Milan Fashion Week S/S 2013 was inherently retro. Some say it was in the colours, others in the silhouettes, but it was most evident in Dolce & Gabbana's collection, which had all of the above - plus, perhaps, a touch of racism. The label's trademark kitsch, Sicilian influence has landed the brand in a boiling kettle of controversy - all because of a pair of earrings.
|Victoria's Secret's controversial
'Sexy Little Geisha' outfit
was part of the 'Go East' collection.
Among Renaissance-fresco portrait blouses and deckchair-stripe dresses, hung Aunt Jemima - sans pancakes. Dolce & Gabbana took to their magazine, Swide, to defend the accessory, explaining their Italian historical and cultural roots. But while to the design duo, the earrings are appropriations of "Moorish" inspired vases, to the rest of the world they are Mammy dolls - a cultural oversight that has left a bad taste in the mouths of a majority non-Sicilian audience.
Dolce & Gabbana is only one in a list of perpetrators in the last month to have been racially insensitive - accidentally or otherwise. The industry frequently struts a fine line between creative direction and political correctness, in commodifying cultural aesthetics for fashion's sake. Even when done discerningly, there are still tedious waters to navigate. Although it would be hyperbolic to describe the industry as being racist, if fashion is, as Anna Wintour says, "Always about looking forward," then why, when it comes to race and culture, does fashion frequently find itself in a bygone era of social politics?
Just prior to the Dolce & Gabbana debacle, heated debate surrounded Victoria's Secret's "Go East" collection, featuring a Japanese-inspired ensemble entitled, "Sexy Little Geisha." The get-up received condemnation for its tasteless belittlement of Asian culture - never mind its disregard for the oft-misunderstood Geisha tradition. Similarly, earlier in September, the Paul Frank label held a "Dream Catchin'" party for Fashion's Night Out, making light of Native American dress and terminology. At the time, all may have seemed like fun and games, but as a Jezebel insider noted, "[It is] very much like celebrating African-American culture with a blackface party."
Although we usually applaud fashion for pushing creative boundaries, when drawing influence from the sacred and historic vault of race and culture, the boundaries need to be more rigid. After all, where traditions and customs are concerned, so is the respect and dignity of the peoples represented. Despite Victoria's Secret and Paul Frank not being held to the same sartorial esteem of Dolce & Gabbana, they are no less accountable to social standards. It might be that the saturation of Western culture makes it less artistically malleable, but that does not give free reign for the fashion industry to dissect and consume other cultures as it sees fit for design.
However, these recent gaffes have raised a poignant point by commentators regarding representation on the runway. Dolce & Gabbana likely did not intended to stir the ghosts of colonial history, but not featuring one model of colour in the 85-look collection added insult to injury. Reporting for The Guardian, Sara Ilyas aptly pointed out, "It's hard not to be appalled by the transparent exoticism in sending the only black faces down the runway in the form of earrings."
And speaking of exoticism, the same can be said of the blonde, white model used to promote the Sexy Little Geisha costume. University of Illinois Associate Professor Mimi Nguyen rationalises the casting decision: "Asians can't wear things like the 'sexy little geisha' outfit without looking ridiculous...But it's a way for white women to borrow a racially exotic edge for a moment's play."
Unfortunately, it would seem that political incorrectness runs skin deep. In the case of Dolce & Gabbana, if booker Annie Wilshaw knows anything, the opportunity for a coloured model would have been slim, "In Milan black girls never work." While yesteryear reminds us of Chanel Iman, Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek, the tumultuous economic climate has apparently left opportunities for coloured women few and far between. "It's [the fashion industry] driven by what sells and, in general, white blonde girls sell...It is safer to go with the white girl, and in a recession people are very conservative," divulges Premier Model Management founder, Carole White.
Although such strategic, economic rationale would make sense if discussing car manufacturing, the cold, calculated objective management of people, based on the colour of their skin, is what embeds the seed of regressive concern. Yet, White's aesthetic justification is no less appeasing, consolidating a culture of racial bigotry in fashion's frontline: "Photographers and makeup artists are scared. They don't know how to light or make them up properly..." Such sentiments make it harder to overlook ill-conceived artisanal indiscretion, when models of the same races and cultures are deliberately overlooked.
Yet, as hard as it may be to believe, amid the apparent revival of 1960's race politics, some progress is being made. This September should be remembered for the appointment of Condé Nast's first African American editor-in-chief, Keija Minor. While the race-factor came into play, editorial director at Condé Nast, Thomas Wallace, emphasised, "Keija wasn't selected because of the colour of her skin, she was picked because she is the right editor for the job at the right time."
Idealistic rhetoric of diversity may well prevail in fashion publishing, where André Leon Talley is king. But if you aren't fair skinned, you may have more chance becoming a necklace than modelling one. Fashion may not be fundamentally racist, but the industry's askew moral compass on racial and cultural issues, in the pursuit of ultimate aestheticism, reflects a holier than thou complex that ought to be adjusted.
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