In the fall of 2012, while employed at the University of California Berkeley I met a girl with amazing hair. Through daily interactions and greetings, somehow cosmically, we began to speak on culture and music. Through the development of this relationship, came many moments of shared experience, longer lunch breaks and a tight knit bond that was an organic growth process for us both. A double major in American and Film Studies, Leya Andrews has been my greatest collaborator and partner in life. I am very pleased to be able to share this convergence and culminating piece of work that is her senior thesis, originally produced for the University of California, Berkeley. On the heels of Marc Jacobs’ SS17 collection, where he used faux dreadlocks and later went on to dismiss feelings of outrage, I spoke about this with Leya, as we do many happening of fashion, film and music. While exchanging thoughts with Project Runway Season 2 Finalist, Daniel Vosovic, I began to exclaim frustration with Leya about the inability and effective explanation of white privalege of lack of understanding for respecting of black culture and appropriation. Not a new topic for us, when Vosovic spoke of appropriate forms of representation. When speaking, Leya mentioned that her thesis covered this at length. At the time that this thesis was being written, I provided Leya with some forms of guidance on where to find certain information, to fill in the blanks and to remain as accurate of high fashion in it’s current sense, as possible. Here, we have both decided to share this otherwise private piece of work in this space, as it closely aligns with concerns of our culture, greater awareness and penetrates the psyche in ways that other digital fashion writers may not be looking to do. As a great moment of our friendship, and basis of our bond, I am very proud of this piece, and affectionately introduce you to Leya Andrews, my friend and the only contributor here at jeremydanté.com. We invite you to examine and share in this piece of work.
PART ONE: THE CLOTHES
In Fall 2013, famed and influential French clothier Givenchy revealed their Spring 2014 Menswear collection. This collection displayed some of the characteristics the Italian creative director Ricardo Tisci is known for, for example, recontextualizing familiar ideas and figures in a dark, yet fantastical light. He drew upon elements that can be described as new age gothic, as in his Fall 2010 Haute Couture collection, which was composed totally of stunning white gowns, the details of which, if examined closely, unexpectedly featured skulls. Both his Fall 2012 and Fall 2013 collections feature heavy use of hard edged silhouettes and, of course, black. On the website of the luxury retailer Barney’s New York, Tisci is described as bringing a “dark and romantic edge to everything he touches.” Similar tensions are certainly present in the collection in question. Tisci also has a history of appropriating familiar concepts and figures. In past collections, he has made use of religious iconography (Spring 2013 Menswear), Disney’s Bambi (Fall 2013 Ready-To-Wear Womenswear), and aesthetic elements of historically “othered” cultures. In his Spring 2010 Menswear collection, Tisci incorporated Middle Eastern silhouettes and patterns into the clothes; the models wore head wraps, harem pants, and a lot of white. In his Spring 2011 Haute Couture collection, Tisci employed visual allusions to Asian culture into the incredibly expensive, handmade pieces: the entire cast of models was Asian and wore samurai headgear. True to form, his Spring 2014 Menswear collection juxtaposed contemporary iconography with emblems of difference, employing of visual tropes of blackness. More specifically, his pieces featured African-inspired masks and patterns that reference West African tribal patterns, shapes, and communicate a specific, culturally defined relationship to the world. These allusions generate a tension with digital elements, visually manifesting as deconstructed sound technology, as the patterns and shapes on the garments look as if they are dissected and reconfigured parts of radios, speakers, and other technologies associated with the recording, processing, and reproduction of sound. This juxtaposition constituted an identifiable, cohesive theme present through the entirety of the collection, which the fashion world regards as evidence of a clear, sellable point of view. The majority of the runway models were not visibly of African descent, which means that the darker bodies that the collection visually refers to, which are a central part to the aforementioned identifiable theme, are absent. This essay examines the role of blackness without black bodies in the Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection, both in the design of the clothes and the way in which these clothes are presented. Ricardo Tisci employs visual signs of tribal Africanness in such a way that fixes meanings to this “community,” whose cohesiveness is imagined. What are the implications of utilizing tribal Otherness, which is then consumed, and subsequently embodied, by customers who, judging by the high retail prices of the pieces, are probably wealthy? This paper will explore the implications of the use of aesthetics associated with the tribal in this collection. It will also explore how, in the fashion industry, tropes of blackness circulate without black bodies. I argue that the show stands on the back of visual allusions to the tribal in order to recreate power and privilege within the field of fashion. This show, as is the case with many other fashion shows, functions as a site of identity consumption and production.
Fashion is a compelling site of identity production and consumption. Nicole Fleetwood, in her book Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, establishes style as a site of self-articulation and racial performance. She points to the sellable, “reproducible racial alterity, nationalism, and hypermasculinity” implicit in the “fashioned black male body in hip-hop” (Fleetwood 152) and the troublesome reductions this necessitates. Fleetwood characterizes companies like Sean John, Rocawear, FUBU, and Phat Farm as selling the brand of blackness associated with hip-hop, which hinges upon the positioning of clothes as a vehicle for identity consumption. Clothing can be conceptualized as a means of foregrounding the constructedness of identity and as having the potential to complicate existing notions of race and gender. Most of the fashion industry, however, is not subversive in their production of racialized and gendered identities, which are founded on the belief that the experience of any culture or person is knowable and can be condensed to a few visual motifs. High-end fashion houses construct an “empire of lifestyle” (Fleetwood 154) that is performed in ad campaigns, the highly designed showrooms, and fashion shows. Each season, clothing brands decide their ideal customer and their brand identity for the season. Inherent to this process is the commodification of identities, which are expressed symbolically through the visual attributes of the clothes. These identities are consumed and embodied by the act of purchasing and putting on the clothes. These identities, which are constructed and simplified for the sake of clarity and consumability, are performed at fashion shows.
Demonstrating the high stakes of these performances, the understandings of Africanness reach farther than the wealthy population that is able to purchase the clothes. More than the clothes themselves, collections like Tisci’s are consumed on a conceptual level. Tu highlights Roland Barthes’ notion of clothes taking three forms: physical garment, the photograph of the garment, and the description of the garment (Tu 106). Magazines, the internet, and other media outlets produce fashion by photographing and writing about the garments, these media outlets facilitate the consumption of the ideas inherent in the designs.
Named after founder Hubert de Givenchy in 1952, Givenchy is a French company and a member of the prestigious LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) group, which also owns Louis Vuitton, Celiné, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Kenzo, and Donna Karen. The group also owns a number of alcohol brands, such as Hennessy, Belvedere, Moet and Chandon, Krug and Dom Perignon. The group owns watch and jewelry brands including Tag Heuer, Bvlgari, and De Beers. The conglomerate also possesses cosmetic brands like Sephora, Benefit Cosmetics, Parfums Christain Dior, and Fresh. In the first quarter of 2014, which is a 3-month period, the LVMH group generated 7.2 billion Euros, or 9.9 billion dollars (LVMH Website). Givenchy, then, is one lucrative arm of this economic powerhouse, which raises the stakes of questionable, self-serving, and inaccurate representations of whiteness and blackness. This relatively stable financial backing presumably allows Givenchy, and the other brands, to take creative risks without the threat of significant monetary loss. Givenchy’s financial success and its established status as an international tastemaker anticipates at least some level of corporate and consumer approval and acceptance of whatever clothing that bears the Givenchy name. Because of this, the company is afforded a high level of permissiveness; any offensive, under researched, or problematic design element would be excused under the guise of “art.”
The Spring 2014 Menswear show was widely praised by fashion critics and online bloggers alike. None of the reviews called Tisci’s use of tribal aesthetics into question, they were, in fact, largely enthusiastic about the collection. It is important to note that loyalty to the Givenchy brand might be due to Ricardo Tisci’s demonstrated commitment to including models of color on Givenchy runways. Tisci is also credited with launching the career of supermodel of color Joan Smalls, who has become ubiquitous on mostly white runways. He was also the first to include a transsexual model, named Lea T., in an ad campaign. It is difficult to ascertain, however, whether or not this is a marketing move or a genuine attempt to make the fashion industry more equal.
