Blackface in fashion is in the news again, as photos have surfaced of leaders in the field wearing blackface for Milan’s annual “Halloweek” party. Held on October 26 in Italy’s style capital, this year’s theme was “Disco Africa.” While some expressed the concept by donning animal prints studded with sequins, others, such as designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua it is alleged, took the occasion to paint their white skin black.
The result was international outrage among fashion fans after images from the event hit social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter. These photos show many revelers painted varying shades of brown — some with chains about their necks — and others with large afro wigs that give the appearance of mocking Africa rather than celebrating it.
The party participant who is believed to be celebrated Italian designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua is seen dressed in traditional blackface so dramatic, he appears to be channeling ’20s movie star Al Jolson. Jolson won acclaim for smearing his skin with the coal black makeup of traditional minstrelsy for the 1927 hit film The Jazz Singer, in which he impersonated an African-American for great personal gain.
Blackface in fashion: A cautionary lesson
Claire Sulmers of The Fashion Bomb explains why referencing minstrel shows is so offensive in her post about the party.
“Blackface is antiquated, has been deemed controversial across the board, and is racially insensitive,” she writes. “It is steeped in a negative history, pointing back to a time in American history when blacks were considered 3/5th of a human being–unfit to represent themselves, so white actors took the lead (at first), painting their skin brown and propagating some of the most pernicious and dehumanizing stereotypes of black people at the time (minstrel shows characterized blacks as lazy, superstitious, and buffoonish).”
Blogger Natasha Ndlovu captured much of the ire directed at leaders in the fashion industry — particularly those in Europe — who continue to employ blackface. Whether it is in photo spreads, clothing designs, advertisements — or costumes — for her there is no excuse for this ongoing trend.
Blackface trend tied to plight of black models?
Ndlovu also mentioned how this insensitivity ties into her struggles as a black model, who many believe are underutilized because of racism.
“Things like this really PISS me off because as a black person and a black model,” Ndlovu writes, “I struggle to find work and be valued in an industry that only cares about the color of my skin when they want to chuck a bright-neon bathing suit on me because, as the saying goes, ‘it goes well with your skin tone.’”
The style blogger also stated that, while many of the offensive photos have been removed from the social media accounts of party attendants, the damage is already done.
“People took photos down, but it does not change the fact that they were put up there in the first place, with no thought whatsoever,” Ndlovu concludes, noting in her post that these “grown men” should know by now that blackface used in any aspect of fashion is wrong.
Racism in fashion accusations are ongoing
In the fashion industry, it appears that every few months there is a cultural appropriation of blackface as a styling tool, despite its being spawned during one of the most racist periods of American history. In addition, there are regular instances of designers and advertisers employing the “look,” or referencing other elements of racially insensitive imagery, with little awareness of how these choices will impact consumers.
Just this year Numéro magazine caused a controversy by painting a white model a deep shade of brown in an ethnic-inspired spread titled “African Queen.” This spurred outrage over the choice of the image creators to forgo using a black model for a shoot, who would have so obviously matched the job.
In recent weeks black fashion industry icons such as Bethann Hardison and Andre Leon Talley have spoken out about racism in fashion and how it continues to impact black models and other professionals in the field of African decent.
This latest incident for many is a further indication that fashion leaders still need to evolve in their perspectives on race, coming to an understanding of how a lack of awareness negatively impacts people of color and the perception of the industry.
TheGrio has reached out to Alessandro Dell’Acqua for comment on the images that many outlets are stating depict him wearing blackface. This article will be updated if his representatives release a statement.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.