Fashion has long toed the line between changing history and representing it. As Miranda Priestley reminds in the famous blue sweater speech in The Devil Wears Prada, the fashion elite come up with the designs to trickle down to the rest of us. However, an important part of that equation is the response to the clothing itself. A trend needs to be started, but it needs to be followed to catch on. There was something about the Oscar de la Renta’s choice of cerulean, as she mentions, that resonated with people so Saint Laurent was prompted to adopt the same hue. (Sorry, this one’s gonna get pretty fashion-nerdy on ya. Stick with me though I swear there’s a point to all this name dropping.)
Movements in fashion mean nothing if people don’t buy the clothes. In a broader sense, the raised hemlines of the 20s without the changing times women were seen allowing those changes in aesthetics to be iconic images we now can’t divorce from the decades that produced them. Dior would never have ushered in the “New Look” if WWII hadn’t ended, bringing women back into the home. These societal changes allowed women to be ushered towards a new silhouette. It was a perfect storm of circumstances that made the clothing ‘stick’. It’s almost impossible to divorce the culture who wears it from the fashion itself.
In this sense, I have found the recent controversy regarding Marc Jacobs, dreadlocks and cultural appropriation so fascinating. In his most recent show, Marc Jacobs sent models-of-the-moment down the runway sporting mounds of pastel dreadlocks. Naturally, there was backlash, with many people accusing Jacobs of cultural appropriation, especially after the only individuals his stylist cited as influences for the hairdo, were white. I went to a California liberal arts school. The fact of it being appropriation is, to me, pretty much incontrovertible. (And if you want to talk about this/debate this more I am happy to do this in the comments.)
What is surprising to me was his response to those who called him out for co-opting the style on instagram:
“And all who cry “cultural appropriation” or whatever nonsense about any race of skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded…Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.”
Obviously not listening to dissenters is a classic diva fashion designer move, and putting yourself out there in the form of artistic expression undoubtedly requires a thick skin—that uncanny ability to fuck the haters so to speak. But this statement shows such a divorce from what is going on in our culture it’s rather astounding. The thing I find interesting is the fact that our society is, and should be, increasingly aware of what appropriation is, and why we shouldn’t be doing it. As a society, were having conversations about white privilege, and how Jacobs’ claim he does ‘not see color’ is just such a clear example of this.
I would never dream of saying that I am remotely an expert on the topic, or even dream I really understand things (Here is a much better article on the problem than I could ever write and important to read to understand the issue). I’m trying. I’m learning a lot by trying to shut up and listen (and to be honest, part of the reason I’m writing this topic the way I am is that I know I am in no position to teach the topic of cultural appropriation or bring anything new or interesting to the table. This is not a fuck-the-haters post. This is an I-have no ability whatsoever to empathize with my fellow man kind of post. The fact that he claims to ‘not see color’ is almost a laughable example of your-white-privilege-is-showing-and-you-don’t-even-know-it.
In many ways, it’s unsurprising that this current iteration of the cultural appropriation conversation is centered around Marc Jacobs. He’s a man many of us currently know as the designer of the wallet upper-middle class girls get for Christmas, but he has long been known as one of fashion’s great ‘borrowers’.
In 1992, Marc Jacobs was the creative director of the label Perry Ellis. And, back in 1992, he showed a collection heavily influenced by the grunge movement. It was the ‘90s. Seems like an entirely uninteresting sentence. However, his collection was destroyed by critics. As in fired from the brand destroyed. (Clearly he bounced back–guy’s doing alright for himself now.) The garments he turned out that fateful fall were inspired by the ripped-up thrift store flannels found on the streets of Seattle during its time as the epicenter of the famous 90’s grunge scene.
The industry found the idea that a high fashion house would send a version of a $3 thrift store shirt down the runway remade in expensive material to be totally ridiculous. (Let’s be real—one can still argue that to be the case—but that’s a topic for another post.) Jacobs was slammed—editors and reviewers at the time seemed to think there was no place for thrift stores in high fashion .
The critics have since rescinded their comments, and have recognized the place flannel and Kurt Cobain had within the fabric of 90’s culture, but the fact remains that Jacobs had never been to Seattle when he designed the collection. Maybe the editors slammed him for his use of grunge as an influence, but maybe there was also an aspect to their critiques that stemmed from the inauthenticity that comes from the use of a style you know nothing about. There is something about the image of Naomi Campbell sporting a beanie and impeccably-tailored plaid skirt that just doesn’t feel like it doesn’t come from the same place as Eddie Vedder’s tangled mane and industrial jackets. There is still a sheen to the collection–something bright and shiny and new to the clothing and the collection. The basic idea of the influence was spot-on with the times, but the emotion? Maybe not so much.
Some people, in response to this whole controversy have claimed that Jacobs is an artist, and as such cannot and should not be focused on critics or anything else but his own inspiration. Designers have always fancied themselves artists of a sort, and they are (peep a Comme des Garcons runway and tell me that’s not a girl walking around wearing a straight-up sculpture) . But there is a sense in which fashion as a form of art can’t be divorced from society as a whole and the individual you are trying to dress. It by no means exists within a vacuum.
The designers that have made waves have often been the ones with their thumb on the pulse of the culture they are both being influenced by and influencing. And it is a curious symbiosis. Chanel had to be aware of cultural shifts and care about the way her customer felt in her clothing in order to make the switch to using jersey for her designs in the 20’s. Women’s roles were changing and they needed clothing that both reflected their newfound place within society and gave them the freedom of movement and comfort to keep being revolutionaries. Attire has both reflected and promoted social change. Coco Chanel changed the way women wore and approached clothing (among many other reasons) is why the house is so successful today, and few designers would be able to claim that her work has had no impact on their own, since it simply changed fashion as a whole.
Jacobs clearly hasn’t bothered to learn about cultural movements and increased awareness of issues such as appropriation and racial equality that are going to be the hallmark of the times. This is problematic not just from the perspective of being a person in the modern world, and (that fact itself bringing an obligation of sorts to be engaged with social movements and educating oneself about the perspective of another human being) but being part of an industry that, like it or not, depends on the consumer.
Sure being an artist is an important part of the job, but a designer is an artist who is creating for people. Fashion is the art that allows another person to express themselves, so keeping the consumer in mind seems to be an inherent part of that art. Coco Chanel saw that women were feeling increasingly liberated, so she liberated them physically from the confines of uncomfortable fabrics. It changed the fashion landscape because reflected the people she was designing for. Fashion needs people–otherwise it’s just fabric.
Not taking the time or having the humility to listen to one’s fellow human being (especially one you are designing for) that seems like the kind of behavior that will lead towards being outmoded. It’s what the dudes that balked at the comfortable functionality of Claire McCardell’s innovation of American sportswear, or in a much less grandiose example, the editors who criticized Jacobs grunge collection. What made these ideas revolutionary—and stick wasn’t just that these people didn’t listen to the dissenters—it’s that they did listen to the consumers. It was their broader concept of society, their ability to care about their fellow individual that allowed them to make clothing that resonated with other humans. And empathy never goes out of style.
Images from Vogue.com