Part One of this paper will focus exclusively on the clothes presented at the Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear fashion show. It will begin with a general visual analysis of the collection, covering the central themes of the pieces presented. This includes a discussion of the tribal elements of the garments, the implications of their employment, and the juxtaposition of these visual allusions to tribal Africanness to technology, an opposition upon which the success of the collection hinges. Then, in order to provide varied avenues of analysis, it moves into a semi-chronological discussion of the sociohistorical contexts and ideological frameworks that gave rise to and underpin the assumptions made by the collection and the way in which they visually manifest. This section commences with an examination of race, the privilege of whiteness, and the way in which it has historically emerged visually. Next, there is a brief history of colonialism and primitivism and the way in which this collection fits into these legacies. Then, the paper moves into an examination of the ways in which the aesthetics of the garments arise and are connected to a history of globalization, a process that allows, despite the incorporation of disenfranchised peoples, the effective maintenance of social, economic, and political privilege. Subsequently, the paper briefly explores the way in which the collection is potentially a product of a supposedly colorblind and post-racial society. After this, the paper explores the history of cultural appropriation and the implications of this deeply and societally entrenched lineage on the collection. Then, there is an analysis of the relationship between technology, modernity, and race and how this relationship manifests in the collection in question. The section concludes with a discussion of the cultural phenomenon of blackface. The implications associated with this cultural history provide insight into some of the aesthetic decisions present in the pieces presented in the collection. Part Two of this paper focuses on the ways in which the clothes are presenting, examining the fashion show as a site of performance and identity consumption and production.
This paper makes use of a number of charged terms, the definitions and differentiation of which should be discussed. “Blackness” is transgeographical in nature and refers to the real and imaginary corporeal reality of bodies of African decent and its implications. It has emerged out of global histories of slavery and colonialism. “Africanness” refers to a set of tropes specifically regarding Africa and its people. Blackness, it is important to note, implies an corporeal reality that resonates transnationally, as opposed to that of a specifically African experience. When this paper makes reference to “the tribal” or “tribalness” is alluding to a type of Africanness associated with a “tribal” social organization that has been invented and perpetuated by colonial imagination and the field of anthropology, among others.
The Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection has 58 looks and features crewneck sweaters, long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts, tank tops, shorts, tights and skorts, most of which feature bold, intricate, all-over prints. The prints are composed of layered, colored shapes of varying sizes organized as if they are nodes, plugs, knobs, and turntables. The clothing pieces themselves are layered as well. Despite the multiplicity of colors and shapes on the clothes, the potential visual chaos is balanced by the symmetrical arrangement of the shapes, whose colors are effectively contained within their sharp boundaries. Many of the looks in the collection feature a heavy use of layering. The pieces, however, are crisp and cleanly tailored and the models are cleanly shaven and their hair is neatly slicked back. This contributes to this tension between chaos and precision.
Figures 1 and 14 especially exemplify this organized chaos. In Figure 1, the model wears a tank top that has many visual components that vary in size, shape and color. In spite of this, the forms are organized symmetrically and are, therefore, not disorderly. In the line of black knobs that spans the lower chest of the model in Figure 1, there are four evenly spaced knobs on each side of a central knob. Toward the bottom of the tank top, there are two identical orange turntables mirroring each other. Increasing this sense of order, the narrow space in between the two circular forms is also the center of the tank top, and therefore the center of the model’s body, and aligns with the aforementioned knob that is also in the center of the model’s chest. This creates a clear vertical center, across which the shapes are reflected. The model also wears beige shorts with two diagonal, yet symmetrical, white stripes that meet in the crotch area to form a chevron pattern. There are leggings under these shorts, the print of which, though it features stripes of differing widths and colors, is identical on both legs. The meticulous, methodical organization of the clearly defined shapes gives the impression of productive machinery. In Figure 14, the model wears a hooded jacket, shorts, and leggings that are composed of primarily red, blue, tan, and black shapes of varying shapes and sizes that are also arranged so as to suggest the inside of a piece of technology. Despite the multiplicity of shapes on the garments, they are organized symmetrically, reflecting across the vertical center of the model’s body.
Many of the garments in the collection make visual allusions to tribal Africanness through the employment of stripes, faces of African children, face paint, the soundtrack of the show, among other elements which will be discussed further. These visual signs of the tribal hinge on a totalized, simplified, and collapsed conceptualization of Africa. The employment of visual allusions to the tribal or, more generally the exotic, in, as fashion scholar Nirmal Puwar writes, “digestible portions” (Puwar 64), is a common practice in the fashion industry. References to the exotic often manifest in clothing as patterns, fabrics, colors, silhouettes, iconography, and conceptual/practical approaches to the clothing. Generally, what is often recognized as African-inspired clothing can, as former Essence magazine editor-in-chief Constance C.R. White states in her book Style Noir, “be boiled down to specific textiles and shapes.” These fabrics, such as kente, Bogolan, and Batik, she explains, are in part “characterized by their dazzling use of color-in prints, solids, and resist dyes” (White 93).
The Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection alludes, whether consciously or not, to common aesthetic practices of Mande art. Acknowledging this lineage serves to prove some of the more subtle and inadvertent references to the tribal. In his discussion of the West African Mande influenced art and architecture in the Americas, art historian Robert Farris Thompson writes of a narrow-strip textile technique in which narrow strips of cloth are fused to make a composite cloth that “suspends” the expected placement of cloth pieces (Thompson 207). This “country cloth” tradition spread throughout West Africa so, when slavers came, “various enslaved peoples bound for America, converged, sharing Mande influenced…ideas about the composition of textiles” (Thompson 208). This diasporic travel of the ideas and practices of Mande techniques both complicates the practice of identifying influences and increases the probability that Tisci, along with other designers, has had contact with these Mande influenced textiles, if unknowingly.
Further proving the distinctness of the textiles resulting from the Mande approach, this technique involving such “dramatic fusion of strips in the making of multi-strip textiles” is, according to Thompson, specific to the Mande tradition. These cloths are characterized by contrast. There is often a “deliberate clashing of ‘high-affect colors.’” Also, the patterns, or the strips themselves, are often staggered in relation to adjoining strips, “with careful alignment of further elements in the same cloth preempting any assumption of accident and indeed confirming a love of aesthetic intensity…” (Thompson 209). This brand of “aesthetic intensity” is certainly present in the Givenchy collection. Ticsi uses bold color contrasts in many of the pieces, in which saturated, more vivid colors are next to desaturated, lighter colors. There are, for example, black circles against a light gray or white background, giving the impression of knobs. This demonstrates the way in which the collection utilizes color contrasts to create the impression of its deconstructed sound technology. The stripes employed, which vary greatly in size and direction, are also highly contrastive, often juxtaposing light and dark hues.
Thompson argues that these deliberate clashings result in a sense of visual aliveness and reflect “a special West African spontaneity in design, without which there can be neither vividness nor strength in aesthetic structure” (Thompson 211). Thompson further asserts that this staggering and interruption of expected patterning serves to “break up the power of the evil eye,” as, for example in Senegambia, it is important to “randomize the flow of energy, since “evil travels in straight lines” (Thompson 222). This contrastive, multi-strip tradition also creates a “visual resonance with the fames off-beat phrasing of melodic accents in African and Afro-American music” (Thompson 207). Artist Arthur Jafa observed a similar link in his chapter in Greg Tate’s Everything But The Burden. Regarding the art practice abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, Jafa demonstrates the way in which Pollock was able to “transpose jazz’s improvisational flow” into his paintings. Pollock was, however, similar to the designers of the menswear collection in question, “unable to access his work’s signification” (Tate 247). All of this suggests that African expression (music and art), at least in the Mande tradition, are visual manifestations of larger, more general, spiritually grounded concepts. The larger concepts driving the creative expression, which are undoubtedly essential to the interpretation of the cultural product, are, naturally, lost in the appropriations of the aesthetic elements alone.
Due to the weight of the Mande multi-strip tradition, stripes, Thompson notes, “has resulted in a related predilection among West Africans for imported striped cloth. Narrow stripes were preferred as equivalent to narrow strips.” Through this “simple substitution, stripe for strip,” the West African Mande textile tradition renders itself visible through out the diaspora (Thompson 209). The Givenchy collection’s heavy uses of stripes varying in color, size and direction, whether conscious or not, resonates with this West African tradition of multi-strip textile design, especially considering the collection’s other, more clear allusions to Africa. Figures 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 16 are exemplary of the varying manner in which stripes are employed. Compellingly, the crewneck sweater shown in Figure 9 features a multi-colored American flag, which facilitates a connection between the stripes and America and its associated ideologies. In general, the clothes have completely decontextualized the aesthetic practices associated with the tribal, irrespective of their previous uses.
Providing insight into the common practices of incorporating visual signs of the ethnic Other, fashion scholar Thuy Lin Tu, writing about Asianness, asserts that, “The absorption of Asianness into the vocabulary of fashion as…touches of ethnicity and splashes of color…[situates] Western interpretations as superior to Eastern originals. [This] helped to reestablish the authority of the western subject and the value of their creativity” (Tu 121). This sense of relation to the world manifests in the way in which the word “chic” is often utilized in the context of fashion. Asserting that something is “Asian chic,” “African chic,” “Safari chic,” and the like undermines the value of any word or phase that precedes “chic.”
