Big hair is racist?

Boston-MFA-racismI missed this story when it was in the news a month ago… The Boston Museum of Fine Arts had an interactive display where you could try on a reproduction of the kimono that appears in Monet’s 1875 picture ‘La Japonaise’, until some overly-sensitive politically correct watchdogs decided to protest in the galleries because they thought the activity was racist… HUH? It certainly can’t be the act of wearing a kimono, since around the time this painting was done by Monet, Japanese women were beginning to appropriate Western dress – and I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that was a form of Occidental racism.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts cancelled the interactive display and APOLOGIZED to anyone who was offended. However, nobody should have, or needed to, apologize for Monet’s painting.

E7714CR-d1The match that ignited this brouhaha was an incorrectly worded interpretation by the curator who identified the model as Camille, Monet’s wife, and suggested she is wearing a blonde wig to “emphasize her Western identity”. Suddenly the painting became a statement about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and put the image into a category of racist art alongside minstrel shows. This is bullshit. Camille is likely wearing her own hair, not a wig, in a manner that could be considered Japanese, but that was a la mode in the early 1870s. Even if it wasn’t in fashion, putting her hair up in a Japanese manner is not the same as smearing burnt cork onto your face for a blackface routine.


Big Hairstyles in 1875


Japanese women in Western dress, c. 1887 – an act of Occidental racism?

Most hairstyles of the early-mid 1870s were influenced by Japanese and 18th century French styles of hair dressing – BIG hair was in. In fact everything Japanese was in fashion at the time – the entire late 19th century (and much of the early 20th century) was heavily influenced by Japanese styling, decorative motifs and colour palettes. Despite what any overly-sensitive protestor wants to whinge about, fashion is not about racism, it is about inspiration and appropriation. Fashion has historically looked to ethnographic dress: kimonos, saris, turbans, moccasins, sarongs, dirndls, clogs, parkas, and even tattoos for style inspiration in the past and it will continue to do so in the future.

The penny just dropped… I bet this was spurred on as a ‘me too’ to the corn-rowing discussion…

3 thoughts on “Big hair is racist?

  1. I can understand the problematic issues where there is religious or symbolic significance to the patterns/garments, as with some Native American designs and patterns; or where garments, clothing or patterns are perceived as only to be worn by certain sexes or types of persons. So while I am not against appropriation, I also think there needs to be some awareness of the ethnographic issues and concepts, and understanding as to where your ideas are drawn from.

    In this particular case, I think the response was over-sensitive and over-cautious, but that is the problem with hypersenstivity – people who presume they know what will cause offence shout loudly enough that people who dread causing offence get scared and hastily try to make amends. It’s not like they were encouraging people to play at being geishas. To me it seems that being able to try on a kimono like that in the portrait offers an opportunity to understand the portrait and engage with it and imagine how the sitter would have felt. I mean, FFS, you can buy kimonos in the High Street to wear as dressing gowns and bath robes, and I don’t see people complaining that this cheapens and demeans Japanese culture.

    Is this image of an 1909 actress wearing a kimono as an at-home gown and surounded by imported Eastern furniture racist too because she is wearing big hair – even though it’s a fashionable Western style?

    I cringe whenever people who presume they know what’s best for my particular minority group assume that they need to do certain things because of course all people in my minority group are presumed to need those certain things…. and in fact it just makes said minority group look shouty and didactic and demanding and difficult to work with.

    • I wonder when the word appropriation gained its negative meaning, synonymous with ‘feckless theft’ — it can also imply inspirational appreciation. My mother used to say imitation is the biggest form of flattery.

  2. Racism is still alive and strong today BUT it is just not Black and white any longer… I really really REALLY wish people would study up on their history before they label or use the world “Racism”.

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