In middle school, Abercrombie & Fitch was
the be-all and end-all of my peers’ fashion aspirations. It was
the Holy Grail, and I couldn’t fit into any of it because my thirteen-year-old body was blessed/cursed with the chest of Anna Nicole Smith. But that’s a story or complaint for another day and another
column. My point is that while I couldn’t necessarily shop at A&F, I would
still go into the store with my friends and later try and copy
the “in” look from another store with more inclusive sizing and nicer prices.
I remember my first glimpse of the shirts
that would later incite a media frenzy. Making light of stereotypical racial tropes, A&F printed several T-shirts plastered with Asian caricatures and slogans. Even before I had learned and
understood what terms like systematic
racism, heteronormativity, patriarchy and capitalism actually meant, I felt confused, dismayed and
hurt that blatant racism could make its way into such a popular brand. The
shirt to which I’m referring advertised “Wong Brothers Laundry—Two Wongs Can
Make It White.” Making me deeply uncomfortable, this shirt did not sit well with me or my friends.
While these shirts were not
Abercrombie & Fitch’s first or last culturally insensitive missteps, the
backlash and lack of sales surrounding the company has not prevented other
companies from making similar—and sometimes worse—offenses. I constantly find myself shocked when yet another company makes a product that is either blatantly racist,
sexist, ignorant of gender roles, an inappropriate cultural appropriation or a terrible mix of all these
problematic social constructions.
I can’t possibly cover all of the fashion
industry’s mistakes, but I would like to discuss a few examples of such insensitivity and examine what
the implications are for both the industry and its customers.
Back in August 2011, JCPenney unveiled a new line of shirts targeted toward female pre-teens and teenagers on
the brink of a new school year. With slogans like, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me” and “My best subjects are boys, shopping, music, and dancing,” the store sent a message that one should value appearance over education.
Everyday society tells women and young
girls that they don’t belong in certain fields or that they’re lesser than their male counterparts. I certainly don’t need my clothes telling me that I’m incompetent and should make sure to appear as vapid as
possible so as to not appear threatening or intelligent. Most of all, I don’t
need my little sister and the millions of other young girls internalizing the
message that being pretty is the only thing girls are good for. School is not a place to find a boy who will make you feel valuable and do your
homework for you.
When it comes to collectively offending the masses and producing
shoddily made but highly expensive clothing, Urban Outfitters is almost as bad as A&F. The company recently put out a
“vintage” Kent State University sweatshirt adorned with faux bloodstains. Of
course, UO said that the red splotches were simply artistically-rendered paint
splatters but no one bought their badly played public relations move.
In 2010 the company
used “President Obama” to describe a color of a t-shirt, as in the two colors
listed for the shirt were “White/Charcoal” and “Obama/Black.” It’s funny, but I
can’t recall any retailers listing a white shirt as “Pale/Bush” or “Pasty/Clinton.”
UO similarly released the “Eat Less” tee-shirt. But don’t worry: UO insists it wasn’t a statement on Anorexia or our culture of fat-shaming
even though the shirt was shown on a rail-thin photoshopped model.
UO’s obsession with the Navajo print and the appropriation behind
it is something that could cover all of the pages in TSL and more. Unfortunately, the company isn’t the only retailer with a sick obsession with feathers and exotic
prints. In 2013, H&M released the “native” headdress—exactly what
it sounds like, and attached to a wallet-friendly price-tag.
Every time another such retail
disaster appears on my social media newsfeeds, my first instinct is a
major eye-roll. Seriously, again? When will these CEOs, creative designers and artists stop trying to hawk offensive goods? Will they ever learn? As
consumers, is it our job to educate the heads of these companies by not
purchasing their goods? Is sending an angry tweet a good
enough action to satiate ethical duties?
I’m not sure if boycotting would do
much good, and it’s difficult when these fast fashion retailers are the best choice economically. I can be certain, however, that the messages sent through
this type of merchandise harm everyone in our society. No one emerges unscathed
from the internalization that you’re not good enough because of your gender, skin color, weight or economic status.
If you would like to discuss this
further I would love to hear from you! Send me an email, a tweet or mail by
pigeon carrier—whatever floats your boat. Stay tuned for part II of Why Does the Fashion Industry Continually
Alienate its Customers?
Be bold. Wear clothes that make you feel confident. And
most importantly, have a stylish and fun week.
Chabrina Bruno PO ’15 is a religious studies major with a minor in studio art. She loves to collect vintage clothing and jewelry.