This collection, however, goes beyond incorporating the “exotic through chosen fragments” (Puwar 65). Some of the crewneck sweaters and skorts feature medium close-up shots of faces of actual black bodies. These washed out images of presumably African faces are partially obstructed, as they are stamped with graphic, primary-colored forms simultaneously reminiscent of tribal and the facial structure of Transformers (a popular children’s toy, which has turned into a lucrative film franchise and are characterized by their ability to morph from a car into a vertically larger, more intimidating robot of sorts). Some of the washed out images of a seemingly African body, as in Figures 2, 10 and 11, have warrior-like helmets placed atop their dreadlocks. The faces are perfectly centered on the body of the model and in the rectangular boarder that contains them. Like the models themselves, the faces stare directly ahead. The similarity of the posture of their bodies and of the intensity of their gazes creates a relationship between the faces and their wearers. This relationship, however, is not equal. The entirety of the model’s bodies, all of which embody Western standards of beauty, exist three-dimensionally, while the African faces are both two-dimensional and fragmented. Furthermore, the faces, whether they appear on a sweater or a skort, are physically below that of the model. The faces are also possessed, via the mechanisms and processes of capitalism, by their wearers. The “Masked Tribal Girl-print Sweatshirt,” as it is referred to on the Barney’s New York website, retails at the luxury retailer for about $800, an unimaginable sum for a sweatshirt (Figure 12). Furthermore, the luxury retailer’s reference to the piece as “Masked Tribal Girl,” which is made regarding other pieces from the collection as well, confirms that the figure, if partially obstructed by additions to important facial features, evokes a sense of the totalized, departicularized tribal.
The placement of these faces over the crotch, that is above the sexual organs of the models, as in Figures 2 and 11, implies the history of the sexualization of African womanhood. This sense of the sexual is further underscored in the collection by another skort that features a black, white, and red target over the model’s crotch area (Figure 16). The sexualization of the African female body has long been a feature of the Western imagination and European interest in the black female body is registered in the success of the display of Sarah Baartman throughout Europe. In the colonial context, as art writers Deborah Willis and Carla Williams state in their book The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, the black female body “bore the metaphorical weight…of the ‘penetration’ into and ‘conquering’ of places like the ‘Dark Continent’” and “became conflated with colonial possession and domination” (Willis et. al. 8). Furthermore, the black female body was coveted for its difference to the European standards of beauty (Willis et. al 9). There are clear and unequal power dynamics apparent in the relationship between the Western male and the black female body. The dynamics are reproduced in the placement of the female faces over the crotch of the models. Additionally, the attractiveness of difference with regard to the female body resonates with that of the departicularized tribalness employed in the collection.
The African aesthetic convention of exaggerating the features of the female body as metaphors for “human and agricultural fertility”, as curator Barbara Thompson stresses in her article The African Female Body in the Cultural Imagination, “was repeatedly interpreted through the lens of dominant European theories about the pathological sexuality of black women” (Thompson 29). Moreover, these African figurative practices were primarily utilized by and for African men (Thompson 30). This decontextualization, and subsequent misunderstanding, of African aesthetic practices resonates with the collection in question, as the allusions to tribal Africanness are decontextualized and, thus, vulnerable to problematic, and long lasting misconceptions. Furthermore, Thompson’s assertions point to the inaccuracy of the oversexualiztion of the African female body, unconscious allusions to which are observable on the crotches of the models.
After the fourteenth look of the show, a series of three female models walk down the runway (Figures 17, 18, and 19). The first and the last model in the series wear tight leotards, which made of the same patterns visible in the rest of the collection, and black blazers with red accents. The middle model wears a tight corset, out of which her breasts spill, and panties, both of which bear the patterns of the collection. All of the models are of color and their darker skin is on full display, contrasting the male models, who are quite covered up by Tisci’s designs. They wear their hair long and straightened, a notable departure from the slicked back hair of the male models. These clothing and styling decisions foreground the female sexuality of these models of color and effectively sexualize them. Furthermore, the decision for them to walk right after each other instead of interspersing them with the male models suspends the show and prompts the audience to admire the models, as film scholar Laura Mulvey puts it in her article Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema, for their “to-be-looked-atness,” which fixes woman as image and the man, with whom the audience identifies, as bearer of the Look.
In addition to various aesthetic elements and the incorporation of actual African bodies, Tisci refers to Africanness, as Blanks highlights, through layering. Blanks writes, “He said he loved the freedom of African boys, the way they layered clothes” (Blanks, “Spring 2014 Menswear Givenchy”). As mentioned, the collection made liberal use of layering, both with regard to the layering of articles of clothing and to that of the busy patterns visible on many of the pieces. The clothing on the bottom half of the model consisted of patterned skintight leggings, which are present in all of the looks, under patterned shorts or skort. Some times the shorts or skort, whose panel often bore the aforementioned “Masked Tribal Girl” or concentric circles forming somewhat of a target at the crotch area, were accompanied by fabric draped so as to resemble sweatshirts tied around the hips. If included in a look, this draped fabric stops just short of the model’s knees, so, though it is a continuation of the jacket worn by the model, it serves as the third layer on the bottom half of the model. All of the models wear sandals that have two straps, one across the top of the foot near the toes and one closer to the ankle. The sandals are either black, white, or of a pattern identical to those shown on the clothes. The clothes on the top half of the models are equally as layered as the bottom half, as observable in Figures 13, 14, 15, and 16. Models wear shirts under a tailored suit jacket or a windbreaker. If the topmost layer is short sleeved, it is always shown over a long sleeve, patterned shirt. For the most part, the clothes cover the entirety of the body of the model. This layering, along with the heavy use of patterning, contributes to the sense of chaos and disorder. Despite this overall impression, the individual pieces are impeccably tailored. The hemlines are straight and clean, despite any layering or draping. The blazers fit the models perfectly, as they are snug and well constructed. Similarly, the shorts, leggings, and the short and long sleeve shirts feature perfect seams and bear the signs of technical know-how. This, as mentioned, creates a tension between chaos and order, and between Africanness (in a more modern context), as signaled by layering, as asserted by Tisci, and refined tailoring, which potentially alludes to Western established forms of dress.
The event of this collection is the juxtaposition of visual allusions to modern technology, manifesting in the form of deconstructed sound technology, and the tribal, which primarily registers in the colors, patterns, and forms employed throughout the collection. Style.com critic Tim Blanks describes in his review of the show, the clothes featured “the technology of sound dissected and reconfigured as tribal patterns” (Blanks, “Spring 2014 Menswear Givenchy”). While interviewing audience members after the show, Blanks also compellingly notes the way in which Tisci has turned the sound technology into scarification motifs (Blanks, “Givenchy Spring 2014 Menswear”). Generally, the success of the collection is contingent upon the shockingness of this juxtaposition and the understanding that the two references are diametrically opposed. The collection also depends upon the impression of “technology” and “tribal Africaness” as comparable categories. This, among many other things, necessitates a racing of the concept of technology, which has historically been held up as a pillar of progress, modernity, and privilege. This aesthetic juxtaposition also connotes a charged set of ideologies, politics, and histories, all of which exist in a particular cultural context. In order to critically examine the implications of the aforementioned collocations, it is necessary to, first, sift through the socio-historical context in which the employed aesthetics exist and, second, to historicize the ideological foundation on which the collection builds. Both the former and the latter contextualizations will shed light on the potential contributions that the collection makes to present understandings of the black body. Following is a brief, approximately chronological (there is overlap, of course) history of the ideological and aesthetic frameworks that underpin the collection. The history starts with a more general discussion of racial difference and the way it emerges visually.
Race and Visuality
Historically, race has been regarded by historically dominant modes of Western thought as an undisputable fact and has been relied upon to provide categories with which to organize society. Whiteness, and the associated power and wealth, defines itself against blackness. It projects everything it is not, which, it should be noted, is remarkably fluid, onto the black body and the cultural products they produce. Artist and scholar Coco Fusco, in her article “Racial Time, Racial Marks, Racial Metaphors,” asserts that “Whiteness often requires Otherness to become visible…white people look whiter when there are nonwhite people around them” (Fusco 37). On the level of skin color, the paleness of the skin of the models, who are mostly of European decent, is made visible by both the darkness of many of the fabrics and the darker, presumably African, faces that they wear. On a more conceptual level, the whiteness of the models, who essentially serve as placeholders for the ideal customer, is created and underlined by their ability to, as digital media scholar Lisa Nakamura states, “master Otherness and profit from it.” The models not only possess the black faces on their clothes, but engage in some level of impersonation of Africanness, which will be discussed in further detail in the second section of this paper. Essentially, the models have, as Fusco writes, “the capacity to masquerade as a racial Other without actually being one” (Fusco 37), which allows the models, and the customers that they represent, to traverse racial boundaries. The incorporation of blackness, both in the form of actual black bodies and more abstract allusions to the tribal, creates whiteness and renders in perceptible.
