The Problem With Geisha, Pow-Wow or… Slave Fashion

5 years ago

If fashion trends are a reflection on what’s going on society, what does this fall’s bumper crop of designs rooted in racial stereotypes say about us?

Victoria’s Secret started if off with it’s “Go East” line. Did you see the ads? They featured a blond Caucasian model wearing a sheer black teddy, accessorized with an obi belt and chopsticks in her hair (because nothing says exotic and sexy like eating utensils used as barrettes). Paul Frank held a neon pow-wow party offering guests to have their pictures taken with glow-in-the-dark face paint and tomahawks. And most recently, Dolce and Gabbana unveiled a “Blackamoor” line of fashions that include large dangly earrings shaped sort of like Aunt Jemima’s head.

Sexy Little Geisha outfit, Victoria's Secret website

I know designers are often trying to push the envelope. But I’m also cynical enough to be familiar with the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Angry Asian Man first wrote about the Victoria’s Secret geisha designs in early August. Other blogs, such as Racialicious and The Frisky followed. But it really got widespread publicity when CNN picked up the story. Victoria’s Secret quietly pulled the geisha-ish lingerie from its website, but without apologizing.

What is really shocks me is how many people don’t recognize how these fashions reinforce stereotypes. A Huffington Post poll shows 68% of people think the Sexy Little Geisha outfit is no big deal. And plenty of commenters on a Fox News article about the Victoria's Secret "Go East" designs call the controversy ridiculous.

Pow-Wow Invitiation, Paul Frank

And it's even more surprising who is condoning racial stereotypes. When Beyond Buckskin wrote about Paul Frank’s Pow-Wow party, one of the things she was most shocked by was how many other people of color were gamely joining in war paint and mock scalpings.

“These weren't just plain ol' white kids playing Indian. Now every race and every color and every age group is doing it. It is truly a sad day to see other People of Color oppressing Native American people and making a mockery of their cultures.”

Blackamoor earrings, Dolce & Gabbana

There was even a reader of NY Magazine, who identifies herself as an African American, defending the Blackamoor earrings:

“First of all I would like to sa I find this very disturbing to even associate this collection as being RACIST, As an African American and Fashion Designer what is offensive about it? Dolce & Gabbana design collections inspired by they're cultural heritage I.E Sicily , during the time period they were inspired by yes the Moors people where of that skin color now the question is , is it because they are african american figuerines or because siclian designers designed them , If a African American Designer designed them would their be a problem or if a person of non-white heritage designed them that would be okay as long as they were not white. .
People please get over yourselves. “

Are people so comfortable in their own little worlds that they don’t even sympathize when other people are being degraded? Have people –- including minorities -- so completely lost perspective on the history of colonialism, especially upon women of color? Some people might say that geisha or Indian princess fashion is no more offensive than an outfit inspired by a French maid or a Swiss Miss, but here lies the difference: those European tropes don’t carry the added baggage of racial, as well as gender, power plays.

In an election year where candidates for U.S. Senate mock Native American rituals and run xenophobic Asian-bashing TV ads, you don't have to look far to see how these old stereotypes are still alive.

And another problem with these “ethnic” designs is that they don’t even get the culture right. Sticking an obi and some cherry blossoms on a sheer teddy is not authentically geisha, just like the “Navajo” patterned panties sold last summer Urban Outfitters were not representative of Native American culture.

Maybe you’ve never personally experienced racism, but surely you’ve been offended by something another person has said or done to you, right? Have you ever tried to go and talk to that person about how their words or actions hurt you and had them tell you that they didn’t mean it badly, so just get over it. How did that make you feel? You probably didn’t just get over it, did you?

I don’t think that when most people –- including fashion designers -- do things that hurt or denigrate other people do it intentionally. But that doesn’t make it okay. Paul Frank Industries did the right thing by issuing a personal apology to two Native American bloggers who wrote to complain about the Pow-Wow designs. Other brands haven’t been as responsive. Victoria’s Secret quietly took the “Go East” line off its website, but still has not issued an apology. And Dolce and Gabbana posted a sort of non-apology justification of its Blackamoor line on its Swide blog.

Just because you don’t find geisha lingerie or war paint or Mammy earrings degrading (not to mention culturally inaccurate), does that mean those things aren’t degrading to other people?

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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