Controversial Fashion Spread Dives into Gulf Oil Spill

Comment: By thegreenpages contributor Isabel Slone

Almost as much ink as oil was spilled regarding the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – which, for the record, dumped millions of gallons since first reported after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion on April 20, 2010. As the weeks passed, grim reports on the oil leak made it increasingly obvious that the BP spill was even worse than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill, which had captivated a generation two decades earlier.

Four months after the initial tragedy, Vogue Italia has produced an oil
spill-themed editorial photo shoot in their August 2010 issue.


The spread, titled “Water & Oil,” was shot by acclaimed photographer Steven Meisel and depicts model Kristen McMenamy splayed out on jutting rocks, covered in oil and dirt. McMenamy acts the role of a distressed mermaid, swathed in black garments that resemble slicked oil, complete with tangled hair and legs caught in netting.


Simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, the images have elicited a storm of controversy from supporters and critics. While some congratulate Vogue Italia‘s willingness to publish social commentary in a fashion magazine, others berate the editorial for exploiting a serious environmental issue to sell clothes. “Glamorizing this recent ecological and social disaster for that sake of ‘fashion’ reduces the tragic event to nothing more than attention-grabbing newsstand fodder,” argues Refinery29, a popular fashion news website.


It seems that mainstream media treats fashion as a distasteful synonym for frivolity. This disregards the fact that fashion is an art form, no less than painting or sculpting, and as such should be commended for delving into social commentary.

The purpose of magazines is not exclusively to sell clothes, but also to be beautiful and inspiring, and to help disseminate the medium of fashion photography to millions of people around the world. Like art, fashion can be a fantasy world to escape in or a brutal reality that confronts your deepest fears.

It is clear that Meisel has succeeded in creating the latter, with very little “glamorization” beyond luxury clothes being presented in an unusual context.

Given the dark mood of the editorial, it is more successful at depicting the grave seriousness of the oil spill than “making light” of the situation. It appears the public is more shocked at Vogue Italia’s ability to create thought-provoking social commentary through fashion photography, as opposed to the actual subject matter of the photos.

All photos can be viewed on the Vogue Italia website.

Isabel Slone is completing her degree in Environment and Resource
Studies at the the University of Waterloo. She enjoys sequins, cats, The
Smiths and chronicles her daily outfits at


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