Whiteness can also be present in more indistinct ways. An example of this subtlety is demonstrated by the way in which whiteness “can be expressed as the spirit of enterprise, as the power to organize the material world, and as an expansive relation to the environment” (Fusco 37). Whiteness, then, also makes itself visible in normalized associations that are seemingly unrelated to race like technology/progress and whiteness, intelligence and whiteness, etc. Blackness, of course, has some far less flattering associations, such as the perceived positive correlation between blackness and poverty, underdevelopment, crime, and lack of intelligence. This is essential in the consideration of the Givenchy collection, as binary, opposition, and contrast, which occur both subtly and obviously, are at the very core of its design affect.
Race is most immediately understood and experienced on a visual level, though there are exceptions to this such as certain elements of Sociological concepts like habitus. Accents and syntax can, for example, signal race. Skin color, mannerisms, mode of dress, hairstyle, etc exist, however, in the realm of the visual. Race is, as Fusco stresses, a “system of representation rather than an indicator of truths about any group of people” (Fusco 25). Similarly, in the collection in question, race difference exists as a “recognizable set of visual symbols” (Fusco 25), as it signaled by the juxtaposition of visual allusions to whiteness and blackness, specifically tribalness, rather than expressed more explicitly.
Fusco takes the understanding of race as inherently visual a step further, however, by stating “Whereas systems of racial classification from the 18th century onward reduced people of color to the corporeal, whiteness was understood as a spirit that manifests itself in a dynamic relation to the physical world” (Fusco 35). Whiteness is flexible and has the ability to adapt to the sociohistorical context in which it finds itself. This privilege of dynamism is what allows whiteness to physically and easily traverse geographical boundaries and to, on a more abstract level, cross racial boundaries without sacrificing the benefits of dominance and normalcy.
Legacies of Colonialisn and Primitivism
Primitivism, which served the sociopolitical and economic project of colonialism, was an art movement that incorporated, much like the Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear line, decontextualized visual references to the tribal primitive subject. The scholarship around Primitivism provides some useful interpretive avenues with which to analyze the collection under review. First, an examination of Primitivism requires a distillation of the assumptions made regarding supposedly primitive peoples the art makes visual reference to. The primitive necessitates the understanding that the people who fall into this category are, by definition, different and inferior. Marianna Torgovnick, in her book Gone Primitive, asserts that the “conceived link between us and them often depends on evolutionist premises, on the sense that the primitive represents, in Freud’s words, ‘a necessary stage of development through which every race has passed’” (Torgovnick 8). There is a tension between the “us” and “them” relationship Torgovnick articulates, which implies difference, and the understanding the primitive as a developmental stage that all civilizations have in common. In this way, the primitive occupies the space in between the exotic and the familiar. Despite this sense of commonplace familiarity, those artists and scholars who reference the primitive usually begin by “defining it as different from (usually opposite to), the present,” (Torgovnick 8) regardless of what the social conditions of the present may be. This demonstrates the fluidity of the category of the “primitive,” which contributes to its longevity. This fluidity enables the dominant group to project unfavorable characteristics onto the idea of the primitive. It is against this imaginary that whiteness finds its identity.
Tropes are the means by which Westerners define and preserve the primitive and, in turn, maintain their status. Since the white patriarchal subjectivity of the West is always “threatened by loss, by lack, by Others” (Foster 46), there is an almost fiendish need to constantly affirm superiority. These tropes, as articulated by Torgovnick, have historically included Africa as “dark, dangerous” and savage, as unknown (because Westerners do not know it), and as occupying the “immature, developing state of human existence” (Torgovnick 10). Demonstrating the stakes and influence of these tropes, Torgovnick highlights the way in which ideas about the primitive find their way into political thought, as there is a persistent “Western tendency to process the third world as ‘primitive’ has made things happen in the political world” (Torgovnick 13). Tisci does not appear to be making an intervention in the perpetuation of these tropes, as it is upon them that the aesthetic and conceptual success of the Givenchy collection rests. By putting the tribal elements in opposition to technology, which is synonymous with progress and modernity, Tisci prompts the conflation of the aforementioned tropes, which are deeply ingrained in the cultural imagination of the world, with the sense of the tribal he has visually alluded to in the clothes he designed.
The cultural history of display of Othered bodies in their supposed natural habitat is deeply entrenched in the sociopolitical project of colonialism. In the 19th century, these displays of the colonial Other were often present at World’s Fairs, circuses, and museums and served to, as Coco Fusco states in her subsequently discussed article The Other History of Intercultural Performance, “confirm popular racial stereotypes and build support for domestic and foreign policies” (Fusco 148). The Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection engages in a display of its models, whose bodies register culturally defined standards of beauty and demeanor. The way in which the clothes incorporate tribal aesthetic elements also resonates with this history of display of Othered bodies in a manner that preserves the imagined and essentialized conceptualizations of them as primitive and suspended in a certain developmental stage. Coco Fusco and her collaborator Guillermo Gómez-Peña explore this legacy of display and the performance of an imagined identity of an Other for a white audience through their evocative performance art piece, which traveled to major cities in the early 1990s. They lived inside a cage for a span of three days and exhibited themselves as “undiscovered Amerindians” in public places. Interestingly, Fusco writes the most ridiculous reactions to the piece came from non-American whites, who “appeared to be less self-conscious about expressing their enjoyment of the spectacle” (Fusco 160). This experience is compelling, as the Givenchy collection under review was exhibited by a in Paris, and raises questions around the differing levels of restraint and enjoyment of racial performance among American and non-American whites.
In her article, Fusco asserts that these exhibits of the “Other” supported white supremacist worldviews that portrayed nonwhites as in need of civilization and industry/technology, compelled a sense of white racial unity on the backs of the displayed Others, and highlights the persistence of the desire to “look upon predictable forms of Otherness from a safe distance” (Fusco 154). All of these implications resonate with the Givenchy collection, which effectively locates it as apart of this problematic history of ethnic display. The juxtaposition of technology and tribalness implies that the imagined primitive, tribal Africans do not experience the same level of technological advancement as Western societies. This facilitates the conflation of tribalness, and therefore Africanness, and lack of progress, which motivates the perception of their need for civilization and technology, or whiteness. Furthermore, because whiteness defines itself against what it is not, the type of Africanness portrayed in the collection is similar to that of the exhibits, against which whites defined themselves. The collection also replicates the desire for the experience of the Other from a “safe distance” and in the context of familiar Western aesthetic practices and environments (the fashion show). Fusco also writes, importantly, that “the construction of ethnic Otherness [is] essentially performative and located in the body” (Fusco 149). Referencing the performativity of ethnic Otherness foregrounds the constructedness and imaginedness of this identity. The collection draws upon this imagined Otherness and places it in contrast to technology.
Fashion as an industry fosters a sort of conquering disposition. In the world of trends that are constantly shifting, many consumers seek to master each one, a mastery that is primarily signaled by the surface of one’s body. This ability to master an identity facilitates the establishment of an individual, self-fabricated identity. Constructing one’s own identity is becoming an increasingly culturally relevant and expected practice in the age of social media, as, through personal profiles, users have the power to, more than ever, define themselves. Sociologist Patricia Soley-Beltran writes, “Our notion of self has moved from one based on the role played within community to one bounded by the surface of the body. Subjects now feel responsible for developing their own identity and, moreover, express it in their appearance. To serve this need, the fashion industry has arisen to provide commodified identities packaged as lifestyles” (Soley-Beltran 316). Tisci’s clothes have “arisen” to fill the desire of consumers to have edgy clothing, the avant-gardeness of which stands on the back of tribal Otherness. They exploit the novelty of the juxtaposition the visually signaled exoticness and technology in order to create a new trend and “package” an identity. Through the mechanisms of capitalism, consumers purchase (conquer) these identities, probably with the hope that they will then be able to own the lifestyle the company is promoting, which is that of a racially and economic privileged person. The unequal relationship between the colonizer and the colonized has manifested in the industry of fashion through its long-standing practice of borrowing from colonized subjects.
