Race and Fashion – The Last Frontier

I must have been asleep, then again I’ve got an excuse because it was around Christmas that the Dutch magazine, Jackie referred to Rihanna indirectly as a n***r b***h. Two words that are not in my vocabulary. And Rihanna’s response was well ‘f**k you’. I read extracts of the article and extracts of another magazine article by Nathalie Dovilo who tried to classify black fashion as a ‘trend’.

Both these articles have resulted in controversy, apologies, and resignations and a lot of negativity.  In both cases before we all get excited (and I’m as offended as anyone who is black), we need to look at intent and audience that both magazines were intended for. We also need to look at western culture, the personification of black people in the media.

The Dutch magazine  appears to be some type of edgy online magazine for the fashionably alternative and out there. Elle on the other hand is the fashion magazine for the girl next door.

Recently I bought two magazines, US Bazaar and UK vogue. I generally buy the Australian versions of these magazines. Besides the numerous amounts of advertising (at least 34 pages of glossy adds before the contents page), I was disappointed by the fact that both magazines had no articles about any black celebrities, black models, or even advertising containing black people or any other race for that matter. It’s sad, because according to statistics, at least 40 million Americans are considered to be black (12.6%, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html), from the US census of 2010. 40 million people is a lot to ignore but the magazines do, (I’ve failed to find any recent data on the population of black people in the UK so I can’t make any comparisons).  But it’s a lot harder to ignore a black president and a black first lady.

Living in Australia I’ve learned that the average white person knows nothing about the average black person. What they are familiar with are the stereotypes. The angry black woman, the video vixen, the mammy stereotype amoungts others.

When most white people they or see someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypes, for example Michelle Obama, they get confused.  In their minds the idea of a sophisticated black woman with style, finesse, and elegance is abnormal. They only associate these traits with white western women.

 

What Nathalie Dovilo was trying to do in her failed attempt at describing  the style of black celebrities such as Solange Knowles, is defining a look for black women. The idea of a stylish black doesn’t exist in Nathalie Dovilo’s mind before the arrival of Michelle Obama. She’s trying to be the first in the fashion world to define something that isn’t exactly definable and doesn’t require labels or names. Black women are fashionable. And because the idea of a fashionable black woman is beyond the scope of the white imagination and foreign, the only way that Nathalie Dovilo could explain it’s existence was by attributing it to the first black first lady, Michelle Obama.

I hope Mrs Obama doesn’t take this the wrong way but a lot of black women I know don’t talk about how fashionable she is. I doubt that creative types like Nikki Minaj, Janelle Monae, and Solange Knowles are  taking their fashion ques from the first lady.

The back handed complement that resulted in outrage and indignation was a reaction to challenging the stereotypes of black women and also the status quo. It’s never been us against them but it has. The idea that black is beautiful also applies to black is fashionable. White women have been historically praised for their beauty, graces, and style and have held this monopoly forever. But women like Nathalie Dovilo are not about to let us black fashionesta’s enter the fashion fold without a little resistance and fight. So she’s described us all well dressed black women has integrating ‘white codes of style’. Modern fashion is an eclectic collection of urban, street, tribal, European, and ethnic influences and can hardly be described as white.

                                     

The idea that the emergence of more traditional forms of African dress that have been adapted and  are a strong part of Solange Knowles eclectic style are a classic twist to the ‘white code’ of style that we are all copying is a desperate attempt at diminishing what is the infiltration of the African influence on fashion and style. The fact is most of us black fashionistas are happy to embrace the more traditionally fabrics worn by our mothers and grand mothers and if anything are shying away from the ‘white code’ of dress and embracing our ethnicity through fashion.

In the past few years the beauty industry has received a lot of attention for it’s exclusion rather than inclusion. The idea that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, skin tones and ethnicities as been an emerging ideology with cosmetics companies expanding their foundation colour ranges to  include colours for all skin shades.

In the last year, fashion went gaga with colour; colour blocking became a big part of everyone’s wardrobe. White people had finally discovered colour. For most of us black men and women, colour has been a part of our lives since the beginning of time.

As for the Dutch Magazine, Jackie, and the comments about Rihanna, the comments have more to do with rebelling white teenage girls trying to copy and emulate hip hop culture than the racial undertones that it’s been accused of. Hip hop and rap entered the mainstream media when white kids decided to find a new way to offend their parents; by embracing a part of black culture that the generation before them disapproved of. This was how rock and roll was born. Artist’s like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley where strongly influenced by the black music of the time. Back then the hip shaking moves of Elvis where considered satanic by white adults but the teenagers where seduced and entranced by it. And so rock n’ roll was born.

This phenomena reminds me of the Kanye West concert in Melbourne on Tuesday I went to. I’d never seen so many 18 – 25 year old white and Indian males, dressed like gangsters. The somewhat subdued and dorky crowd went ape when Kanye belted out the intro to the song ‘Gold Digga’. They became ecstatic when yelling out the n word and lyrics ‘live your **s for a white girl’ like they had any idea of what the song actually meant. To them liking rap and hip hop are what rock n’ roll and Elvis where to the kids of the 50’s.

Whereas the copying of black culture has been mostly done by males in white society (through fashion and music), it seems white girls are finally getting in on the act. They too want to be that video honey, dress like the video vixens, and drop it like it’s hot.

One of the few advantages of living in Australia was that none of my fashion style was ever attempted by my white co-workers or friends. They believed only I could pull of bright colours, animal prints and bold jewellery.  So my look remained unique. The article in Jackie, although titled ‘how to get the Rihanna look’, was more likely about how  to get the hip hop or rap female look.

Rihanna and Beyonce are the biggest female musicians of today. They just so happen to be black. I’ve seen a lot of magazine articles with ‘how to’ guides to getting the Beyonce and the Rihanna look.

I was outside Rod Laver arena one day and wondered why there were a thousand pre-teen girls dressed like street walkers. I overhead an excited girl talking about Rihanna and the concert and it all made sense. They all dressed the way they their music idol dressed and they were excited to be going to her concert. My comments don’t excuse the comments made by either of these ignorant and socially ill informed writers, but hopefully provides another point of view to the discussion. Sometimes things aren’t so black and white.

 

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