Racism in Fashion: The Obsession with Blackface
By. Emily Jarecki
In its origination, Blackface was a term used to describe the theatrical makeup used by white actors in minstrel shows in the 19th century. With the face being painted pitch black and bright red lips, blackface aimed to dehumanize black people by creating a caricature and stereotype of them. By the 21st century the term is considered to be offensive and promoting racism.
Blackface comes with a long and painful history stemming back to slavery. Yet, the sensitive history it comes with does not stop it from entering today’s industries. Even in the last twenty years, there have been signs of an increasing reemergence of blackface especially in sectors of film, entertainment, and fashion.
Ignorance at Its Finest?
Just recently in Gucci’s Fall Winter 2018 line, Gucci received a huge backlash regarding a black turtleneck sweater that had a red lip outline around the mouth that blackface also emphasized. The sweater originally retailed for $890 but was immediately taken down after the criticism. Gucci in February 2019 apologized for the incident saying, “Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper…We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected and at the forefront of every decision we make…”
Prada’s “Pradamalia” figurines in the 2018 holiday season featured monkey toys and keychains that evoked racist imagery. The black monkeys had oversized red lips which resembled that of blackface’s own features. Prada quickly apologized and discontinued the production of it saying, "The Pradamalia are fantasy charms …They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.”
By luxury fashion brands unconsciously incorporating blackface features into their new lines, it shows that many brands might be completely tone-deaf to the day’s situation that aims to fight for antiracism and justice. There have been countless instances in the past for designers being called out for racist images in their design trends so it is improbable that high end brands like Gucci and Prada would be ignorant to the market upheavals.
However, it is important to note that blackface comes at a crossroad in the fashion industry and raises the question whether the designs luxury brands feature are signs of their ignorance regarding racism or merely statement piece.
Nothing Personal, Just Business
In the 2015 Milan Fashion Week, designer Claudio Cutugno sent his models down the runway with their faces covered in black glitter with the intent of making it look like the models were being swarmed by insects, inspired by artist Emilio Isgrò. However, the appearance of the models wearing this makeup became reminiscent of the minstrel shows that ridiculed African Americans thought the caricature blackface.
In reaction to the audience’s backlash, Cutugno would not apologize for his choice in the 2015 Milan Fashion Week. He said that he hoped that other designers would follow his lead and to stop having to defend their design. His choice not to apologize may be a sign that he wasn’t trying to be racist but only trying to reach an intended style or image that was separate from the outside world’s interference. This raises the question when does setting trends and the outside world come into contact with one another?
Design Over Justice
It is evident that many luxury brands have been considered racist by promoting blackface which have led them to publicly apologize for their fashion line. One would think that after all the repercussions designers face when they come out with a new design that has blackface features, they would be more wary of their design choices.
With all the public outcries of blackface, it is unlikely that designers are inept to understand the significance of blackface. Yet luxury brands continue to place praise for their new designs regardless of a possible upheaval from the audience.
Could it be that designers are sacrificing the fight for racial justice in favor of their designs?
Emily Jarecki is an editorial write who finds importance in stories that encourage one to stand out and be themselves whether it be in fashion, ambition, or lifestyle.