Aesthetic Appropriation and the Cultural Reliance on Blackness
Appropriation, as it exists in the aesthetic realm, has numerous, though difficult to identify, motivations. A possible perspective is that aesthetic appropriation is a manifestation of what Greg Tate, citing Karl Marx, calls “capitalism’s commodity fetish effect” in which marketable objects are turned into “magical things of desire” and blackness is “something to be possessed and something to be erased.” The black body, he argues, has converted into a “hungered after taboo item” (Tate 4). Appropriation can be seen as a means of the sociohistorically established practice of the literal and figurative acquisition of blackness. Aesthetic appropriation also serves to reach a level of intimacy with an exoticized Africa and to fulfill “the desire to vicariously rebel against European culture within an imaginary black body” (Tate 9). In his book Love and Theft, which is discussed in great detail later, cultural historian Eric Lott similarly argues that white men donned burnt cork (blackface) in order to not only mock black people and their culture, but to behave in ways considered inappropriate and improper in a white body by socially established guidelines.
In the sociohistorical context of the colonialization of the Congo by the Belgians, appropriation in the form of art exhibition, as Torgovnick contends, was engaged in the sociopolitical project of making Belgian intervention in the Congo palatable to the Belgian general public (Torgovnick 77). The writings of Greg Tate, Arthur Jafa, Michaela Angela Davis, and Robert Farris Thompson, among others, provide various interpretive frameworks with which to examine the motivations and implications of appropriation.
European modern art, as asserted by Arthur Jafa in his chapter Everything But the Burden, is founded upon such inaccurate, racially based assumptions and unequal borrowing as present in the Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection. Jafa argues that the incorporation of these artifacts radically redirected Western art practice and goes beyond an affinity for African aesthetics. Furthermore, there was little interest in deciphering the way in which the formal aesthetic practices came to be or “how their structures of meaning operated” (Tate 244). In his discussion of Picasso, he asserts that the incorporation of visual allusions to the tribal serves to provide “an alternative system with which to order space and time” (Tate 245). For Jafa, Picasso stood on the back of the aesthetics of African artifacts to exoticize and mystify his art practice. This manifests in the Cubist practice of presenting objects from multiple vantage points as opposed to a Euro-normative, singular fixed perspective. This practice “betrays a limited comprehension of the logic of multiple ‘dynamic’ vantages apparent in the forms of African artifacts” (Tate 247). Further demonstrating how rooted this practice is in the tradition of African art practice, ancient Egyptian representation utilized multiple vantage points. A head would be drawn, for example, in profile while the body is in full frontal. Partially because of this practice, art historians have historically considered Egyptian art as primitive and indicative of a lack of aesthetic sophistication. These historians, however, failed to understand that, for the Egyptians, to represent the world naturalistically, that is with respect to a fixed vantage point and in a specific time of day, is arrogant and not conducive to the communication of the transcendental or the sacred.
Jafa quotes Picasso as saying, tellingly, “We all loved the fetishes. Van Gogh and his generation had Japanese art—we have the Negroes…the masks were not just sculpture. They were magical objects…I understand what their sculptures did for the Negroes…” (Tate 245). This statement is indicative of a seemingly common type of relationship to aesthetics associated with African art. First, Picasso’s assumption that he “understands” what black art, which is often seen as having a direct connection to (ancient) African art, does for black people is presumptuous, arrogant, and typical of Western thinking of the time. This thinking is founded on a false belief that seeing equals experience and understanding. Picasso’s statement also fixes blackness, or in this case, “Negroness” (Picasso was likely conflating African-American and African), to a mystical spirituality (“magical objects”) which necessarily contrasts with the rational intellectualism of the West. Furthermore, Picasso’s troublesome use of the word “have,” as in “we have the Negroes,” demonstrates a sense of possession of African diasporic artistic production and reveals the way in which Picasso, and European modern/abstract art in general (which, no doubt, had an affect on Ricardo Tisci and his design team), consciously stands on the back of their enunciated idea of diasporic peoples and their fetishized cultural products. The Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection similarly relies on the pre-determined, deprecating, and inaccurate meanings communicated through visual allusions to the tribal, which contrast with the allusions to technology.
Jafa goes on to further prove the inextricable links between blackness and modern art by compellingly asserting that “Our notion of the ‘abstract’ arises from a simple refusal of, or resistance to, the ontological fact of Black being… representations of the Black body, as rendered by traditional African artifacts, were rejected (by whites) as instances of verisimilitude and instead received as ‘highly stylized’ or ‘abstract.’ Europeans preferred to understand these artifacts as creative distortions…” (Tate 247). This claim points to the supposed deep-rooted stake that blackness, and its degradation, has in commonly held Western worldviews. Also, Jafa’s statement highlights the subjectivity of the Euro-normative understanding of the artifacts in question as abstract or, essentially, exotic. In other words, Jafa places emphasis on the choice involved in the understanding of the bodies and cultural products of ‘the Other’. Furthermore, this decision to ignore that African artifacts could potentially represent aspects of reality, even if represented contrary to Western convention, denies the fact of black being and existence. The design team at Givenchy evidently holds such troublesome conceptions of blackness and its cultural products, as proven by the absence of cultural or locational specificity present in the collection’s aesthetic references to the tribal and by the deliberate and problematic juxtaposition of the totalized, timeless Africa and technology referenced by its visual elements. These subjective decisions occur, of course, primarily in an unconscious, sociohistorically determined way. Despite this, weighty implications, however subtle, result from these types of decisions.
Marcel Duchamp, in contrast to Picasso, was intrigued by the way in which African artifacts behaved, rather than “simply how they looked” (Tate 247). He recognized the way in which the functionality of the objects had been suspended by the category of “art” imposed on them. Westerners alienated these objects from their original contexts, then profited from this alienation. Jafa argues that Duchamp recognized “the contextual dissonance provoked by the placement of these (black) artifacts in (white) museums,” which he replicates in his famous urinal, wine rack, and other works. Jafa’s discussion of Duchamp further proves how embedded blackness is into Western art, and therefore the Western sense of self, and provides interpretive pathways with which to consider the aesthetic allusions to the tribal in the Givenchy collection. The collection seems more aligned with the Picasso worldview and art practice, as the visual elements of the clothes function on the back of prefixed meanings of the tribal and blackness, rather than consciously examining the way in which these aesthetics problematically function in relation to one another.
Michaela Angela Davis, in her essay “The Beautiful Ones” provides a personal, eloquent, account of her evolving relationship with the enunciated “Other” and the weighty, yet subtle, ramifications of cultural appropriation and “intellectual embezzlement” on her psyche. Her account offers insight into the potential damage of the conceptions upon which the Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear show is built. It also further demonstrates, in the conveniently relevant cultural context of style, the allure of “the Other” and the embeddedness of blackness into the fabric of America. Despite this American context, what Davis describes exists across Western worldviews. Writing about Josephine Baker, Davis points to the way in which it was “precisely her Otherness that made [Baker] taste magnificent,” (Tate 124) or that, as Tate asserted, made her a “magical thing of desire” (Tate 4). Similarly, the collection uses aesthetic references to the tribal, and the associated implications of the supernatural and the exotic, to add an air of primitive wonder and to put in opposition to the also utilized aesthetics of technology.
Highlighting the ramifications of subjectivity of the sociohistorically determined conceptions of blackness, Davis writes that “[Baker] has been immortalized in the minds of much of white culture as an eccentric hypersexual exotic, not as a style revolutionary. And my mind too as been sabotaged and [have had my] remembrances and accolades diluted by the relentless Otherness I have seen” (Tate 126). This not only points to the effect of such commonplace distortions, but also further proves the subjectivity of apparent facts. Appropriation necessitates such distortions, as its complexity is not conducive to easy incorporation of elements into culture. The appropriated elements need to be flat and definitive. In the collection under review, the visual references to the tribal, and to whiteness, are similarly flat and conveniently definitive, as the juxtaposition between the two would not work if the allusions allowed complexity and open-endedness. For example, whiteness is conflated with technology, which is visually communicated through the nodes, circuit boards, and buttons of deconstructed sound technology, irrespective of their individual conceptual intricacies and the fact that the technology and race aren’t even comparable. There is a considerable level of simplification necessary in order to make this conflation work, which ultimately conveys a sense of progress that gets contrasted with yet another false conceptual union of blackness/tribalness and spirit and underdevelopment.
Mainstream American style, Davis argues, is undeniably in debt to Black style, whose incorporation ranges from full-scale emulations to, as Tu contends, “touches of ethnicity and splashes of color.” It is important to note this subtler brand of appropriation, as the appropriation present in the Givenchy collection occurs across the aforementioned levels. Pointing to this, Davis writes, “We were all in it. Our impulses, our vibrations, the specific way we cocked our hats was there. We were there but we were not” (Tate 131).
