Fashion and Cultural Insensitivity

From that first glimpse of Victorian ankle to Gernreich’s topless bathing suit, it used to be the baring of body parts that created the biggest fashion controversies. After everything had been exposed that society would allow, advertisers like Calvin Klein, who used 16 year old Brooke Shields’ sex appeal to sell jeans, and Benetton, who hired a dieing AIDS patient to push sweaters, became the most controversial aspects of fashion.  Now it’s cultural insensitivity that’s making waves.

Last summer Jeremy Scott designed a pair of sneakers for Adidas that featured ankle shackles. Considering young black American men are probably the largest market share for sneakers, you have to wonder what the hell Scott and Adidas were thinking. I have heard of a young Jewish man who had his grandmother’s concentration camp number tattooed on his arm, but it was done to honour his grandmother’s memory, not to commercially profit from the design.

This year Jeremy Scott created an artistically successful totemic-inspired sportswear line for Adidas that unexpectedly got a lot of heat from Native groups. Proprietary rights over cultural design has now hit Nike over their recent line of active sportswear that borrows inspiration from Samoan tattoos.

While it is easy to recognize that slave shackle shoes were a bad idea, it is difficult to understand why the appropriation of non-religious cultural designs are considered inappropriate – especially as fashion has been doing it for centuries. Is it really considered insensitive or racist? Like Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, can you be called a racist if you actually like the race? Can fashion be declared insensitive when it honours the designs of another culture? And who represents that indigenous culture that gets to decide yeah or nay?

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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2 Responses to Fashion and Cultural Insensitivity

  1. Daniel says:

    Oh, buggerybuckets. I hate how when you write something long and considered and complicated and then when you accidentally hit the back button or mistype the CAPTCHA code, you lose everything.

    Anyway. This editorial seemed quite relevant to the issues here – I was trying to remember who’d used Islamic texts on their haute couture collection, turns out it was (quelle surprise) Lagerfeld, and came across this – which is actually REALLY interesting stuff.

    http://nycma.fcny.org/nycma/voices/193/editorials/editorials/

    • Jonathan says:

      Karl may not be the most sensitive designer around, but he’s also not the most original! I have seen a picture of an evening dress from the 1940s made from fabric printed with pages from the Koran!

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