“Don’t judge a book by its cover” has never applied to the fashion magazine. Why else, but for the allure of glossy-haired, hollow-cheeked Kate Moss or Cara Delevingne, would 13 year olds buy Vogue, especially in an era of Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse foundation and Primark leggings? Yet those days are (gladly) over; consumers now weigh up different considerations, looking at magazine covers with a more critical eye.

In June, the #VogueChallenge took the internet by storm. The craze saw individuals and professionals alike inserting themselves into the high fashion narrative by editing their own Vogue covers, in turn undermining the narrowly-defined traditional modes of beauty and representation dictated by the industry. Perhaps this is why the decision by Vogue HK to make Kylie Jenner their cover star for the August ‘Action’ issue has come under scrutiny. How can consumers in Hong Kong possibly reconcile Kylie Jenner (who has been accused of allowing the exploitation of Bangladeshi workers in her factories and criticised for using her wealth and platform insufficiently when it comes to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement) with activism, particularly in a climate where people are risking everything in pro-democracy protests? But why now?

Within society there is growing comprehension of the power of media to shape popular perceptions. Paulina Swiatkowski’s 2016 research article illustrates the links between fashion magazines and body dissatisfaction, arguing unrealistic standards of beauty, notably around weight, are internalised. A 2012 study on 400 Black and white children found representations on television caused lower self-esteem for all except the Caucasian boys, further revealing the negative psychological impacts of the lack of ethnic and gender diversity in media such as fashion magazines. But to attribute change solely to increased education would be wishful thinking. A greater level of knowledge holds no power without social media.

Social media has allowed the emphasis on the relationship between mental health and representation to gain popular support. Student Salma Noor began the #VogueChallenge on Instagram due to her identification of Vogue as the industry ‘benchmark’, from which she felt excluded as a Black Muslim woman. Whilst it is true that social media reinforces beauty standards through the emergence of the cult of influencers, who edit their pictures and promote the fashionable and luxurious lifestyles many aspire to, traditional narratives of beauty are simultaneously being broken down by Instagram users committed to laying bare the contrast between posed and unposed bodies, filtered and unfiltered skin, edited and unedited images. Perhaps it is this realism that fuels growing criticism towards those fashion magazines that continue to propagate these unrealistic standards for both men and women.

Social media has also been crucial in increasingly politicising its users. Of course, it can be criticised for trivialising social issues and transforming them into trends; the fashion industry was quick to post black squares for #BlackoutTuesday, but the extent to which this has been translated into positive action against racism within the industry has been called into question. Nevertheless, its impact on increasing consumer consciousness and consequently prompting criticism of the fashion industry (and its magazine covers) is undeniable. #BlackoutTuesday may not by itself have caused companies to enact change, but the widespread charges of hypocrisy that followed might. Furthermore, as an alternative media source that is free, accessible, and interactive, social media has democratised the industry and in turn weakened the economic power of fashion institutions themselves. If Sex and the City was made now, Carrie Bradshaw would probably be an influencer.

“to attribute change solely to increased education would be wishful thinking. A greater level of knowledge holds no power without social media.”

It is this economic imperative to appease consumers that marks the changes occurring within the industry. The 2020 State of Fashion Report, a partnership between Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, surveyed 290 global fashion executives and identified pessimism about the global economy as a driver of strategy. Where consumers are concerned, it found that two thirds of them self-identify as “belief driven buyers”. This pressure on the fashion industry to adapt to its market has been catalysed by the months of store closures and falling share prices as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, amplifying calls for greater diversity and representation and thus holding institutions more accountable.

That is not to say that the efforts of all individuals within these institutions are purely based on economics. Edward Enninful deserves praise for calling for “fashion brands, publications and retailers to employ more people from diverse backgrounds”, a narrative he has pursued since his first British Vogue cover, featuring mixed-race model and feminist activist, Adwoa Aboah. Yet even within the industry, cynicism is widespread, with Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner warning: “I don’t think there is the intention behind it to make long-lasting, sustainable change.”

Whatever their motivations, it is undeniable that fashion magazines, and their covers, are in a state of transition. Perhaps the forces of capitalism can bring about positive change. If we keep demanding it, that is.