She continues, “black people gave American style culture, depth, and spirit…And still our faces were rarely seen in their documentation…On the rare occasion when we did find our way into their perfect glossy world we were isolated. The lone exotic native, stunned, just picked from the bush, wearing animal prints, barefoot, with bones in our noses…” (Tate 133). Similar to the way in which mainstream media chooses to depict blackness, the collection limits, isolates, and flattens blackness through its noncomplex visual allusions. Davis’ assertion also prompts the consideration of which aesthetics have become associated with blackness. It is important to note the subjectivity of the conflation of blackness and the visual elements she mentions, such as animal prints and being barefoot. In the same fashion, Givenchy’s collection subjectively conflates its design elements with larger concepts, whose parameters and meanings have been predetermined.
Returning to the discussion of the way in which black people have given American style “culture, depth, and spirit…and global value, respect,” it is beneficial to highlight the other scholars that have pointed to similar more intangible consequences of cultural borrowing/theft. These perspectives provide insight into why blackness is so attractive to Westerners and what Tisci could potentially be using tribalness to stand in for. In his introduction to his edited anthology in which Jafa and Davis both write, Tate maintains that Western artists and designers appropriate in an attempt to “translate their Black/white baggage into remedies for the Western culture’s spiritual malaise” (Tate 10). In other words, tribal aesthetics, which have been disconnected from original, functional, and geographic contexts, are useful in order to inject “spirit” and “coolness.”
In addition to the appropriation of aesthetic practices, it is also possible that the Givenchy collection appropriates more intangible manners and ways of being, such as a particularly Yoruba brand of coolness, as defined by Robert Farris Thompson. Thompson discusses “coolness” as it relates to Yoruba art and culture. In addition to the appropriation of aesthetic practices, it is also possible that the collection in question appropriates more intangible manners and ways of being, such as a particularly Yoruba brand of coolness, as defined by Thompson. “Coolness,” he asserts, “is a part of character, and character objectifies proper custom. To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our acts gradually assume a virtual royal power” (Thompson 16). According to the testimony of a Yoruba man, “coolness or gentleness in character is so important to our lives. Coolness is the correct way you represent yourself to a human being” (Thompson 13). Coolness is, above all, an internalized, governing characteristic in order for a person to “merit the high praise” (Thompson 13). Coolness is linked to power and sacredness. This concept manifests in manner and behavior a number of ways. Closed or sealed lips (as opposed to smiling), for example, are indicative of discretion and possibly prompt the phrase “His mouth is cool” (Thompson 13). Furthermore, coolness is inextricably linked to the aesthetic products of the Yoruba, as “the Yoruba assess everything aesthetically” (Thompson 5). These aesthetic products, in which they appreciate “freshness and improvisation,” are deeply engrained in Yoruba culture, which is founded on religion. Ideal character, which is inextricable linked to coolness, is often presented as sculptures of the human head (and body), enhanced by various types of headgear adorned with feathers, shells, and other natural materials.
Yoruba culture, of which ideal character and coolness are founding principles, has survived, if transformed, throughout the course of diasporic events, such as slavery. Proving this, Thompson states, “New World Yoruba were introduced to the cult of Roman Catholic saints, learned their attributes, and worked out a series of parallelisms” in which they conflated Christian figures to ancient deities (Thompson 17). This sense of the “cool,” as expressed and exhibited in Yoruba culture as discretion and restraint, is certainly present in fashion culture, especially in the demeanor of models and fashion show attendees. This is a selective interpretation of coolness, as there are, of course, many other characteristics and behaviors associated with Yoruba coolness, including many specific religious practices.
The demeanor of the Givenchy models can be interpreted as embodying the restraint of Yoruba coolness. The models were evidently directed to march forward with little facial expression, and with lips sealed. This, notably, is the common demeanor of models in fashion shows and ad campaigns. It is possible that this attitude, which, in the cultural context of the Yoruba as articulated by Thompson, is put in service of the actualization of religious power, is appropriated in the performance of the models in the show. It is quite difficult to discern influences due to their intangibility, but it is essential to highlight and trace certain trends to demonstrate the nature and extent of the appropriation.
GLOBALIZATION Globalization can be described as a process occurring over the past 30 years in which a “massive decentralization of capital accumulation worldwide” has occurred and, combined with advancements in transportation and information technology, has “changed the ways in which notions of space and place are both conceptualized and experienced” (Clarke and Thomas 6). This global phenomenon, and the associated opening of global avenues of exchange, has allowed tropes of Africanness and blackness to travel, increasing their visibility and influence. Italian Tisci and his design team at Givenchy, then, have a greater chance of exposure to projected fantasies of blackness. Moreover, the tropes of Africanness perpetuated by the aesthetic choices of the collection can also travel easily and transnationally, increasing their impactfulness and, thereby, strengthening their perceived validity.
Inherent to the lifestyle Givenchy is commodifying and, essentially, advocating for is the ease afforded to white people of the Western world to cross geographical boundaries. The Africanness of the clothes in this collection, which is indicated visually, implies a sense of travel and the experience of exoticized cultures and people. The success of visual exotification is reliant on the conception of sight being interchangeable with experience. Through her video collage Meditation on Vacation (2002), Fatima Tuggar addresses the members of her audience that pursue travel as leisure. In one of the narrations from the installation, a woman’s voice says, “…most of the natives of the world cannot go anywhere. They’re too poor to escape the realities of their lives and they’re too poor to live properly in the place that they live, which is the very place that you, the tourist, want to go…They envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom” (installation quoted by Fleetwood 184).
The clothes necessitate the understanding of an ease of travel and “gives the impression of firsthand knowledge and experiential immersion” (Tu 111). This points to the “power of whiteness to grant legitimacy to items that have previously been Othered,” (Puwar 76), a legitimacy that is arguably only temporary and only exists in the realm of art and creative expression. Consumers are able to, adopting Tu’s argument, have a “safe passage to [Africa], but reaffirm the superiority of the West” (Tu 114). Consumers of the collection, consuming both the clothes and the idea of the clothes via magazines, TV, and the internet, have a temporary “sense of proximity of having been there” (Tu 114) while still enjoying the benefits of privilege. Owning a variety of these cultural goods that “reveal different characters,” then, “is interpreted as a sign of wealth and personal strength” (Soley-Beltran 317). These clothes, which are designed in a way that subjugates the cultural Other, are used as pawns to signal one’s cultural capital. Moreover, the clothes in this collection romanticize the imagined culture of Africa, which requires the conception that one of the larges continents in the world has a cohesive, singular culture, the visual references to which are incorporated into the clothes.
Colorblindness/Post Racial Consciousness
The Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear line is presented in the context of a supposedly post-racial society in which racial stratification has been replaced with “happy, [‘world beat’] multiculturalism” (Fusco 145). This theory posits that, following the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, and other social movements, race does is not define the quality of one’s life and that society is effectively colorblind. An argument often cited is that Barak Obama, a black man, was elected president of the United States, so racism cannot exist anymore. This is, of course, false. Racial markers have, however, gotten more subtle and understated. Characteristics like ways of speaking, mannerisms, interests, capabilities, and other intangibles have gotten effectively racially coded leading to understated, transmuted conceptualizations of race and forms of discrimination. In the collection, technology and modernity, for example, and whiteness are conflated, successfully racing an abstract concept. Tribal Africanness, which becomes a stand in for blackness, is linked to spirit, coolness, the primitive, among other things. Also, the category of beautiful garments is extended to those made in the Western tradition, hence the way in which the collection incorporates tribal elements in “chosen fragments” (Puwar 65) while still maintaining Western tailoring and silhouettes. Though this particular racial history and consciousness exists in the United States, it likely resonates with and registers a larger sentiment regarding the existence and consequences of racial differences in the Western societies of the world. This general denial of the full extent of the ramifications of race, combined with the permissive space of the fashion show due to its status as “art,” facilitates the perceived ability to engage in potentially troublesome explorations of race.
Furthermore, the way in which Tisci employs these aesthetics of difference allows a distance from the economic and racial inequalities that have a direct variation to the exoticness of a place. Within this distance, the existence of race can be denied. Also, utilizing aesthetic allusions to Africa in particular enables, as Puwar writes, “a historical amnesia of violence” (Puwar 64), as its is relatively easy to absolve oneself and country of responsibility for the economic, intellectual, physical, and cultural rape of the continent due to lack of knowledge and the sheer number of countries that benefited from African colonization. This distance permits the consumption of cultural goods free of guilt. Clothes have to be “familiar enough to be consumable, but distinctive enough to be desirable” (Tu 102). Moreover, “Exotic goods are desirable and valuable because they exist at a cultural remove” (Tu 102). It is because Africans, or the tribal Africans that Tisci imagines, are distanced ethnic Others existing in the context of a supposedly colorblind world that the juxtaposition between technology and tribal even works and is desirable.
