Everything Else is Luxury

This is the first in a new regular column in which I hope to address issues of race in fashion and ethnographic dress, approaching various topics through an anthropological lens.

Fashion is a luxury industry. As such, it is an industry ruled largely by the very wealthy, and the very privileged. With privilege comes responsibility, because with privilege comes power.

The privilege of the runway gives the fashion industry the power to appropriate entire cultures, reducing them to racist stereotypes. No other industry makes use of such stereotypes in the name of ‘art’ quite as often as fashion seems to. The problem is that while fashion can be art, it is also a business. It must sell what it features, and when you are selling racism, you perpetuate it. It is also a broadcasting platform, especially in the age of instant streaming, Twitter, and digital photography. So the luxury industry of the elite can essentially broadcast to the rest of the world, via the runway, ‘this is acceptable’.

Except when it isn’t. Take Dolce & Gabbana’s earrings from their recent S/S 2013 show. D&G defended the earrings by pointing to blackamoor art as their inspiration, thus fitting in with the ‘Sicillian folk’ theme.

Thankfully no one seems to agree and the only discussion has been one criticizing the very idea that it would be acceptable. But D&G’s earrings are not the first such faux pas. Failures by fashion houses to properly research a topic – if it is researched at all – or to talk to the people whose culture is being represented are quite common. When Yves Saint Laurent launched his Opium perfume in 1986, Chinese Americans were outraged. They accused Saint Laurent of “insensitivity to Chinese history and Chinese-American concerns”, because he was seen to be profiting off a devastating aspect of Chinese heritage.

And of course, there is the ongoing ‘native’ fashion trend: a predominantly white industry lifting Native American motifs, garments, and symbols out of the culture for mere aesthetics. To put it in context, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 ordered the forced removal of five tribes from their ancestral lands on the East Coast to reservations in the west to make room for further white settlement. Thousands died. This aspect of history is almost always left out of the textbooks. The textbooks also do not tell you that American Indians were prohibited from practicing their own religion by United States law until 1978. So that when college-aged hipsters are confronted with Native outrage at appropriation of religious imagery, they do not seem to realize that they are flaunting their white privilege in the face of a people who were denied the practice of their own culture for much of modern history.

The “war bonnet” – which seems to be the most-often appropriated object despite limited actual use – is earned, not given. It is deeply spiritual, and symbolizes sacrifice, courage, loyalty. As Ruth Hopkins said in her piece for Indian Country, it is similar to walking around with a full chest of military medals and honours you did not earn. And she suspects there would be greater outrage.

Image via Mellissa

Which is why I was extremely disappointed to see it on one of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s wedding dresses at the de Young exhibit in San Francisco. I was not surprised. By the time I got to it I had come to the conclusion that Gaultier was an equal-opportunity appropriationist: I couldn’t find a single culture he hadn’t appropriated from. In every case, he relies too heavily on stereotypical, exotic depictions, and not enough on cultural actuality or historical fact. Had the outfit included military attire from other cultures as well, or a chest-ful of unearned military honours, it might have made a powerful artistic and political statement. Instead, as far as I could tell, Gaultier simply used his fashion privilege to take a sacred object out of context and place it on a bridal dress because it fit with his artistic vision. Then he broadcast it as acceptable behaviour as soon as the model walked out on the runway.

Gaultier had gotten one thing right, and it is an important one: culture is not stagnant. It is constantly evolving. That is why such stereotypes are so harmful. The irony being that cultural contact and exchange can actually lead to such evolution, and to artistic innovation.

I see this as best illustrated by a type of kimono I recently discovered at a small local museum. Popular only between about 1910 and 1945, meisen were imitation ikat, involving the stencil dyeing of the eventual pattern on the warp and weft threads before weaving. What is so unique about meisen is that during a time when Japan was extremely anti-western in its politics, the designs are based on contemporary western art movements such as Art Deco, Cubism, and Surrealism.

2005.077 Partial Gift/Partial Purchase from Natalie Fitz-Gerald. Collection
of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.

2005.086 Partial Gift/Partial Purchase from Natalie Fitz-Gerald. Collection
of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.

Detail of above kimono.

They have successfully taken the inspiration, re-envisioned it through a Japanese aesthetic lens, and translated it onto fabric (I will hopefully talk about these in more detail in a future post).

What makes this cultural exchange rather than appropriation?

Perhaps because it’s a reinterpretation to create something completely new, rather than simply taking a blackamoor image out of context and depositing it on the runway? Perhaps because a great deal of Western artists were in Japan at the same time to be inspired themselves, making it collaborative rather than the privileged simply taking what they want, because they want it?

Things are changing. The anarchic nature of the internet has shown, especially with the outrage over the Dolce & Gabbana earrings, that there is now a dialogue between the privileged fashion designers and the consumer. They can tell us it is acceptable, but we in turn are telling them we do not accept it. Indigenous people are slowly being included in depictions and borrowings of their cultures. Rodarte licensed the Australian Aboriginal artwork it used in its F/W 2012 show, meaning that the artists themselves will share in the profits and have a say in how their work is used. Through the work of Native American bloggers Adrienne K. and Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, of Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin respectively, Paul Frank apologized for its “Fashion Night Out Pow Wow”, has removed all racist Native imagery from its line, and is even participating in a panel to discuss depictions of Native people in fashion at June’s International Licensing Merchandisers Association conference.

Christian Dior once said, “Everything that goes beyond the simple fact of food, clothing, and shelter is a luxury. Our civilization is a luxury, that is what we are defending.”[1] Fashion is a luxury industry. It is built on privilege, it has power. I do not think the fashion designers, or the people who wear the clothes, or photograph it, or model it are racist. The garments and collections are racist because they mirror our own culture, faults and all. I think the garments and the collections serve to highlight attitudes in our society that we no longer find acceptable, and that we want to change. And I believe that it is fashion which is in a powerful position to do so.

If it will accept the responsibility.

[1] p. 258. Beaton, Cecil. 1954. The Glass of Fashion. New York: Doubleday & Company Inc.


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  • Kalay October 08, 2012 04.02 pm

    Art shouldn’t be limited by a Puritanic primness. Those Chinese offended by the name of a perfume must have not been all that offended, as YSL sells very well in China. Fashion as an industry isn’t all that ruled by the very wealthy–there’s far more of us who shop at discount stores than those who buy haute couture. That level of design and craftsmanship doesn’t even turn much of a profit–not when compared to what’s sold at Macy’s or Target. I’m far more offended by the photo of the blond author in a sari than I am by blackamoor earrings. Cultural appropriation much?

  • Brenna October 08, 2012 05.42 pm

    Kalay, The saree and its accessories were purchased for me by one of my dearest friends to wear to her wedding in Bangalore, which is the occasion upon which I was photographed.


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