Is Fashion Finally Ready to Face Its Blackface Problem?

Photo: Dillard’s

For better or worse, fashion is an extension of culture. Which means the ills of a culture will inevitably appear in its fashion.

At the beginning of February, a photo surfaced from the 1984 yearbook page of Virginia governor Ralph Northam depicting a man wearing blackface standing next to a man in Ku Klux Klan robes. Democrats immediately called for the governor’s resignation. Northam first affirmed, then denied his presence in the photo, admitting in the process that he did, in fact, wear blackface on a separate occasion that same year, when he attended a dance party dressed as Michael Jackson. All of this prompted Virginia’s attorney general, Mark R. Herring, to admit to attending a college party dressed in blackface as well (he was going as Kurtis Blow).

“[Because] of our ignorance and glib attitudes … we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup,” Herring wrote in a statement.

A few weeks prior, around the holidays, Prada pulled its “Pradamalia” figurines from its store. The toys, which were shaped like monkeys, with black bodies and large red lips, had prompted accusations of racism. “They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface,” the brand wrote in response. “Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery.”

Northam and Herring are American politicians; Prada is an Italian fashion brand. They’re not quite the same, and these controversies were not quite the same. But they got people talking, and when accused of partaking in the racist American tradition of blackface, both immediately pointed to their lack of ill intentions. Of course, people rarely cop to deliberate racism. And trying to prove or adjudicate someone’s intentions gets us nowhere. As Robin Givhan recently wrote on the subject: “Blackface lives because so often the people who indulge in it simply don’t see themselves as racist.” It is so deeply ingrained in our cultural history that some people are blind to it.

Last week, photos from inside Vogue editor Grace Coddington’s home revealed her collection of figurines depicting black women as domestic “Mammy” stereotypes. Coddington has not commented on how long she’s had them, or why they’re in her kitchen, but their presence in the background was another example of fashion’s lingering, persistent, sometimes dumbfounding racial blindspot.

Also last week, Gucci pulled a black balaclava sweater with red lips from its physical and online stores amid a public outcry. “The fact that, contrarily to my intentions, that turtle-neck jumper evoked a racist imagery causes me the greatest grief,” wrote creative director Alessandro Michele in a statement.

The brand not only apologized but went a step further, sending its CEO, Marco Bizzarri, to meet with designer and Gucci collaborator Dapper Dan in Harlem, along with — per a post on Dapper Dan’s Instagram — “members of the community” and “industry leaders.”

“There cannot be inclusivity without accountability,” Dapper Dan wrote. “I will hold everyone accountable.” Meanwhile, others like director Spike Lee and the Gucci-loving Soulja Boy called for a boycott.

Then on Monday (because there’s always a “then…”), Katy Perry reportedly pulled black shoes with a face on them from stores. This might have been a case of the Streisand effect, where one draws attention to oneself in an attempt to do the opposite. But regardless, someone on Katy Perry’s payroll clearly saw the shoes and flagged them as blackface, which proves they never should have been made.

How does this keep happening? The question itself is a problem, in part because it’s retroactive. At this point, fashion brands are thoroughly equipped to clean up their myriad messes. (Dapper Dan was brought into the Gucci fold after the brand was accused of stealing his designs in 2017.) Now, brands everywhere, not just American and European, need to take a long look at why we’re here in the first place.

Which brings us back to intentions, and whether or not they matter. Holding companies — and specific people — accountable for their actions helps to inform them where their intent falls short, and where their blind spots are. It makes the cost of their actions greater, and hopefully more impactful longterm. But Dapper Dan isn’t Gucci’s accountability officer, and it shouldn’t be the responsibility of one diversity-oriented employee to flag questionable balaclavas as they materialize. Accountability needs to be felt by everyone, on every level of production, from inception to promotion to consumption. It needs to be a part of the culture.

Gucci, at least, seems to understand this. “We made a mistake. A big one. Because of cultural ignorance, but ignorance is not an excuse,” wrote Bizzarri in an internal memo obtained by Fashionista. He also added that he was “working on a set of immediate, concrete actions to implement,” including a global cultural-awareness program and a scholarship program to “facilitate an increase of different communities within the creative office.”

It’s a good intention. We’ll see where it leads.

Is Fashion Finally Ready to Face Its Blackface Problem?