Racist fashion

Dolce & Gabbana's 'Blackamoor-inspired' earrings.

Dolce & Gabbana's 'Blackamoor-inspired' earrings.

Every once in a while you catch a glimpse of high fashion that makes your heart race. Mostly, it’s a healthy expression of your fight or flight instinct – the body’s way of getting ready to flee from last season's peplums or run for the neon palette to come.

Lately, though, the couture circuit had everyone reeling for a different reason.

Those who have been following highlights from the Milan Fashion Week might recall that Dolce & Gabanna recently debuted their Spring 2013 looks with models wearing earrings of ‘Moorish’ figurines that resembled the heads of female African slaves. Complete with burlap sack dresses featuring a series of Blackamoor-inspired imagery, the collection was a cringe-inducing throwback to post-colonial, Heart of Darkness territory. 

Victoria's Secret's 'Sexy little Geisha' outfit.

Victoria's Secret's 'Sexy little Geisha' outfit.

While the luxury Italian brand argued that the figurines were merely inspired by Sicilian artefacts, fashion critics remained rightly sceptical. As Jezebel’s Jenna Sauer pointed out, because of “their deep black, undifferentiated skin tone, exaggerated, brightly coloured lips, and head kerchiefs full of fruit”, the faces featured in the collection’s prints and accessories “look more reminiscent of Jim Crow-era American depiction of [African] people than they do of opera dei pupi marionettes.”     

Advertisement

Sicilian or not, it’s hard to understand why the designers opted for the potentially racially insensitive imagery over a world of alternatives. Or as fashion site Refinery 29 pointed out (perhaps most tellingly) – had seriously “nobody anticipated the potential backlash”?

Despite mild improvements in runway diversity in recent years, (this season’s New York Fashion Week featured the highest proportion of models of colour yet), there is still a palpable discomfort when it comes to issues of race across the industry.

In fact, the past 12 months have seen a bounty of questionable ‘looks’ from high end to mass market offerings. In the same week that D&G found itself in hot water, lingerie giant Victoria’s Secrets also courted controversy with its new, ‘Go East’ underwear line.

The kitschy collection invites customers to “indulge in touches of eastern delight with lingerie inspired by the exquisite beauty of secret Japanese gardens.” One of the outfits, “Sexy Little Geisha”, is described on the company’s website as: “Your ticket to an exotic adventure: a sexy mesh teddy with flirty cut outs and Eastern-inspired florals. Sexy little fantasies, there’s one for every sexy you.” And in case anyone’s wondering from the (now retracted) product shot, the role-playing costume also comes conveniently with its very own “matching fan and hair chopsticks”. [Insert vague oriental music for full effect] 

But look, how offensive is this, really? It’s not like VS was selling anything like this or even this in a seemingly harmless attempt of cultural parody. Shouldn’t we worry our pretty heads over more ‘real and authentic’ acts of racism instead of dwelling on lady gripes with expensive, shiny things?

While there may well be nothing inherently racist about using Asian-inspired designs in lingerie, the problem lies (as it does in Victoria’s Secret’s case) in peddling an idea that basically says “[a] culture can be completely stripped of its realness in order to fulfil [the west’s] fantasies of a safe and non-threatening mysterious East,” as Racialicious writer Nina Jacinto explains in a recent opinion piece.   

It’s interesting to note, perhaps, that in both D&G and Victoria’s Secret’s publicity gaffes, the designs in question were modelled exclusively by Caucasian women. According to Minh-Ha Pham, curator of the online multicultural style history archive Of Another Fashion, such acts of ‘racial drag’ is about “making racial differences comodifiable and palatable through whiteness”.  

In other words, it “underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens” – or at times – “without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens,” writes Pham in her blog, Threadbared.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mimi Nguyen, associate professor of women’s and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, sums up the issue succinctly: “Asians can’t wear things like the ‘sexy little geisha’ outfit without looking ridiculous,” she says. “But it’s a way for white women to borrow a racially exotic edge for a moment’s play.” In the words of Black feminist scholar bell hooks, “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”

And herein lies a paradox – so long as the idea of ‘looking aspirational’ is still tied to ‘having white skin’, there will always be a lack of true diversity in the fashion industry. Since rather than hiring models from diverse backgrounds to inhabit different visions of beauty, designers will inevitably find themselves ‘borrowing’ from more ‘exotic’ cultures to spice up the increasingly common ‘black canvases’ they seek.

