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.”     


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.