The Objectification of Blackness in Fashion
Ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seatbelts because the fashion industry is clearly being driven off a cliff in its mad search for “inspiration” – and they don’t care if they run right over Africa.
Dolce & Gabbanna, a premiere global label known for their edgy and youthful fashion debuted their Spring 2013 runway presentation featuring the fancifully called “Blackamoor” earrings and dresses– but lets call it what they are: a cartoonish figure of a black woman complete with pitch black skin and exaggerated red lips – hanging on the ears of straight faced white women striding down the runway. Their caricatures of a painful racist past are going to be fashion’s new “it” thing to have.
Blackamoor figures are depictions of black Africans used in sculpture, jewelry, armorial designs and decorative art. As jewelry, such figures usually appear in antique Venetian (though nowadays they can be made anywhere) earrings, bracelets, cuff links, and brooches.
Blackamoor was popular a hundred years ago for a reason – the African continent has been used for CENTURIES as an object for the white colonizers to plunder, loot, and literally trade as property.Our resources, our people, our music, have all been easily taken and reshaped by Western society and culture through its reasoning that Africa was inferior. Early to mid 20th Century saw very similar images to the “Blackamoor art” used as paintings, within movies (seen an old Disney movie?) and in theater shows.
Our facial and skin features were exaggerated to a point beyond recognition into ugly mocking masks that Western civilization used to cover up the beauty that is the African continent.
It would be one thing for Dolce and Gabbanna to feature a single black model in that show. But this all-white presentation of girls wearing depictions of black women on their bodies is too uncomfortable in the ease of which in 2012, symbolically the West continues to use our image for profit, selling our faces draped on their shoulders and swinging in their ears.
Yet, its one thing for you to live under a rock and not understand how offensive these earrings can be to your audience – but to blatantly ignore cries of outrage with beautifully packaged explanations is another thing. Dolce & Gabbanna explained of their collection: “The head is inspired by Moorish features,” they released in a statement. “Moorish is a term used to define many peoples throughout history. Medieval and early modern Europeans applied the name to the Berbers, Arabs, Muslim Iberians and West Africans, although it has to be said that the term ‘Moorish’ has no real ethnological value. In Sicily’s case it defines the conquerors of Sicily. The first Muslim conquest of southern Italy lasted 75 years, from 827 to 902 AD.”
Despite this lengthy history lesson, The Guardian fashion blog hits the nail on the head describing the real problem with Dolce & Gabbanna’s response.
“Bygone eras and cultures are constantly drawn on by fashion designers to re-appropriate on a whim. But when you’re explicitly pandering to such a shameful era of western racism and colonialism, it’s time to move on to the future.”
Black models and culture being exploited or objectified is not a new thing. In June 2011, Luis Vuitton’s Kim Jones started his new role as men’s style director “with a mission: to embrace, via the luxury label’s travel history, the craft and culture of Africa.” The culture of Africa? I see. Vogue Italia is a repeat offender: in August 2012 they released their new large hoop earrings boldly labeled as “Slave Earrings”. They issued no official apology when confronted about the ad, and then relabeled them “Ethnic earrings”, blaming their error on a “mistranslation” that I guess everyone in their entire headquarters overlooked. Less than a year later in March 2012, Vogue Italia releases a new editorial they entitle “Haute Mess”, widely criticized as a poorly disguised reincarnation of ghetto fab aesthetics.
Supermodel Alek Wek wrote in her memoir of her discomfort when she shot a Lavazza calendar where she posed inside a coffee cup, her skin intended to represent the espresso. She wrote of the resulting images:
“I can’t help but compare them to all the images of black people that have been used in marketing over the decades. There was the big-lipped jungle-dweller on the blackamoor ceramic mugs sold in the ’40s; the golliwog badges given away with jam; Little Black Sambo, who decorated the walls of an American restaurant chain in the 1960s; and Uncle Ben, whose apparently benign image still sells rice.”
Now today, Dolce & Gabbanna’s response is to hide and defend themselves behind the pages of the history book, by saying they were going for authenticity in their theme, not racism. Yet examples of racism – intended or not – in fashion are so numerous that Complex Magazine compiled a history of the phenomenon stretching back to the era of colonialism that Dolce & Gabbana allegedly drew inspiration from.
And as you sit here and read and gasp – let us ask ourselves about the African Diaspora and the black community at large that continues to support and encourage luxury labels brands in rap videos and glorify those who wear the labels as having “made it”.
Dolce and Gabbanna specifically is seen as a label for the black community that everyone chases – from the bootleg knockoffs you can find in the marketplace back in our African communities, to saving up your paycheck so you can step out flashing that D&G bag or glasses.
Yet how should the African Diaspora react? By sitting back and commenting from afar? An admirable example is of rapper mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter who removed Cristal from his New York club 40/40 after after the company’s boss made “racist” comments about the wine’s association with hip-hop.
Cristal managing director Frederic Rouzaud told The Economist magazine he was unimpressed the expensive beverage has become popular in rap circles. Rouzaud said, “(It’s) unwelcome attention. What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”
Despite having name-checked the name in many of his huge songs, and many of his rapper friends and colleagues also regularly featuring Cristal in their videos – Jay-Z decided to use his money as his mouthpiece to show that it was NOT OK to be so blatantly ignorant and dismissive of the black community.
Take a moment to think about what your clothes and spending purchases make a statement about. The truth is the trend of “Africana” continues to flourish today within the fashion industry because lets face it, our continent is beautiful and a fascinating subject to capture the hearts of designers. But if we, as the African Diaspora who live in the West, are going to stand by for another century of objectification and ugly mockery at our expense – maybe we are just as complicit in this degradation as the creators of D&G’s newest collection.
by Vanessa Akem