Victoria’s Secret’s Native American Gaffe Continues Fashion’s Long History Of Racism

The industry has proven racially insensitive many times before Karlie Kloss wore a Native American headdress on the runway, prompting outrage. posted on

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Karlie Kloss on the Victoria’s Secret fashion show runway.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show costs $12 million. Preparations for it begin a year in advance. The creative team starts working on costumes and show themes in January or February, even though the show doesn’t tape until November. This is a huge, expensive, news-making fashion show — probably the most viewed in the world — that is planned over many, many hours, spanning many months. Even with all that planning and thinking and discussing of things before the show, young supermodel Karlie Kloss made it down the runway blowing kisses in a gigantic, floor-grazing Native American headdress. That costume, within a few days after the photos coming out, became controversial enough for Victoria’s Secret to apologize for its inclusion and to announce the look would be edited out of the the show when it airs on CBS on December 4.

Many compared the gaffe to No Doubt’s Native American–inspired video, which also had to quickly be pulled down and apologized for after similar backlash. But the Victoria’s Secret incident felt symptomatic of the racial insensitivity on many runways and in many fashion photo shoots, whose long planning periods don’t seem to prevent serious missteps. Let’s review.

3. For its spring 2013 show, Dolce & Gabbana included imagery of black women that was widely viewed as “colonialist” and offensive.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

4. These earrings drew particular ire.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

5. The collection prompted Azealia Banks to proclaim her intent to “definitely boycott” the label.

So far, no one as famous as her has said the same about Victoria’s Secret. But Indian Country columnist Ruth Hopkins is advocating a boycott of the brand. “As a Victoria’s Secret customer, I am livid,” she wrote. “After years of patronage and loyalty to the Victoria’s Secret brand, I am repaid with the mean-spirited, disrespectful trivialization of my blood ancestry and the proud Native identity I work hard to instill in my children. Well, I’ve got news for you, Victoria’s Secret. Consider yourself boycotted.”

Moving on to other gaffes:

7. Tom Ford wore a Native American headdress in the issue of “Vogue Paris” that forced then-editor Carine Roitfeld to resign.

This image of Ford — who is best known for making James Bond’s suits, Julianne Moore’s red-carpet dresses, and wildly expensive apparel generally (see: $990 jeans) — was not the most controversial in this particular issue. That honor went to the portraits of disturbingly sexualized 6-year-olds.

10. In 2010, Chanel designer (and Choupette the cat owner) Karl Lagerfeld released images of supermodel Claudia Schiffer in blackface and yellowface.

These images are the six different covers Karl shot for German photography magazine Stern Fotografie’s 60th anniversary issue. When they came out in 2010, Fashionista called the covers “everything from crazy and sexy to mildly racist and altogether strange.” Complex wrote, “At least he didn’t style her as a geisha or a slave.” But the two tags on the Complex post say it all: “fashion, racism.”

12. Blackface has shockingly been sort of a Thing in fashion editorials — like this one from “Numéro.”

Contance Jablonski poses with a black baby in a prairie! Why couldn’t Numéro hire a black model, especially when they’re woefully underrepresented on the runways and in fashion magazines? Good luck figuring that one out.

14. Victoria’s Secret itself has gotten in trouble before for exploiting racial stereotypes. This “Sexy Little Geisha” bodysuit was pulled from the site after backlash erupted online.

Bloggers were disgusted by this alleged outfit. The Frisky wrote, “‘Sexy Little Geisha’ is part of a ‘Go East’ line, which, again, is not in-and-of-itself racist. This particular execution just makes me, well, want to execute myself.”

And these are just a few examples of the fashion industry’s puzzling insensitivity to race issues. I could spend all day pulling more, but you only have to Google “fashion racism” to come up with a slew of other roundups.

Victoria’s Secret may be a suburban-mall lingerie brand, but its fashion show exists on a rare high-fashion plane as well as a commercial one. Well-heeled fashion editors like Carine Roitfeld and painfully cool designers like Alexander Wang attend and adore the show (they don’t do the same for, say, Bebe). Costume designer Todd Thomas did not return request for comment about how the headdress made it all the way through the show’s creation process to the main stage. And I don’t buy Indian Country’s notion that Karlie Kloss did this to get back at an ex with Native American blood (models don’t get to choose their outfits for fashion shows). But it feels safe to assume it was just another moment that’s symptomatic of an industry that has a very hard time separating sensitive racial issues from artistry.

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