Fashion Embodies Creative Diversity, Lacks Racial Awareness

I
love fashion. I love the
overflowing creativity of designers, the beauty in a clean line and the genius
of a gravity-defying voluminous skirt. Every day I scroll through my Instagram, not only looking for style inspiration, but also to indulge in a
smorgasbord of eye-popping, artistic endeavours from designers like Zac Posen, Giambattista Valli and Elie Saab and photographers such as Scott Schuman, Inez & Vinoodh and Juergen Teller—all of whom create wonderful canvases on which to showcase haute couture designs.

While my love for fashion is great, it
doesn’t take away the pain of looking through a magazine or
watching a fashion show and being able to count the number of non-white faces that I see. It’s truly a celebration in my book when a woman of color actually gets the chance to grace the cover of Vogue, W or Harper’s
Bazaar
. Knowing that the fashion industry seems to not care
about equal representation genuinely hurts, and it only placates its detractors by throwing in the
token black or brown model per show. 

It isn’t just about race, though. Usually if a ‘plus-size’ (I
put ‘plus-size’ into quotation marks because sometimes models that are given this
identifier aren’t even plus-sized) model is used it’s because a designer or publication wants to be talked
about—not because they want equal representation, but instead to cater and show appreciation
to a specific client demographic.

When a house decides to put blatant racist imagery onto their clothing, calling it an act of
artistic inspiration and homage, I really see red. In reality, it’s just a designer being willfully
ignorant of cultural histories and systems of oppression and racism. I looked at a number of these offenses in last week’s column, but
this week I want to focus on the Industry’s shamelessness use of black bodies and cultures for profit.

It’s baffling that there’s no watchdog for an industry that pounces on
any type of inappropriate use of imagery or cultural appropriation. I don’t understand the media’s light chastisement of designers for blatantly offensive imagery. Unlike in other industries, designers aren’t fined, suspended or fired for indecency—they simply find
themselves in a media shit-storm, after which they’re free to continue creating
beautiful, albeit inappropriate, clothing. Let’s take a look at
some of these instances where black bodies/cultures were used and abused in the
name of fashion and art.

Dolce
& Gabbana is one of the industry’s top luxury lines. The D&G label is
synonymous with Italian lushness, sexy designs and celebrity endorsements—who
can forget Fergie’s shout-out in her classic song, “My Humps?” While Domenico
Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are undoubtedly creative masterminds, the duo has had its fair share of controversy over
the years, much of which stems from their use of offensive images. 

During
their Spring 2013 fashion show, the designers revealed a heavy Sicilian influence, presenting a flourish of stripes, hot pants, rompers and
structured and overtly feminine dresses. But they also unveiled burlap sack dresses plastered with images of colonial, dark-skinned African women. These crude and slave-like images were not only used on dresses—the duo also fashioned them into figurine head earrings, reminiscent of the black ‘mammy’ figure or the exaggerated, early-twentieth-century images of
Aunt Jemima. 

Exacerbating an already bad situation, none of the models featured were women of color.
Such a lack of diversity is problematic in and of itself, but it was compounded by the fact that these
white models were using black bodies for accessories and adornment.

The label tried explain away their gaffe by citing the Moorish influence on their designs. The imagery on their clothing didn’t celebrate the beauty of North African culture, however. Instead, it appeared to conjure up the legacy of slavery and servitude–a fact the designers willfully ignored. The black women’s exaggerated features and the lack of heterogeneity in the show further emphasized the house’s ignorance.

Unfortunately, Dolce
and Gabbana isn’t alone in its projection of ‘otherness’ onto specific groups of people in order to market products as edgy
and unique. Givenchy is currently selling a Masai Tribal T-shirt for well over
500 dollars, and I doubt that the children whose images are being used to
create these shirts are truly benefiting. 

Fashion and lifestyle magazines have
also sought a profit off of this idea. Vogue Italia, for example, experienced media backlash upon its crude label of an item as “Slave Earrings.” Why
the magazine decided to refer to a generic pair of hoop earrings as such is beyond
me, and the fact that no PR agent felt the need to sound the alarm is absolutely ludicrous. 

Worse, Vogue was completely aware of the word’s connotation, including the following in the item’s description: “If the name brings to mind the
decorative traditions of the women of color who were brought to the southern
United States during the slave trade, the latest interpretation is pure
freedom.” 

They knew, and they just didn’t care! Not only is the name of the item completely
abhorrent, Vogue had the audacity to declare that these earrings will inspire freedom.

There are many ways to be influenced by
cultures that do not belong to you, just as there are multiple routes of
expressing these influences in art, design, fashion and writing–but in appropriate ways that do not conjure up histories
of oppression and systemic injustices. These influences can be expressed
through color, shape, form and line, never through
cultural appropriation and the idea of ‘otherness.’ To all the artists-in-training: Please think hard about your subject matter, and avoid rendering an entire culture as something to be used and not valued. 

Chabrina Bruno PO ’15 is a religious studies major with a minor in studio art. She loves to collect vintage clothing and jewelry. 

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