A White Christmas, Fine; White Catalogues, No

<i> Andy Cowan is a second-year law student at USC</i>

As the holidays draw closer this year, the crush of catalogues in my mailbox grows ever larger. No need to check the calendar, just weigh the mail. I’m a law student with little spare time in the midst of finals, so I appreciate these glossy samplers as a quick and convenient way to do my gift shopping. But several catalogues left a bad taste in my mouth when I saw their version of a white Christmas.

Lily-white, to be exact. Many catalogues demonstrated the racial diversity of a South African country club or, for that matter, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Most notable were the offerings from Victoria’s Secret, a well-known purveyor of slinky underthings, and Tweeds, which offers handsome clothes in colors such as “oxblood,” “mortar,” “mongoose” and “thunder.”

I received two catalogues from Victoria’s Secret last week. The “Christmas Gift Treasury” has 66 pages, roughly 150 photographs, and not a single black, Latino or Asian woman. Nor do women of color appear in Victoria’s even heftier “Holiday Collection 1990" catalogue. A slimmer Christmas catalogue from Laura Ashley also provided a window into an all-white, even all-blonde, world of landed gentry.

The 160-odd photographs in Tweeds “Winter No. 1" were similarly barren of racial diversity, though on closer scrutiny I spotted a black woman in the “clearance” insert. Tweeds “Winter No. 2" might have been entirely white were it not for the “Egypt” section, in which a Eurasian model provides a suitably “exotic” flavor and occasional Arab men serve as background. I saw a black woman on Page 66, but it turned out that Tweeds was selling the clothes worn by the model standing next to her.


These catalogues are aimed at young professionals and students like myself. Who else would send away for sanguine-colored weathered pique tees and foret fine-wale corduroy jodhpurs? But what disturbs me is that Victoria’s Secret, Tweeds and others have apparently decided that an image of wealthy white society where minorities play a peripheral, subservient or nonexistent role will sell clothes to my age group.

In our society, white consumers do control the biggest share of disposable income, and therefore are prime targets for merchandisers. But these all-white images are harmful because they reinforce attitudes of white exclusivity.

White students may acquire the same mind-set when they attend expensive private universities with low and declining minority admissions--the attitude expressed by a USC student wearing a T-shirt boasting, “My maid went to UCLA.” Similarly, young professionals are sure to note the lack of adequate minority representation in high-paying fields such as law or business.

The message is that the exclusive control of wealth and power by whites is the natural and desirable state of affairs. Instead of challenging these reactionary attitudes, too many catalogues pander to them.


As a white law student from a well-off family, I imagine that I’m just the target who Tweeds and Victoria’s Secret are hoping to reach. But this holiday season I’ll place my orders with companies that foster racial diversity in their advertising.

The catalogue I recently received from J. Crew displays a fair degree of racial diversity--as they have in the past. Smythe & Co.'s “Holiday Sale” catalogue prominently features several black models. Benetton’s clothes are a little far-out for me, but their exhilarating, high-profile, multiracial advertising sends a vibrant message of integration and equality. These companies demonstrate that racially diverse fashion advertising is both attractive and profitable.

I realize that greater problems face us than mail-order catalogue racism. But if the problem is small, the solution is correspondingly simple--and every step against racism is a step worth taking. If mail-order retailers can offer garments in colors like “shallot,” “driftwood,” “elderberry” and “seafoam,” then there should be room for simple black and brown. It sure seems a waste to go through the expense of printing a full-color catalogue with a one-color message.