Fashion's Ethnic Problem

no doubt

I’ve been thinking about how fashion---which, side note, is one of my favorite things---tends to represent the worst in our superficial, looks-obsessed culture. For one thing, there’s the whole skinny, stick-thin, pound-obsessed, weight-watching, calorie-counting, only-one-body-type-is-acceptable thing, which marginalizes the beauty potential of all body-type-deviations.

For another, there’s the whole woman-as-canvas thing, where models seem to forgo personhood to become agency-less, blank-faced, silent background scenery.

And then there’s that whole ethnic representation thing. The continued premium on Eurocentric notions of beauty, and the exoticization of those outside of it.

Aaaand now we get to the subject of this post: racist fashion. Yes, there's such a thing, and it's such a thing.

It’s been almost two months since New York Fashion Week and its European counterparts, but there was more than enough fuel for some racist fashion ranting. There was Dolce & Gabbana’s “mammy” motif including some very Aunt Jemima-ish earrings. There was Jeremy Scott’s neo-Orientalist take on Arab punk. And there were the romantic adaptations of traditional Indian garb by Marchesa and Vera Wang, with Wang telling E! reporters she didn’t want to go too far with any of that “belly dancer” stuff. So much problematic-ness, so little time.

I’m not sure what made me think of this now---maybe it’s the way every major clothing store from Urban Outfitters to Target has suddenly been all over the Native American print trend. Navajo-panty-gate caused an uproar a while back, and yet the trend has continued to diffuse through all retail chains. You can buy bags, hoodies, or what have you emblazoned with traditional native-style prints, and UO even has T-shirts with skulls wearing native headdresses.

The prints are often beautiful, but they’re also an uncomfortable example of cultural appropriation. Meaning, the hegemonic culture, for all intents and purposes "white" though of course participated in by a range of backgrounds, appropriates the cultural heritage and imagery of a minority group without their consent or direct participation. Just this past week, No Doubt pulled its new video after a wave of complaints about its representation of Native Americans. For more on the issue, I recommend you check out the Native Appropriations blog, which does a great job of breaking down indigenous images in pop culture and even succeeded in getting an apology from Paul Frank for their “powwow” party a few months ago.

None of this is surprising, I suppose. Racism and sexism are embedded in our culture, and fashion is just another art-slash-entertainment form from which they can poke their ugly heads. (Favorite racist Project Runway: All-Stars judge quote last week: when host Carolyn Murphy asked derisively upon seeing one contestant’s design, “Where are we, Spanish Harlem?”) My only consolation is that noticing it and not simply accepting it, we recognize that those ugly heads are still a problem. And this is where my somewhat jumbled assortment of thoughts that is this week's post comes to a head.

I love you Fashion, but you can be a real jerk sometimes.