The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Recently, fashion has been rocked by scandals involving racism, sexism, and cultural appropriation — real, alleged, and perceived. Some of these allegations have been serious and valid, others more tenuous and contentious. Among the latter include accusations of racism based on an image or product.
Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, and Gucci have all been called out, D&G for a debacle of an advertising campaign targeting Chinese customers, and Prada and Gucci for products that mimic blackface. Fashion brands have been accused of racial insensitivity before, but with the rise of social media and self-appointed Instagram watchdogs such as Diet Prada, the line is now blurring between a valid civic concern and smug moral superiority.
Fashion critic Angelo Flaccavento recently wrote in Vogue Italia, “We live in violently moralistic times, destroying freedom of expression and invention in the name of a distorted idea of freedom of expression. Censors are trying to turn fashion into something terribly intelligent and necessarily political, denying its frivolous, silly and distracted nature. Let’s be clear: the socio-political values of fashion are deep, but they are on the surface, they are aesthetic. Indeed, the more superficial fashion is, the more it triggers progress. To deny it by imposing ex-cathedra lessons, choked with narrow certainties, is to destroy the fertile fields of free thought with Philistine arrogance.”
The bizarre thing about the rhetoric coming from the millennial left is how it resembles that of the right. This well-meaning authoritarianism results in products being pulled off shelves, apologies issued, lip service in the form of “diversity councils,” and a lot of money spent on PR. It resembles the culture wars of years past.
In his 1993 book Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, art critic Robert Hughes described the scandal surrounding the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography depicting gay S&M practices. In 1989, Mapplethorpe’s work was pulled from Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art under pressure from the evangelical Christian right, resulting in an effort by Republican Senator Jesse Helms to amend a law in a way that would deny National Endowment of the Arts funding for any artist whose planned works might be deemed “obscene.”
Among language denying funds to sexually explicit artworks and material that offends religion, the amendment wanted to prevent funding going to “material which denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group, or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age, or national origin,” wording that could come straight out of any liberal arts college campus.
Not much has changed today. In 2017, feminist activists demanded a 1938 Balthus painting of a young girl in a suggestive pose be removed from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m not sure whether their sensibilities are morally superior to those of evangelicals, but both groups use similar rhetoric to the same effect — stifling creativity and freedom of expression by whipping up moral hysteria.
Helms’ language wasn’t in the final wording but the so-called “decency” amendment passed and was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1998. According to Hughes, the scandal surrounding Mapplethorpe’s exhibit “produced an atmosphere of doubt, self-censorship, and disoriented caution among curators and museum directors when facing the political demands of pressure groups.” Sound familiar?
I’m not saying a Prada monkey keychain or a Gucci sweater is anything like Mapplethorpe’s photography or Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus, rather I’m talking about a general climate of censorship from both the right and left. And when I see knee-jerk reactions to fashion today, I think back to Alexander McQueen.
McQueen’s talent lay in his ability to challenge, provoke, and to reflect a cruel world through fashion. Sometimes he was misunderstood. His FW95 “Highland Rape” collection was about the trauma of England’s subjugation of Scotland in the middle ages (McQueen was part-Scottish), with models staggering on the runway in slashed and torn clothes, looking like rape victims. Some critics accused McQueen of misogyny, and in the narrative they had constructed, they weren’t entirely wrong. It’s just that their assumptions were off the mark.
Had they asked McQueen what he meant, they might have had a different reaction. But at the time, McQueen essentially flipped off his critics and carried on — he knew what he was doing and it wasn’t his problem if others misunderstood. McQueen believed his duty was to his creativity, not to any group with a political agenda.
In McQueen’s SS97 “La Poupée” show, black model Debra Shaw wore a metal frame with manacles that restricted her movement as she walked. According to Dana Thomas’ 2015 book Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, Shaw asked McQueen if the frame was a reference to slavery. McQueen shuddered at the suggestion and explained it was a symbol of the restrictionary diktats placed on fashion by the bourgeois arbiters of taste, which was good enough for Shaw. All she did was ask. But I can only imagine the social media firestorm the show would have caused had it taken place today.
Fashion conglomerates operate like any other: the concern is making money, not creativity. As the millennial customer grows in influence, their tastes must be catered to. Consumers are empowered as never before, able to reach and affect brands in a way unthinkable even 10 years ago. Fashion is no longer dictated from above, and on the surface, its democratization sounds like a good thing. But it has its downsides. Design by committee poses a threat to designers’ creative freedom.
The US culture wars have gone global. Of course, the US has been influencing culture beyond its borders since the end of World War II, but today we also demand the world understands the intricacies of American identity politics and history. But who are we — a nation deeply and proudly ignorant of the rest of the world, led by an appalling Ignoramus-in-Chief — to dictate moral standards to others?
There is racism and bigotry in Europe and elsewhere, and though equally deplorable, it is of a different flavor. And while a pretty awful Instagram exchange involving Stefano Gabbana is indefensible, perhaps other instances weren’t so onerous.
Miuccia Prada said after the Prada monkey debacle, “I increasingly think anything one does today can cause offense. There can sometimes be a lack of generosity, but, on the other hand, how can we know all cultures?” Addressing another elephant in the room, cultural appropriation, she added, “People want respect because now there is talk of cultural appropriation, but this is the foundation of fashion, as it has always been the basis of art, of everything.”
The atmosphere of self-censorship extends to the fashion media as well. Few fashion critics dare say anything against the well-meaning authoritarianism of political correctness for fear of public shaming. There is little apparent benefit to pointing out the obvious, as Flaccavento did in Vogue: “Let it be said once and for all… the creative act is anarchic, boundless, bulimic, and incorrect, and with apologies to the censors, it cannot be dictated from on high or a priori.”
Who wins in the age of oversensitivity? The watchdogs, for one. Diet Prada has more than a million Instagram followers — customers for its branded merch. Founders Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler have become a fearsome force of censorship. Julie Zerbo of The Fashion Law told The New York Times it is “common knowledge that people were scared of the social media army at Diet Prada’s command.”
Diet Prada succeeds by reinforcing cognitive bias rather than fostering constructive criticism and a spirit of inquiry in the way quality journalism does. Instead, we are treated to moralistic policing of the most facile sort, often with instructions on what designers are supposed to do.
Who loses? Fashion with a capital “F,” whose willingness to challenge and provoke is essential if we want it to remain exciting. As Flaccavento put it in another article, for Arena HOMME+, “Creativity cannot be directed by manual-defined political reasons, even though it has political and social outcomes. Creators are here to show us new ways, and hopefully new meanings. They are here to upset, to make us scream in scandal and outrage. Let them beg, steal, and borrow, let them appropriate and reinterpret: something truly progressive might arise.”
For Flaccavento, political correctness is a “trap conceived by conformists in the name of a false respect.” The great fashion designers have never sought universal appeal. Like the arts, truly creative fashion holds up a mirror to society, points out its faults, and turns them into statement-making garments. By demanding fashion be filtered through a lens that presents every single worldview, it becomes less specific and less meaningful. After all, when you make something for everyone it usually results in a product that means nothing to anyone.