Are Fashion and Political Correctness Mutually Exclusive?

The quintessential art of expression, fashion has been challenging conventions for as long as someone has been around to defy the norm. The art often has a radical approach, and thus it comes as no surprise when critics, commentators, and pseudo-critics verbally assail the designer. The question then raised is whether or not fashion should be politically correct; that is, refraining from offending any particular group of people in society.

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Junya Watanabe Spring/Summer 2016, screen grab from vogue.co.uk

Overtime, fashion has been seen by many to be politically incorrect on numerous occasions. During Paris Fashion Week 2015, both Junya Watanabe and Valentino showcased clearly African-inspired collections during a time when immigration from both Africa and the Middle East was a subject of discussion. To make matters even more controversial, Watanabe had his fashion show held at the Museum of Immigration History in Paris. Not only was Watanabe criticized for his insubstantial show notes, but also for the lack of model diversity on the runway, thus giving rise to what many perceived to be cultural appropriation. However, the lack of black models in his show could suggest that the designer was trying to communicate the idea of integrating the African way of dressing into modern-day western society.

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Lack of diversity is evident in Valentino’s S/S 2016 show, screen grab from vogue.co.uk

Similarly, Valentino held a fashion show that featured many Caucasian models who were strutting down the runway in bone necklaces, safari prints, and cornrow hairstyles to the beat of a bongo drum. The Italian designer’s fashion notes said that the “primitive…spiritual, yet regal” collection was inspired by “wild, tribal Africa.” Through his designs, Valentino sought to “journey to the beginning of time and the essential of primitive nature.” Though it is clear that Valentino was indeed captivated by the African way of dressing, the language of his show notes exposes the shallowness of such inspiration, and the line between appropriation and admiration becomes blurred, especially considering the clear lack of black models in his show. His show notes reduce the grand continent that is Africa to nothing more than the description, “wild, tribal, and primitive.” To take these features of African dressing and use them as an influence is to insult the intricate culture of Africa. One may remember Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, wherein he portrays the Western settlers as being dismissive of African culture by having them reduce its complexity to nothing more than an interesting entry in a book.

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Vivienne Westwood’s Homeless Chic, screen grab from nymag.com
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Vivienne Westwood’s Homeless Chic, screen grab from nymag.com

Nonetheless, Valentino and Watanabe were not the first fashion houses to cause an uproar because of controversial shows. Other examples include: Yves Saint Laurent’s Spring Summer collection of 1967, Alexander McQueen’s AW00 Eshu collection, which was named after a god of the West African Yoruba people, and Dolce & Gabbana’s Spring Summer 2013 collection, which presented slave-like depictions of African women that appeared on dresses and earrings, again having no black model in almost all the looks.

Moreover, the controversy is not just limited to migrant-inspired designs, but the past has also seen “homeless chic,” most notably in Vivienne Westwood’s menswear show in her Fall 2010 collection. Is creating a collection from the appearance of poverty synonymous to insensitivity? Many have thought that the show ridiculed the basic necessities of the less fortunate, and transformed them into overpriced designer clothes.

Often times, these comments are the product of blind analysis, one taken out of context. The designer may have just wanted to celebrate an inspiring, colorful culture, but the people deem such acts as racist, discriminatory, or cultural appropriation. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who believe that the migrant-inspired fashion shows glorify African culture. On the other end, there are those who are quick to take offense, calling the entire fashion show “politically incorrect.” The fashion shows did not outwardly attack or place a stigma upon certain cultures, nor did they offer detailed explanations of their motives behind their designs. Thus, we are left with thoughts to assume the worse and stamp the entire show as insensitive, or appreciate it for its attempt to bring a certain culture into Western society.

Though we must take into account the freedom of designers and those who may wear them, we also must look at the respect and dignity of the refugees and their plight. Such a hardship seems to be diminished or made to seem trivial by making a show, which is a celebration and means to make money. On the other hand, people have the freedom to make money too, as long as they do not violate the rights of others according to Libertarianism’s Entitlement Theory put forth by Robert Nozick. What then is the motive of fashion? Is it mainly for profit, self-expression, art, or does it serve as a conduit for ideas to flow? Usually the best fashion is about transgression. Fashion takes risks, as it is indeed an art and a way for the artist to express himself and the world around him.

Mikaella Evaristo is a contributing writer. Email her at violetvision@nyunews.com.

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