So. How'd everybody just notice that the Dolce & Gabbana collection that graced a catwalk in Milan last week was chock full of dated, racist imagery of black women? Mammy earrings? Hello? How'd the fashion press, those folks who keep their eyes always peeled for next season's hot accessory, miss Mammy earrings?
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The Dolce & Gabbana collection was, according to the designers, inspired by their Sicilian heritage. There were rustic, flour sack dresses and examples of Sicilian basket-weaving in the form of wicker crinolines mixed into a show that favored generically feminine 1950s silhouettes. There were also lots of garments that hearkened back to an older tradition by incorporating prints based on archetypes found in the opera dei pupi, the Sicilian marionette theater where Medieval epic poems are retold with puppets. In many of those stories, the drama centers on the question of whether the heroic, puppet knights will again prevail against the wicked "moors" — the puppets representing Muslim invaders.
Is that the reason why the spring Dolce & Gabbana collection is full of blackamoor imagery? It's impossible to tell; to my eye, the black faces on the collection's prints and the black bust figurines that swung from the models' ears, with their deep black, undifferentiated skin tone, exaggerated, brightly colored lips, and head kerchiefs full of fruit, look more reminiscent of Jim Crow-era American depictions of black people than they do of opera dei pupi marionettes. They seem more like Mammy than they do the Saracens of the puppet theater, who — though intended to represent Africans — had bodies that were often painted the same color as their European knight foes. This seems like more of an appropriation of racist imagery for sheer kitsch value than it does an appropriation of racist imagery for its historical value and/or for purposes of critique. And appropriating this kind of imagery just for kitsch kicks — that's ugly.
In any case, it's hardly the first time that the world of high fashion has chosen to depict black people in stereotypical (and offensive) ways. Christian Dior made shoes in 2007 that had heels made of "fertility goddess" figurines — which actually looked a lot like Sarah Baartman. Vogue Italia advertised "slave earrings" last year. Model Alek Wek wrote in her memoir of her discomfort when she shot a Lavazza calendar where she posed inside a coffee cup, her skin intended to represent the espresso. She wrote of the resulting images:
"I can't help but compare them to all the images of black people that have been used in marketing over the decades. There was the big-lipped jungle-dweller on the blackamoor ceramic mugs sold in the '40s; the golliwog badges given away with jam; Little Black Sambo, who decorated the walls of an American restaurant chain in the 1960s; and Uncle Ben, whose apparently benign image still sells rice."
Oh, but look! Dolce & Gabbana made some earrings with a white lady, too. Obviously this whole thing can't be racist. Nevermind.
Colonialist Chic? No Thanks, Dolce & Gabbana [Refinery29]