I’m a library freak before I’m a fashion nerd or beauty nerd or anything else. In all honesty, I’d rather read about the history of leatherworking or how Rei Kawakubo really does The Most to get her wool dyed just the way she likes than talk to most people. Consequentially, I’ve read a lot of fashion books over the years—and I keep wanting to throw them against the wall out of frustration. It’s not that they aren’t informative or interesting—I have some loyal favorites I would walk through fire for. It’s more that the same problematic shit keeps being produced in what are considered definitive pieces of fashion theory. Trying to get fashion critics to talk explicitly about race, exploitation, and appropriation is like trying to turn brick into jello through sheer willpower. You don’t see it being talked about outside of closed doors by the big shots–and consequentially, it’s hardly discussed by the people that follow them.
Which brings us to Colin McDowell. In his admittedly very beautiful and very thorough new book, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do, McDowell breaks down the relationship and history of fashion in relation to body parts. In his own introduction, he lays it out as so:
“The Anatomy of Fashion” is a new exploration of how we dress, based on the most obvious – but often overlooked – foundation: the human body. Examining each part of the body and how it has been dressed allows for historical or geographical or cultural juxtapositions that are not instantly obvious from a more traditional approach to fashion, illuminating both contrasts and continuities.”
Sounds exciting, right! It is! It’s what I live for. He does a great job at bringing together references from all different cultures and how they factor into “our” view of fashion, but one of the big things he doesn’t touch with a ten foot pole is racism. He touches on skin color’s value in fashion in a paragraph in the beginning next to a photo of Iman, but fails to address the actual idea of racism and arguably, has a pretty naïve view on institutional racism. “Models with non-white skin are increasingly visible – although rarely in the world of couture – as a way to give clothes a hint of exoticism and the glamour that comes along with it,” he writes. “The numbers remain relatively low but will rise, if only in acknowledgement of the way that black people in most societies increasingly enjoy the wealth that enables them to be fashion consumers.” (pg 19)
What bothers me about this little gem is that black bodies are continually coded as non-white – sprinkles on an otherwise white bread casting. You’re not casting them as representational of your consumers or your ideal girl; it’s just to appease a very specific idea of Otherness. Whatever, fashion is a business, and it’s business as usual, right? What can I say about this that Naomi, Iman and Bethann Hardison haven’t called out explicitly already? Maybe I’m just mad at the messenger – I have no doubt McDowell is aware of the problem, but I’m over people not explicitly acknowledging it. Go on. Say it. Utter the word. You can do it. It’s scary; I get it – it’s scary because as a white dude naming a thing you (consciously or not) play part in perpetuating. You’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Let me be clear: his pages on “ethnic” and “exotic” fashion history aren’t factually incorrect; I’m angered that the validity of these trends are tied to their place on the white body. The designers he mentions are of course magnificent designers – Jean Paul Gaultier, Kenzo, et all are all absurdly great – but when you aren’t critiquing their ethnic appropriation, maybe you aren’t going far enough. And anyway, the idea that there has to be an “ethnic” or “exotic” bothers me when it’s becoming more and more obvious that Asia is the future (and quite frankly, present) powerhouse of luxury consumers for brands: the appropriated Other is now the beating heart of the business.
It’s time for our critics to actively engage in issues of race in fashion. We don’t need any more tape recorders. You have to name the problem – where has alluding gotten us? A supposedly post-racial world where Miley is twerk-queen of MTV – how wonderful. Every season we have some drama on casting in shows, but we don’t have the same conversation about the books and other bodies of knowledge produced to help people break down those shows. The problem stems not just from the runways – but how we read them. We need more of a conversation about racism in a larger cultural context – one not just Western centric, and certainly one not focused on a white consumer. McDowell breaks ice in “The Anatomy of Fashion,” but that’s not enough. It’s time to shatter the dialogue.