- Big fashion brands have released racially insensitive products in recent years.
- Many of them resemble blackface, a practice that dates back to the 1800s.
- Blackface not only fed negative stereotypes about black people, but it also reinforced the idea of white superiority, leading to the drastic levels of inequality we see today.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: When this model walked down the runway in Gucci’s 2018 Fall Winter Show, there was no major uproar. In fact, this turtleneck was being sold for nearly a year. But it’s not just a simple turtleneck. There’s something more sinister in the image that this turtleneck portrays, even if the creators weren’t aware, as they claim. There have been countless examples of big fashion brands being accused of racism.
Gucci is being accused of profiting from blackface. Moncler released a line that some say resembles the harmful Sambo stereotype. Katy Perry released shoes that resemble blackface. Prada produced this black monkey with exaggerated red lips. And these are just some of the examples.
The offending items are usually removed from stores after the brands face backlash from consumers. But it begs the question, why exactly are these items racist?
“Sambo” was a term used to describe black people during slavery. In 1899, a children’s book, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” helped solidify the derogatory caricature of dark-skinned children. The resemblance of some of high fashion’s hot items is striking, and this image didn’t stop with the drawings.
White actors would paint their faces black and leave large outlines around the mouth to imitate having full lips. This is how blackface was born. In the 1800s, blackface was heavily prominent in the form of minstrel shows. To be clear, this was not a form of flattery. It was very clearly done to mock black culture and to portray black people as inferior or unintellectual. Minstrel shows shaped the nation’s views on race and reinforced white superiority well after the abolition of slavery.
Although the blackface minstrel shows gradually disappeared, this form of entertainment had a major influence over vaudeville, radio, television, motion picture, and world music industries of the 20th and 21st centuries. And reports of politicians and college students dressing up in blackface are a regular part of the news.
Dark skin, wide noses, and full lips are things that the black American community has struggled with for years because these features were deemed unwanted by the larger white society, and there’s been a decades-long process of reclaiming and celebrating those features. So it’s no wonder that these images still cause so much pain for the black community to this day. And blackface doesn’t just stop at being a harmful form of artistic expression. It fed into a larger ideology of white supremacy, an ideology alive and well today, and an ideology that has real and lasting effects.
Because of white supremacy, a black American is likely to get a 20% longer sentence for the same offense as a white American. Black homeownership rates are way behind white homeownership rates, and black poverty rates are also much higher than white poverty rates. So let’s take a look at the turtleneck in question. We can begin to see why it would be so hurtful to so many people. The item in question was trending online with tons of people expressing their disgust.
Kim Bhasin : The initial spark of anger that you get from the public is obviously the most prominent piece of this. But people remember things that brands have done in the past. If you look at the most recent examples of offensive fashion, whenever a new one comes up, everyone refers to all the previous ones that had happened before.
Narrator: Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzarri said in a statement, “We are coming from a different culture. We are Italian. We don’t know all the cultural differences.” Gucci said they’ll take full responsibility in a statement apologizing for the offense. But the claim that they don’t know feels kind of like a cop-out.
Gucci has a plethora of people making decisions. How did not one of those people flag the sweater as potentially offensive? Gucci has announced a full program of scholarships that will facilitate an increase of different communities within the creative office. Prada has announced a diversity council that aims to elevate voices of color within the company and fashion industry at large. But even from an American perspective, we’re not exactly leading the way.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America is one of the industry’s premier trade organizations. Only 3% of the members are black. For the Fall Winter 2019 New York Fashion Week, only 10% of the designers were black.
So the biggest question may be, are we doing enough to change the fashion industry?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in February 2019.