Race, Technology and Modernity
As mentioned, improved technology is inextricably linked to globalization, the implications of which are discussed above. Since technology is half of the juxtaposition upon which this collection stands, a discussion of its supposed implications, and the way they relate to the Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection, is necessary. Generally, technology is associated with modernity, progress, and forward cultural movement. This, however, begs the question of whom this purported progress benefits. In her discussion of the practices of advertising campaigns for technological products, Lisa Nakamura asserts that, in the advertising images she examined, anxieties around the potential erasure or break down of ethnic and racial boundaries are addressed and quelled. These ads “cast the viewer in the position of the tourist, and sketch out a future in which difference is either elided or put into its proper place” (Nakamura 129). While claiming to traverse racial and ethnic boundaries through technology, these ads reinscribe pre-existing power dynamics. The ads also “sanitize and idealize depictions of the Other and Otherness by deleting all references that might threaten their status as timeless icons” (259). Similarly, the collection draws upon the historically entrenched idea of tribalness, which does not threaten the “timelessness” of the African people and their cultural products. The collection incorporates aesthetic allusions to technology and the tribal in such a way that draws upon preexisting and imagined linkages between whiteness, progress, and technology. Because the juxtaposition of the visual signs necessitates the understanding of the two as opposite, the association between whiteness/technology/progress fixes an opposite meaning to that of tribalness, which already suffers from associations with the primitive. This creates a socially unequal relationship between whiteness and blackness, which is alluded to via tribalness. The collection seems to be proposing a future in which established power dynamics are maintained. All of this occurs under the genuine, if ignorant, guise of an attempt to signal the wonders of diversity through the incorporation of aesthetic allusions to the tribal. Therefore, comparable to the example Nakamura gives, the clothes suggest a future in which race does not exist, though, in reality, the privilege of the dominant social group is maintained.
Nakamura establishes the way in which “the [MCI (a telecommunications company)] advertisement positions MCI’s commodity as a solution to social problems,” as they claim to implement a particularly “American” brand of social equality and equal access (Nakamura 255). In order to do this, however, it must “showcase a dizzying parade of difference in order to make its point. Diversity is displayed as a sign of what the product will eradicate” (Nakamura 256). This emphasis on racial difference in order to highlight the way in which a commodity can and will facilitate the erasure of this difference is present in the discussed Givenchy collection. It is necessary for the two aesthetic allusions—the tribal and the technological—, which are undoubtedly raced, to be put in opposition to each other in order to signal the aforementioned claim that race doesn’t exist and that the clothes can facilitate this erasure of race.
These advertisements, like the Givenchy collection, are aimed at first world users, as they “situate [them] in the position of the one who looks, the one who has access, the one who communicates” (Nakamura 256). They place the viewer in a position that, as asserted by Dean McCannell quoted by Nakamura, “’simply collects experiences of difference (different people, different places)…thinking itself unified, central, in control, mastering otherness and profiting from it” (256). This perspective implies that the Western subject has a “’natural right’ to be global cultural consumers” (Fusco 145). Likewise, the viewers of the Givenchy show, whether live or in print/online, is positioned so as to retain power and ownership. Also, the viewer likely mistakes the visual allusions to the tribal for actual experience or, as Nakamura eloquently puts it, blurs “authentic sight/site and its simulation” (Nakamura 258). Through the clothes, the consumption of which is mediated by a technologically advancement society, consumers are able to experience and try on a tribal type of Otherness, which occurs, and is motivated by, in the context of a globalized world in which global tourism is in fashion.
It is important to note the fact that all of this occurs in the realm of the visual; it is as if seeing is equal to experiencing. Furthermore, the emphasis on difference as present in the ads Nakamura examines and in the collection is essential to the Western sense of self, which is commonly defined by what it is not. “Difference, in the form of exotic places or the exotic people, must be demonstrated iconographically in order to shore up the Western identity as himself” (259).
The juxtaposition employed by Tisci in this collection is reminiscent of the media art of Fatimah Tuggar, which Nicole Fleetwood discusses at length in her book Troubling Vision. Tuggar, in her video collages and installations, contemplates the nature of race, class, and gender in this increasingly technologically advanced world. Fleetwood highlights the trend in Tuggar’s work to “draw a correlation between the pursuit of technotopia and the motives that lead to the colonial conquest of the centuries past” (Fleetwood 183). This argument opens up some interpretive possibilities for the implications of this Givenchy collection. Tisci seems to be visually proposing what a technotopia could look like, and standing on the back of African aesthetics in order to do so. The clothes, by necessitating the understanding of Africanness and technology (racially coded as whitenes) as contrary, posit a future in which the Western subject can embark on voyages to Otherness while maintaining privilege and in which they can project consequential meanings onto a black body while marching disaffectedly forward.
The scholarship around blackface minstrelsy provides some useful interpretive frameworks with which to approach the collection in question. Blackface minstrelsy, which consisted of a performer smearing burnt cork on his face and impersonating an African American, is generally considered as one of America’s first popular cultures. This impersonation, which is presented as a recreation of reality, seems to be born out of a desire to, as Eric Lott asserts in his book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “try on accents of ‘blackness’ and demonstrate the permeability of the color line” (Lott 6). A similar type of desire, which is reminiscent of what Tu articulates as a craving for a “safe passage to [Africa], [while reaffirming] the superiority of the West” (Tu 114), is observable in Tisci’s collection. The performance of the collection, which is discussed in further detail in Part Two, and the incorporation of racially coded visual allusions to tribal Africanness and technology into the clothes can be conceptualized as a display of this desire to cross racial and national boundaries in such a way that does not disrupt the current social hierarchy. This exchange, it is important to note, is unequal and does not result from “any actual meeting between racial representatives,” as only the primarily white performers are able to engage in this exchange and subsequent return to whiteness. This traversing of racial boundaries, in the context of blackface, enabled performers to “play with collective fears of a degraded and threatening—and male—Other while, at the same time, maintaining some symbolic control over them” (Lott 25).
Similar to blackface, the fashion show’s status as “art” creates a permissive space in which such crossing of boundaries can inconsequentially occur. The performed character functions as a receptor onto which imagined blackness is projected. Both blackface and the performance inherent to a fashion show require a their participants to embody and perform an identity, which occurs in front of a live audience. This process of representation requires the reduction of a complex of a person or racial group to an essentialized set of characteristics, which is then performed. This positions the white performer or, in the context of this collection, Italian designer or European model as maker of meaning, as a sort of producer of blackness. With regard to the clothes themselves, Tisci had to draw upon a historically entrenched essentialized tribalness, which is already essentialized Africanness, in order to communicate it through a few visual signs. The tribalness alluded to by these visual signs then, in the process of performance and reception, gets problematically conflated with blackness.
The nature of the set of social and economic relations involved in the processes of both blackface and the production of a fashion show are unequal and resonate with larger cultural trends. Eric Lott asserts that it is undeniable that “the white commodification of black bodies structured all of this activity” (Lott 39). So, not only is there an unequal, one-sided exchange on a cultural level, but on an economic level as well. The blackface performers profited from their damaging, inaccurate portrayals of the black body. Similarly, with regard to the collection, the cultural exchange observable in both the performance at the fashion show and in the clothes themselves is mediated, and possibly motivated, by commerce. This complicates the implications of the fashion show’s status as “art,” which enables at least some level of protection from social critique. Not only are the participants in the production and performance of this collection unfairly profiting from inaccurate representations of blackness, but the widespread influence afforded to the Givenchy brand, and the fashion industry in general, increases the visibility of these representations.
In the tradition of blackface, blackness was utilized to affirm class status. “It was through ‘blackness’ that class was staged” (Lott 64). Blackface, by fixing unflattering and socially deviant behaviors to the black body, effectively facilitated the conflation of lower class status and blackness. Through blackface, the working class performer and, through process of identification, the primarily working class audience was able to define themselves, and their class, against these imagined and supposedly inherent characteristics of blackness. Michal Rogin, in his book Blackface White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, uses the 1927 film The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) to examine the way in which blackening up functioned as an instrument for the Jewish jazz singer, and therefore Jewish society as a whole, to invent and perpetuate this conflation of blackness and low classness. Through differentiating themselves from blackness, by literally contrasting their white skin with the burnt cork underneath it, they were able to assimilate and be extended the privilege of white Americanness. The creators and consumers of the Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection similarly utilize the clothes, which stand on the back of troublesome understandings of Africanness, to demonstrate their belonging to the exclusive fashion industry. This perspective is discussed in further detail in Part Two.
The face paint worn by the models in the show resonates, whether consciously or not, with the tradition of blackface. Their faces are, as previously discussed, partially obstructed by thick, opaque paint in forms that are simultaneously reminiscent of tribal face paint and the facial structure of a robot/cyborg like thing. The paint that appears on the model’s faces is comparable of that on the faces of blackface performers, which is used as a means to engage in racial impersonation mediated by a commercial context. The paint, which primarily appears on the forehead, cheekbones, and chins of the models, appear in three colors: white (Figure 1), red (Figure 5), and black (Figure 11). All of these colors have socially entrenched racial associations. White is associated with people of European decent defined in the cultural imagination as having pale skin. Similarly, red is linked to people of Native American decent, and black with people of African decent. Considering the history blackface, the face paint can, therefore, be seen as an allusion to racial impersonation. Since some of the tribal elements can be connected with Native American aesthetic practices, such as the chevron pattern present on many of the shorts presented in the collection (Figures 5 and 9), referencing the Native American body, and associated tribalness, through the paint is entirely plausible. This does not disrupt any allusions to the African body, as both Native Americanness and Africanness can stand in for a departicularized tribal Otherness. Furthermore, because the paint only obstructs part of the models’ face, they are still recognizable, as their skin and features are visible in the unpainted parts of their faces. This potentially creates the visual sense of a composite racial identity. Now, I will turn to the implications of the ways in which the clothes are presented.
PART II: PERFORMANCE AND SHOWING OF THE CLOTHES
The designers, editors, fashion writers, models, and other influential figures in the fashion industry are primarily financially well off and white. These figures, who are the individuals that are perceived as able to perform this creative work, have selected and solidified the visual signs that allude to Africanness and are at liberty to interpret these signs as they wish. Designers like Tisci mythologize Africa and Africans, which influences, at least as it relates to fashion, what comes to be known as African. Collections, like Tisci’s, and the performance of their models also create relational pathways that model problematic and bigoted ways of relating to the world. There are, of course, additions and reductions involved in the process of mythologizing and in that of selecting the visual signs with which to evoke this constructed mythology. Models embody and perform these mythologies, especially in the context of a fashion show. Naomi Campbell, as quoted by Soley-Beltran, claims that “a good model becomes the clothes that she wears, adapting her own character to complement the garment” (Soley-Beltran 317). Furthermore, as Puwar argues, American and European models are largely white which enables them to “occupy the universal empty point which remains racially unmarked so that they can with the assigned particularity of ethnicized bodies” (Puwar 76).
Fashion shows are an essential site of performances of race, class, and gender that imbue the physical clothes with meaning. These shows are, as Entwhistle and Rocamora maintain, “a particularly visible realm where identities are created through very visible performances” (Entwhistle and Rocamora 744). Their use of the word “theatre” is particularly fitting, as these shows are meticulously choreographed, staged, and lit. This production creates the optimum situation in which to view the clothes. The Givenchy Menswear show begins with a single drum playing and, as the first model walks out, a voice utters, “Now everything will be exactly the way you want it” which is repeated a throughout the show. The set was industrial (Figure 4). The long runway (Figures 20 and 21), which can be theorized as facilitating a conceptual flight into an imaginary, was made of concrete and the background consisted of a gate with huge stage lights on tripods shining in different directions. The colorful, busy clothes stood out from the overwhelmingly grey background. It is as if the show were taking place in an underground garage. The space feels unfinished, yet secret and privileged.
The minimal soundscape is, like the collection itself, a combination of blips and dings, evoking technology, and percussive instruments, evoking the tribal. The soundtrack also includes the sounds of women, men, and children singing in an indistinguishable language and, since it plays the entire length of the show, it maintains the presence of tribalness, even when it is not as observable in the clothes themselves (like in Figure 15). The model’s faces are serious and disaffected, which is emphasized by the paint on some of the model’s faces. Considering the designs that they wear, their expression could be that of a disaffected colonizer. In a perfect line, they march forward. Collections are most often photographed and recorded from the head of the runway, which emphasizes this forward movement. Models, who themselves have “become embodiments of ideal identities” (Soley-Beltran 317), confidently stomp toward the viewer, getting larger and larger. Darby English’s discussion of verticality is useful here, as the model’s approaching verticality emphasizes this sense of visualized identity assertion. This stands in contrast to, and probably indirectly necessitates, the interventionist nature of the horizontality William Pope.L employs in his performance pieces like Great White Way (2001-present), who is discussed at length in English’s book. This verticality, which is arguably “dignified” like that of the Statue of Liberty (English 267), provides the maximum space onto which to project the show’s constructed identity.
The space and phenomenon of the fashion show is cultural construction of Western society. Since the fashion industry, and the people and events that it is composed of, are steeped in Western culture, it mediates any socially charged content of the fashion shows. The cultural context of the fashion industry, then, effectively serves to distance the viewer from the tribal Otherness present in the aesthetic elements of the collection. Similarly, as Marinanna Torgovnick underscores in her discussion of the common practices of displaying “primitive” objects, the glass displays and dramatic lighting in which these artifacts are presented “aestheticize the objects and present them as the valuable, jewel-like things they have become” (Torgovnick 78). The established Westernness of the space of the fashion show, and its familiar forms and content, facilitates the consumption of tribal Otherness in a comfortable context and, by aestheticizing them, flattens the meanings of the tribal elements of the clothes.
Fashion shows, as Joanna Entwistle and Agnes Rocamora argue, serve other purposes than just selling clothes. The fashion scholars utilize Bourdieu’s concept of a “field” to inform their analysis of London Fashion Week. A “field” is a structured, relatively autonomous social space with its own rules, hierarchy, and a set of complex social relations. They argue that London Fashion Week is a kind of microcosm of the field of the greater fashion industry. They establish London Fashion Week as a major promotional opportunity, among other profitable benefits. These fashion shows also assemble the major players of the fashion industry such as designers, stylists, journalists, and buyers. A fashion show literally maps power, the most important figures sitting in the front row (Entwhistle and Rocamora 744).
The “field” of fashion is, “situated at an intermediary position between the artistic field and the economic field” (Entwhistle and Rocamora 739). Due its location in the field of the artistic, collections and their designers are afforded quite a degree of permissiveness. Its location in the field of the economic calls intentions into question and raises the stakes of problematic conceptualizations. Designers take from “various global locals whatever sells, and [drop] that which is no longer good for profit (Puwar 67).
Aside from showcasing collections, which are already sold far before the show, London Fashion Week’s primary purpose is to “produce, reproduce and legitimate the field of fashion and the position of the players within it” (Entwhistle and Rocamora 742). They position fashion shows as existing in part to reinscribe the dividing line between outside and inside. In the case of collections in which designers have chosen to employ visual signs of ethnicness, the consumption of ethnicized clothing (which allude to ethnicized bodies) occurs in a “place in which some people, who fulfill the conditions of access, play a particular game from which others are excluded” (Entwhistle and Rocamora 738). The people who “fulfill the conditions of access” to a fashion show, both as creators and audience members, are, as previously mentioned, overwhelmingly wealthy and white. This demonstrates the way in which, in the cases like the Givenchy Menswear show, tropes of blackness circulate without black bodies. Not only do these boundaries manifest physically in the form of ropes, tents, and security, but habitus and social capital perpetuate these divisions.
If the clothes are sold before the fashion show occurs, the question remains as to the reason for having the show. Entwhistle and Rocomora contend that the fashion show is essential for journalists to craft stories and to help buyers understand a designer’s vision (Entwhistle and Rocamora 742). These shows are critical to framing and disseminating the visually communicated ideas regarding blackness to be conceptually consumed via magazines, television shows, films, and the internet. Furthermore, “One of the major purposes of the fashion shows is to see and be seen and, by one’s being seen, one’s position in the field is reproduced” (Entwhistle and Rocamora 743). The content of the shows, which in the case of this Givenchy Menswear show is centered around the novelized juxtaposition of technology and Africa, becomes both an occasion to reproduce position and consume the trend of the moment that they can then reproduce to reinforce their belonging in the field. They continue by asserting the importance of the “ability to articulate recognized forms of fashion capital and develop an appropriate fashion habitus so that one’s body actually looks like it belongs.” (Entwhistle and Rocamora 746). The clothing, bearing visual signs of blackness, become trendy pawns used to secure one’s position in the world of fashion.
The Spring 2014 Givenchy Menswear collection relies on aesthetic motifs associated with the imaginary of tribal Otherness, which has arisen from a complex colonial cultural history, to contrast with technology, which likely stands in for whiteness and the idea of progress and modernity. He recontextualizes these visual signs, robbing them of any cultural or locational particularity, and this has a number of implications. The production and consumption of these clothes occurs at fashion shows, where the major figures in the industry solidify their place in the field of fashion. Despite the problematic nature of the collection, dare I say, I like it.
Leya Andrews is a black female, and native of the San Francisco Bay Area,
as a graduate of the University of California, with a double major in American & Film Studies
she appears as the first and only contributor to jeremydanté.com through special arrangement.