Dolce & Gabbana, a popular label known for youthful fashions, has created another example suggesting that racism in fashion is a problem. During the brand’s Spring 2013 runway presentation held on Sunday, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana chose to pair a collection of light, whimsical elements — such as prints featuring Italian frescoes — with “Blackamoor” earrings that harken back to a darker past.
These trinkets, consisting of black female heads painted in splashy colors, are rendered in a style similar to an aesthetic made popular during the colonial era when black people were featured in European furniture design and collectables. “Blackamoor decorative arts” — in forms like a black slave holding up a table — often parallel the subservient status of Africans at that time in history, people used and owned as objects by their masters.
Dolce & Gabbana’s decision to resurrect similar symbolism for accessories has spawned harsh judgments from fashion watchers. The application of this imagery is particularly jarring, because Dolce & Gabbana did not use any black models for its Spring 2013 show.
In addition to the earrings, some of the dresses featured portray black women in unflattering sketches some say make them look like slaves.
“Had a black model been wearing the earrings or dress, we probably wouldn’t give it a second thought,” Julie Wilson of The Huffington Post wrote. “We can’t decide whether it’s better there weren’t any considering the collection’s questionably racist embellishments or if the lack of diversity makes it even worse.”
Respected style blog Refinery29 was more pointed in its criticism. “These severed heads dangling from a pale-skinned model’s ear are not fun or playful, but simply evocative of some of the darkest times in Western history,” the outlet opined. “Somebody get Cornel West on the phone, because we’re guessing he might have a few thoughts, here.”
A writer at popular women’s site The Frisky counters, “if I saw black women wearing these earrings, I would honestly just think they were cool,” while conceding, “I don’t think the earrings in-and-of themselves are racist. But I do think it’s problematic when white women wear them and a luxury company owned by white people profits off them.”
The fashion industry regularly comes under fire for its insensitive use of black and African themes. Vogue Italia was chastised for calling hoop earings used in a spread “slave earrings,” and New York Fashion Week just closed with the continuing trend of underutilizing models of color.
A Dutch editor-in-chief resigned recently when an article in her fashion magazine called superstar Rihanna the b-word and n-word, resulting in international outrage. She explained that the use of these slurs was meant to be descriptive of a style of dress that Rihanna exemplified without realizing how they could deeply offend blacks.
Examples of racism in fashion are so numerous that Complex Magazine compiled a history of the phenomenon stretching back to the era of colonialism that Dolce & Gabbana allegedly drew inspiration from.
Culling ideas from the poisoned well of the past is a habit that fashion must break, many contend, but this might only be possible if fashion is integrated both on and behind the runways. “From the production to the fitting, was there really no one to point this out before they hit the catwalk?,” The Guardian fashion blog questioned about the appearance of the earrings.
“Bygone eras and cultures are constantly drawn on by fashion designers to re-appropriate on a whim,” continues the paper in its piece. “But when you’re explicitly pandering to such a shameful era of western racism and colonialism, it’s time to move on to the future.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.