Blackface: The unnoticed, unintended undertones of racism in fashion

Fashion isn’t just a depiction of how we present ourselves to society, but how our society places importance on our appearance through the perspective of others. Fashion can be self-expressive, thought provoking, comical and even shocking.

Headlines have been buzzing about instances of blackface and its assimilation into the world of racism and dress. “Blackface is, in essence, a kind of fashion — one rooted in the dark, arrogant insecurity of white supremacy, one inspired by this country’s original sin,” said Robin Gavhin from The Washington Post.

This has led to a charged bewilderment, where we need to look outside of the situation to see why blackface has not faded away with other extremely oppressive images. Emilia Petrarca from The Cut said, “For better or worse, fashion is an extension of culture. Which means the ills of a culture will inevitably appear in its fashion,” —  which reveals the dark and insidious world of the industry.

With the recent storm of rage against Gucci for its “balaclava knit,” featuring a high-rolled turtleneck and red lip that resembles blackface, people question the role of fashion houses as designers continue to design these garments with their eyes turned away from an ignorant racism that seems to only be growing.Even after Gucci took the knit sweater out of circulation, buyers and brand die-hards decided that boycotting, even burning, their clothes was the only justifiable reprimand.

Gucci hasn’t been the only offender when it comes to subtle or blatant blackface depictions in high fashion. In February 2019, Katy Perry’s shoe line received backlash after launching a black-faced mule shoe with blue eyes and red lips.

However, as we are faced with resurfacing problems of absently dealing with subtle acts of racism, this is an issue that lies deeper than a runway. It exists in the magazines we read, the fashion shows we watch and even the Halloween costumes manufactured for us as kids, representing the eyes-wide-shut racism mindset.

In 2016, Moncler’s logo, resembling the face of a 19th-century golliwog doll, went on the chopping block, with the brand arguing that the logo was supposed to resemble a penguin. Even as early as 2001, Viktor & Rolf sent a Fall Ready-to-Wear collection down the runway that was intended to symbolize the enormity of black holes and the absence of light, with white models painted in all black. European Vogue magazines, such as Vogue Italia and Vogue Netherlands,  were criticized for painting white models for culturally specific photoshoots.

Weeks ago, at Burberry’s London Fashion Week show, one of the first looks that walked down the runway was a hoodie with drawstrings tied in a noose hanging around the model’s neck, which received extreme criticism toward the brand’s insensitivity toward lynchings and suicide. In December 2018, Prada launched a $550 dollar monkey keychain resembling “Little Sambo, a character in a children’s book with illustrations that are considered overtly racist” according to Time Magazine.

The issue is being noticed, but the catch-22 is, how has this continued to be a problem in the fashion industry for almost 200 years?

This history of unintentional ignorance has gone further than blackface in fashion. Dolce and Gabbana, a serial offender of avant garde comments, had its November 2018 fashion extravaganza cancelled in China after its promotional campaign included Chinese clichesof a woman eating spaghetti with chopsticks. It can be easy for a designer to stay a creature of habit, and stay in his or her traditional mindsets, especially for older, European designers who may not be challenged with as many progressive voices. Robin Givhan from The Washington Post said, “A designer can be deeply moved by one individual’s story yet able to overlook or ignore the story of an entire population.”

The issue is being noticed, but the catch-22 is, how has this continued to be a problem in the fashion industry for almost 200 years? One possibility could be the absence of black and other minority creative directors and designers in major heritage houses. Virgil Abloh, founder of the brand Off-White, was appointed the first African-American creative director at Louis Vuitton in March 2018. He is one of the very few appointed black designers at major heritage houses alongside Ozwald Boateng at Givenchy from 2003 to 2007, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain and Shayne Oliver at Helmut Lang. Despite the increase in minority models in fashion shows from 44.8 to 45.8 percent, “we’re going backwards” according to The New York Times –– a non-coincidental parallel between the limited number of African-American high-profile designers and the insidious nature of unintended racism.

The main unanswered question in this debate is how everyone –– buyers, pattern makers, technical designers, marketing and PR teams, and sample makers –– didn’t notice something strange with these designs. Perhaps they did, and feared the backlash that comes with being the one voice to say “no.”

Maybe we were never taught that racism wasn’t just saying the “n-word” or discriminating against minorities, or that being “ignorant” to the “unintentional,” as many politicians, like Ralph Northam and Mark Herring, and designers stated in their apologies, delivers a more lethal blow to diversity.

“The fact that, contrarily to my intentions, that turtle-neck jumper evoked a racist imagery causes me the greatest grief … This is due to the ignorance of this matter. Certainly, it was not intentional but this is not an excuse,” disclosed Marco Bizzarri, president and CEO of Gucci, in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily.

These are dangerous words, as are racism and discrimination as a whole, because it speaks to a larger qualm that will be harder to soothe and much harder to instill onto others to come.

However, Gucci contributor Dapper Dan knows where to start, stating: “There cannot be inclusivity without accountability. I will hold everyone accountable.”

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