Last week, when images from Italian designer Claudio Cutugno's runway show during Milan Fashion Week hit the newswire, the presentation elicited a collective gasp from the blogosphere — not for his fashion-forward designs, but because Cutugno sent his models (all of them white) stomping down the runway in glittery blackface. "Really? Again?" was the collective cry from those of us who wonder when fashion will learn from its mistakes.
While Cutugno apologized for the offense, saying that he was "never tought [sic] that anyone would find the makeup offensive," the fact that not a single stylist, model, stagehand or intern was able to point out the implication of his choice to Cutugno beforehand is indicative of a much larger problem: The fashion industry remains the exclusive domain of the white and ignorant.
Cutugno joins dozens of other designers (Vivienne Westwood, Lie Sang Bong) and publications (Vogue Paris, L'Officiel, Numéro) that have used blackface under the guise of being "fashion-forward" and "edgy," but refuse to make room for Black people on the runway, at the ateliers and in editorial pages of mainstream fashion.
In the short film The Color of Beauty, which follows a Black model as she works her way through the industry, photographer Justin Peery offered as clear a look as we are ever going to get into the mind-set of fashion's gatekeepers. He said that the successful Black models had "the very skinny nose, the very elegant faces" — clearly Peery has, no pun intended, a very narrow definition of elegant — that made them appear "like white models that were painted black."
What Peery is trying to say, then, is that blackface is just about the only acceptable form of Blackness in the fashion industry. If that doesn't remind you of the minstrel shows popularized by Thomas D. Rice, the "Godfather of blackface," then it's time to crack open a history book.
Blackface was the beginning of a tradition of misappropriation and exploitation of African-American culture for profit that continues to this day. But culture, especially when it contains within it a very painful history, should never be the basis for trends, especially by an industry that lags woefully behind in breaking down racial barriers.
"No appropriation without representation" should be the new motto. Maybe then, designers will know when they've crossed the line.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
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