20 comments

  • I see no problem whatsoever with any of this. It's fasion interpretation and is simply drawing on history for inspiration, Like it or not, wrong or right, in a democracy history cannot be wiped simply for fear of offending the politically correct. Stop making a big deal of it and it won't be.

    Commenter
    reality bites
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    October 02, 2012, 9:25AM
    • Pray tell, what part of the 'Geisha' outfit actually draws any similarity to a Geisha?

      It has none and is quite insulting to the profession

      Commenter
      Ailie
      Date and time
      October 02, 2012, 10:45AM
    • +1 Ailie!! Now if they had a geisha set that included training on at least one classical Japanese instrument - advanced dance tuition in one or more forms of classical Japanese dance - formal etiquette classes - plus a thorough education in drama, literature and politics - then they'd be maybe halfway there. What a pity that Western blokes don't fantasise about having educated, intelligent companions who can sing, dance, serve a meal elegantly and hold a conversation on practically any topic...

      Commenter
      andilee
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 02, 2012, 12:57PM
    • Yes, we should all fear the infinite wrath of Geishas!

      Commenter
      OX
      Date and time
      October 02, 2012, 1:23PM
  • The fashion industry is the single most misogynistic industry on the planet. The fact that women subscribe to it in vast numbers has always baffled me. Shoes that the Japanese foot-binders centuries ago would have called silly are aspirational and drooled over. Clothes whose prime design aesthetic seems to be to ruin women's self-esteem and empty their wallets. I don't know why forward thinking women don't just reject the entire fabrication. The examples in this article are mere trifles compared the whole conceit.

    Commenter
    Harvey K-Tel
    Date and time
    October 02, 2012, 9:30AM
    • My thoughts exactly.

      Commenter
      Joy Drugrica
      Date and time
      October 02, 2012, 12:01PM
    • Foot-binding was a Chinese practice. Other than that, I agree with you.

      Accusations of racism seem to be primarily directed at white westerners. We are all racist in one way or another. I have been to various parts of Asia and was appalled at how black people were treated. The Koreans have been looked down upon by the Japanese for centuries. It doesn't make it right, but I do get tired of the one sidedness of the debate.

      Commenter
      Cp
      Date and time
      October 02, 2012, 1:17PM
  • The problem, as the author points out, is that no woman of colour would ever wear the earrings and no Japanese woman would wear the underwear. The Eurocentricism is signalled by the choices the designer made. The fashion world is full of this kind of ignorant borrowing; we all know fashion design is about ripping off visual ideas and getting attention immediately, not a deep historical understanding of cultural colonialism. The intent may have been to sell kitschy fun, the effect is really not that far from Alan Jones, who was also, apparently, having a bit of fun.

    Commenter
    Rebecca
    Date and time
    October 02, 2012, 9:46AM
    • I have a pair of male and female blackamoor style busts which were given to me many years ago by a black friend, now dead. I think of him every time I look at them and keep them on display in his memory. If he was OK with them, I am too.

      Commenter
      Rubylou
      Date and time
      October 02, 2012, 9:58AM
      • Those "Blackamoor" earrings look like a representation of something more Jamaican than American, and I personally don't picture slaves dressing so fancy. She looks more like a highly decorative free woman to me. I have seen and coveted earrings depicting Aztec faces and Pharaonic faces and 20's flapper faces. I've seen tiny babydoll earrings. While each of them commodified the image of a person, it was as a cultural trope, meme, symbol etc. When I see a black face in a period costume I don't automatically think "slave". In this case I see extravagance and personal expression. I applaud it.
        As for the Geisha outfit, “Asians can’t wear things like the ‘sexy little geisha’ outfit without looking ridiculous,” and in my opinion, neither can white women. I think it looks silly, but each to their own. It doesn't detract from any aspect of Asian culture, and will disappear without trace soon enough. Imitation, no matter how poor, is still the sincerest form of flattery, and no, you can't strip the mystery and danger from the East by designing fancy undies - neither do people want a safe and non-real Asian experience. This is private adult dress-up as play.
        My little son gets around in a sarong, wielding a kris. He's a dangerous Malay pirate. It could be seen as a shocking exploitation of another culture, I know, but I try to keep him inside so as not to offend any passing scholars.

        Commenter
        Lel
        Date and time
        October 02, 2012, 11:20AM

        More comments

        Comments are now closed