Despite all the backlash to Ralph Lauren’s genocide chic advertising campaign last year, it seems designers have either learned nothing, or conversely they’ve learned that outrage is free and effective PR in the fashion world.
This time it is a Canadian designer using racism and cultural appropriation to sell clothes. Not only is the new line shown by DSquared at Milan Fashion Week a creepy mashup of Inuit and First Nations designs with early British colonial army elements—as if the the meeting of those groups during the settling of this continent was not brutal—but what’s worse is that DSquared designers Dean and Dan Caten added insult to injury with the Twitter hashtag #Dsquaw.
Certainly anyone who grew up in Canada knows that “squaw” is overtly racist as well as sexist language. It was said to originate from an indigenous term for woman, but whatever its origin, in common usage it has acquired a derogatory meaning. When I asked some of my friends in fashion about what DSquared was up to, one response was along the lines of ‘well, for one thing the Catens aren’t all that bright.’ But DSquared is a major firm that presumably has a competent PR team controlling its communications and it would have nixed this language had it been accidental. It’s no accident. It’s obviously a deliberate provocation based on the logic that no press is bad press, and if that’s true, I am falling into its trap by writing about it. Several First Nations writers on Twitter were also aware of this tactic, responding with the hashtag #DontTrendOnMe. But here we are; it’s impossible to resist saying something, particularly given my country’s history which includes the well-publicized tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. While I hope the huge backlash has not benefited DSquared’s bottom line and will instead amount to a boycott, I’m not optimistic. Most of the outrage seems to be confined to Canada; Europe does not seem to mind (again, probably a DSquared calculation).
The only consolation is that DSquared has pulled back the curtain on a nasty historical costume drama that people like to pretend is not endlessly held over. And it’s being reenacted today, even if the costumes change.
— Dani (@xodanix3) March 3, 2015
First I want to pre-empt any defence that Dean and Dan are merely gay artists doing outrageous, and that the regular rules don’t apply. Au contraire mes frères. Being gay does not give you a free pass for racism or outrage-based PR at some other group’s expense. As for the patronizing, colonial, whiff-of-genocide element, here is DSquared’s description of its line, from its website:
The enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes. The confident attitude of the British aristocracy.
… a captivating play on contrasts: an ode to America’s native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe.
Noble? Is this oblivious fuddy-duddy colonial paternalism actually happening in 2015? This is a laughably old school, tacitly hierarchical “contrast” of Indian and tribe with nobility and aristocracy. What century—or grade—are we in? One instantly imagines Dean and Dan themselves, self-conscious colonials in Milan, trading on an exoticization of indigenous people in Canada while desperately trying to convince everyone they know how to behave like toffs at tea. Boys, you’re parochial at best, apologists for a brutal colonialism at worst, and most likely both. “#DSquaw” isn’t civilized, and neither were the “civilizing” forces that tried to clear this country of its original inhabitants.
In addition to the naked racism, there’s also the issue of cultural appropriation for commercial gain. (Here is an excellent guide to what cultural appropriation is and why it’s harmful.) It seems unnecessary to point out that looking at people through a colonial lens while commodifiying their culture neither benefits nor honours them, particularly not when packaged in a racial slur. And the perpetuation of stereotypes and the whitewashing of history actually produce dangerous conditions for those on the wrong end of these sticks.
What makes this particular case of appropriation even worse, though, is that several commentators have identified actual plagiarism or intellectual property theft in specific elements of @DSquared’s designs (I can’t comment on this with any authority). This takes appropriation to a new level. Here is one example:
And to take a step even further back, why this obsession with the colonial era in fashion right now, including the element of the “tribal”? I’ve looked at other 19th C fashion trends recently (here, here and here for example) and am starting to sound like a broken record even to myself. But the DSquared case is just more evidence for the observation that in so many cultural expressions now we are seeing a desire to resuscitate and romanticize the 19th C. Coincidentally, in economic terms many have pointed out that we are descending back into the economic and political conditions of that century. While current manifestations of those conditions may look more modern, there are parallels: outright wild-west-style land takeovers on frontiers, whether in North America or other continents (this time at the hand of corporations); enclosures of land through privatization; a lack of regulation of financial interests; sudden vast fortunes for a few, and accelerating inequality.
Is revisiting the 19th C a way to understand and perhaps justify our collective actions in the present, but at a safe remove? Are we trying to make the current era of global plunder more palatable by overlaying it with “romantic” earlier conquests? Are we justifying our participation in present-day forms of colonization (gentrification and renoviction, say, or fracking on unceded territory) by dressing in the supposedly harmless garb of an earlier era, even while at the same time signalling that very era and its collisions?
And what about the current context? As resource extraction issues in Canada heat up, the issue of First Nations land title and history will become even more evident than it already is. We’ve seen the rasicm that raises its idiot, menacing head in the cultural sphere whenever economic interests like this clash. A recent landmark decision at the Supreme Court of Canada, the Tsilhqot’in decision, is a huge win for First Nations (and I would suggest all of us) in terms of indigenous final say over industrial actions across vast regions of the country. Racism against native people helped to legitimate the early land grabs on this continent, and we can expect it to intensify again. It’s a drama that may play out in all manner of direct and indirect ways.
On a day to day level, patronizing and racist representations—however small—can make life truly dangerous for indigenous people, women in particular. In only a few decades, well over twelve hundred women from indigenous backgrounds have disappeared or been murdered in Canada, despite our relatively small population. For the past year, the news has been full of this tragedy. The Conservative government refuses to launch a federal inquiry to examine it, saying “it’s not on our radar.” The hashtag many Canadians have been using long before #DSquaw appeared was #MMIW: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women (or MMIWG, women and girls).
In short, this is a pretty interesting moment for DSquared to embark on some flippant fashion racism and misogyny. And March 7 is International Women’s Day. Well done on all fronts, DSquared.
— Aboriginal Circle (@aboriginaltweet) March 4, 2015
— tara houska (@zhaabowekwe) March 5, 2015
— Juliet Sun Design (@julietsundesign) March 5, 2015
Using the word “squaw” is violence.
— duane linklater (@duane_linklater) March 3, 2015
I’m a white designer asking others, Canadians or otherwise, designers or otherwise, to make this painful for DSquared. Their colonialism redux is not a world we want to live in. Let’s not play parts in an iffy period drama while its contemporary cousin, globalization, razes new frontiers.
PS: “Why can’t I wear a hipster headress?” is worth a read, as is What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm