Thursday, February 23, 2012

On my soapbox

The exoticization of non-white, non-"Western" cultures (the word "Western" is problematic in itself, but that's a whole other post) is not a new thing, either in fashion or in society at large.

 "Tribal print." "African-inspired." "Geisha-style." "Pocahontas." However, it's still wrong, and still frustrating, particularly when it's such a huge stretch as in the quote from Harper's Bazaar that I'll get to in a minute.

It's one thing when a designer says, "My collection was inspired by traditional African prints and motifs." This is problematic in the fact that Africa is not one homogeneous country, but a continent composed of countries, cultures, and ethnic groups as diverse as can be imagined.  Yet, when compared to our own textile tradition in America/the "Western" world, there is an undeniable uniqueness to many geometric prints and motifs that come out of countries in Africa. Even so, I found the following quote from Harper's Bazaar overly reductionist, and unpleasantly reminiscent of Imperialism/Orientalism, and the exoticization of the Other, that which is different.

Perhaps I'm making a big fuss over nothing much, but something about this bothers me, particularly when referencing the accomplishments of a Chinese American:

"It was hard to pin Derek Lam's African reference down, but the undeniable mix of earthy colors and geometric patterns were tribal in theory."

I don't see it. Do you?

This outfit (the one that was paired with the quote) looks very mod to me, as though he played around with geometric forms like squares, circles, and honeycombs. Yes, the colors are earthy. Yes, the patterns are geometric. But if it's "hard to pin" the "African reference down," and you have to force the connection "in theory,"--without naming the theory--then there isn't a connection. 

I have to wonder if Lam's collection would have been labeled "African-inspired" had it come from Michael Kors or Stella McCartney, neither of which venture far for their inspiration. 

/Edit/ I should note that they described other collections as "Out of Africa," too. Yet even then there were problematic statements, such as admitting that one collection wasn't particularly African apart from a "frizzy hair style." That's extremely problematic in itself, but I think the insistence in the aforementioned quote is what really got me bothered.

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