Hass & Hahn) collaborated with local residents to paint 7,000 square metres of the morro’s façade in contrasting shades of the rainbow. A symbol of pride for the local community, the Santa Marta art project featured throughout the 12-page Vogue Brasil editorial, which was entitled ‘Face to Face with the Favela: the Santa Marta hill serves as the scenario for Cara Delevigne to wear statement pieces of the season, showing that streetwear couture is the trend of the moment’.

It is not difficult to point out the strikingly asymmetrical dynamics of power in operation between the British supermodel – posing in a combination of mid to high-end Western and Brazilian fashion labels that include Prada, Chanel, Adidas Originals, Bo.Bo., Starter, Valention and John John – and the socioeconomic realities of local residents, whose own creative sartorial expressions were noticeably absent from the frame. Furthermore, it is certainly not uncommon, within ‘Western’ fashion magazines, to come face to face with similar stereotypically ‘exotic’ fashion shoots, which replace the immaculate studio for various ‘non-Western’ backdrops and cityscapes that provide an edgy and endlessly intriguing locale to display Western fashion for the curious Western viewer. Sarah Cheang discusses this at length in her fantastic article, entitled ‘’To the Ends of the Earth’: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot’, wherein she comments that Western fashion frequently constructs its ‘other and self-defining conceptual opposite’ through shoots in, for example, ‘dusty Palestine, rural India, or mountainous Peru’.

But what are we to think when Vogue Brasil, with forward thinking Editor-in-Chief Daniela Falcão at the helm, turns that curious Western gaze upon itself, using the morro Santa Marta as an exotic and colourful backdrop to spice up the pages of the magazine? Certainly, there is a considerable distance between the Brazilian viewer (predominantly white European-descended women with cultural and economic capital), whose social and material reality is far divorced from that of inhabitants of the colourful morro Santa Marta, a setting which is sure to have had a cheerful aesthetic appeal for a Vogue Brasil readership. Nevertheless, it is important to situate the magazine within the cross-cultural context from which it emerged in 1975 and has since developed. Brazil is a country that sits intriguingly in between the West and the so-called non-West. In geographical terms Brazil is certainly a Western nation. Moreover, it is affiliated with the West in terms of its developing free-market economy, its large export supplies of raw materials and manufactured goods, its transition to a democratic constitution following the end of the authoritarian military regime in 1985, its high cultural institutions, and its adoption of Christianity and the Portuguese language. Yet Brazil might still be considered a non-Western nation with regard to its incomplete infrastructure, socioeconomic disparities, unequal distribution of wealth and land, poor standards of public health, and its popular and material culture which constitutes, as David Hess and Robert DaMatta have succinctly articulated, a unique site in which ‘Western culture has mixed and mingled with non-Western cultures for centuries’.

So taking this cross-cultural context into account, is it possible to discern any critical engagement in Vogue Brasil with Western and non-Western academic debates that have used the term ‘auto-ethnographic’ text or ‘auto-exotic’ gaze to refer to the way that non-Western cultures often look at themselves with Western eyes, turning their culture into an exotic product that they then offer back to the West? Mary Louise Pratt coined the term ‘auto-ethnography’ or ‘auto-ethnographic’ and used it to describe ‘text[s] in which people undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them’. These auto-ethnographic texts involve ‘a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis and conqueror. These are merged or infiltrated to various degrees with indigenous idioms to create self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan modes of understanding’. There are numerous tropes to draw upon to demonstrate how the West has produced an exoticised image of Brazil as a site of cultural difference, usually centered on Rio de Janeiro, and on the themes of sun, sea, Caipirinhas, Copacabana beach, skimpy bikinis, and the drugs and violence associated with the favelas. So in placing this fashion shoot within the morro Santa Marta, Vogue Brasil was engaging with a well-established stereotype of Brazil that is frequently seen in the Western media; the only difference is that the violence and gun crime has been eclipsed by the dazzling beauty of the rainbow coloured buildings. Pratt writes that ‘auto-ethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speaker’s own community’ and deduces that ‘their reception is thus highly indeterminate. In using Cara Delevigne as the model, Vogue Brasil knew that this shoot would attract the attention of the Western media, which it did, appearing in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, to cite but one example, in an article by Louise Sanders entitled ‘Favela funk! Cara Delevingne rocks her signature edgy style in vivid neon brights as she works her magic in street shoot for Vogue Brazil’. Although the title suggests the Daily Mail struggled to pick up on the critical message of the shoot it nevertheless constituted, as Pratt has pointed out, ‘a marginalised groups point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture’.

Therefore, whilst it might be easy to either dismiss this fashion shoot as an instance of Vogue Brasil following in the footsteps of Western fashion magazines, which marginalises the everyday experiences of local residents of the morro Santa Marta or, conversely, to celebrate it for its eye-catching images that frame Cara Delevigne against an intriguing backdrop, I would argue that something altogether more complicated is taking place. If understood as an auto-ethnographic text, then this shoot mobilises a far more interesting dynamic of cross-cultural contact between Brazil and the West that warrants further examination, in which Brazil is perhaps no longer subordinate to the West, but instead uses its own cultural productions to subtly fight back.

Cara Delevigne on the cover of the February 2014 issue of Vogue Brasil

Cara Delevigne on the cover of the February 2014 issue of Vogue Brasil. Image: Liz Kutesko

 

The first page of the Cara photo spread Image: Liz Kutesko

The first page of the Cara photo spread Image: Liz Kutesko

photo 3

Image: Liz Kutesko

photo 2

Image: Liz Kutesko

References

[1] Anon., ‘De Cara com a Rua: o morro Dona Marta serve de Cenario para Cara Delevigne vestir peças statement da temporada que, usadas com outras de dna Atletico, imprimem o streetwear couture que e tendencia da vez’, Vogue Brasil, February 2014, pp. 140-151.

[2] S. Cheang, ‘’To the Ends of the Earth’: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot’ in Fashion Media: Past and Present, ed. By D. Bartlett, S. Cole, and A. Rocamora (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 35-45 (p. 35).

[3] D. J. Hess and R. A. DaMatta, ‘Introduction’ in Brazilian Puzzle: Culture on the Borderlands of the Western World, ed. By Hess and DaMatta (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 2.

[4] M. L. Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 8.

[5] Pratt, Imperial Eyes, p. 8.

[6] Ibid.