A controversial subject

Retro Chick did a lovely post on tanning a couple of days ago, which brought up some questions about skin tone and vintage, and whether the current popularity of pale skin among a lot of vintage enthusiasts makes people of colour feel unwelcome. To start with, I'd like to say that I don't believe anyone I've met wouldn't welcome a person of colour. If you have felt that way and are reading this, COME, JOIN IN!

The thing we all come up against is history. I'm going to get a bit personal here; my paternal grandfather was Anglo-Indian and came to Britain in the 1930s. (For anyone who doesn't know what an Anglo-Indian is, Wikipedia has a great page on Anglo-Indians.) There was never any mention that he might not be completely European. My tan-skinned, black-haired father was put down to our Irish ancestry. And reading books from the early to mid 20th century, I know exactly why my granddad didn't talk about his Indian ancestry. There's the shifty Anglo-Indian in Edgar Wallace's The Green Archer (who actually turns out to be a bit of a hero, and he and his wife are my favourite characters in the book, but that doesn't stop Wallace playing on the preconceptions people had of Anglo-Indians). I nearly threw Barbara Worsley-Gough's Alibi Innings across the room, so appalling was its portrayal of the one Anglo-Indian character: starting out as a handsome man who flew heroically in the war, once his ancestry is revealed he suddenly becomes cowardly, childish and a thief. It makes me so angry. This is how my kind, hard-working relatives would have been seen. And I'm not of African or East Asian ancestry; the portrayals of those races in most vintage crime fiction and classic films is infinitely worse.

Then there's the real world. For example, the 1980s have very different associations to someone white British than to someone with black South African ancestry. Maybe I think too much, but I find it hard to encounter something from a particular time without also thinking about how people like me were treated at that time. It's a sobering experience, and I doubt I'm alone in that. And most of vintage is about putting on a certain sort of whiteness, because it mostly follows the dominant trends of the time, which were set by Caucasians.

However, vintage isn't about reenactment. I, a married woman, work and have my name on a mortgage. Scandalous if this were the 1930s, but it isn't. We're in the 21st century. Personally, I would love to see more people of colour involved in vintage and celebrating vintage in a diverse way. (I think this country needs much more awareness of its multicultural heritage.) So pop on that frock like the ladies on the Windrush would have worn or channel a deco-loving Maharajah of the 1930s, all are welcome.

Top: Anna May Wong in The Chinese Parrot
Second: Sammy Davis and Eartha Kitt in Anna Lucasta


  1. Brilliant. I find the whole thing quite interesting really.

    I'm white an middle class, my ancestry a few generations back is Scandinavian, so when I started writing about tanning I obviously started writing from my own perspective (I COULD have written a piece about race, but that wasn't really my intention!)

    It did vaguely go through my mind that it was obviously only really applicable to those with naturally really pale skin, and I also thought briefly about the idea of using make to make your skin paler (mostly in connection with the Goth sub culture thing) I kind of figured that they were outside the scope really, of what I was writing about and didn't go into it.

    It's such a shame we can't stop things like body shape and skin tone that are beyond our control being subject to the whims of fashion!

  2. This is a fab post - really glad you wrote it! As I was one of the people who brought up the issue of race and vintage it's great to see that you've expanded on what I was saying, and I agree!

    Oh - wasn't Merle Oberon Anglo-Indian? I think her grandmother was Indian?

  3. Helen, Merle was indeed Anglo-Indian, but for a lot of her life she claimed to be from Tasmania. There are also mysteries concerning Vivien Leigh; from her name I think her mother may have been from India's Armenian community. A lot of the earliest Bollywood actresses were AI; their dark hair and eyes and pale skin worked well in the early filming conditions.

    Retro Chick, I didn't feel there was anything problematic in your post - for me there's a vast difference between the conscious alterations of one's skin tone, and all the connotations and health complications of that, and being able to accept people's natural skin tones.

  4. interesting subject, i personally stick with pale skin as i hate having tanning lines, am covered in moles thus fear skin cancer and can't stand the smell of fake tan! Makes me think of the opposite issue too, for example Nicola Roberts from Girls Aloud felt under pressure for many years to wear fake tan/sun tan herself and only in the last couple has had the confidence to throw off the peer pressure to tan and go pale.

  5. fabulous post :) I'm mixed race and love vintage style. my dad is english and my mum is mixed race - my grandad was west indian and my granny is anglo indian. i've never felt excluded or unwelcome. to me style is style, and i've seen some fabulous vintage fashion lovers from every walk of life you can imagine, and all shapes and sizes. obviously a lot of icons who are held up are old movie stars and obviously a lot of them are 'white' but that doesn't stop them being inspiration for anyone. there are also less well known vintage icons from the same eras from other ethnic backgrounds, they just tend to be a little harder to find. in the end, style is what you make of it x


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