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.

Godey's_Lady's_July_1875_no1

Big Hairstyles in 1875

6983b02b1169b03a09480f50b00c8a3b

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…