Hey Fashion Industry, Racism Is Never in Style

The fashion industry really grossed me out over the past couple of weeks.

Item One: Canadian designers Dean and Dan Caten’s Dsquaw collection at Milan Fashion Week. If you’ve never heard the term “squaw,” it’s a racist slang word referring to an indigenous North American woman (i.e. a First Nations woman in Canada. or a Native American woman in the U.S.) The use of the term was enough to make my skin crawl—not to mention that the designs are culturally appropriated “tribal” wear—but the designers, who are white twin brothers, appear to have ripped off an actual Native American artist, Sandra Okuma. Her daughter Jamie expressed her outrage on Facebook:

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Excuse me while I scratch out my eyes.

And here comes Women’s Wear Daily making matters worse: The magazine described the models as “opulent savages” while lauding the designs for their quality, construction and adherence to trends. Ugh.

Item Two: Givenchy’s Fall 2015 show during Paris Fashion Week. Oh boy, where to begin. This time it wasn’t the garments that were problematic—mostly gothic and Victorian-inspired dresses and coats—but the “inspiration” for the collection had me facepalming: Chola Victorian.

What could possibly make gothic gowns so “chola” you might ask? The accompanying hairstyle—gelled-down faux-baby hairs—and ornate facial jewelry. Take a look below:

If you’re not familiar with baby hairs, Jezebel’s Kara Brown has written at length about the roots of the style and why it’s problematic on white models. To quote her briefly:

Baby hairs are those small wispy hairs on your hairline that are often very fine and a bit unruly. … Many Black and Latino women with textured hair will style their baby hairs by brushing them smooth and holding them in place with some sort of gel or pomade. While there are practical reasons for smoothing down one’s baby hairs, highlighting them has become a specific look that Black women will deliberately style. … When we do it, it’s ghetto or unattractive, but when white people do it it’s cool and unique and fashion.

This piece from artist Jennifer Li sums it up nicely:

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Back to the Chola Victorians at Givenchy: The term “chola,” while in some contexts considered derogatory, has been reappropriated by Chicanas in various parts of the U.S. (especially Los Angeles). As far as the look is concerned, baby hairs and facial piercings—including those in the cheeks, nose and upper lip, called a Monroe—feature prominently. It’s a hard-yet-feminine, sexy-yet-aggressive look created and honed by a very specific group of American women.

It would be bad enough for super-elite Italian Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci to appropriate from a working-class culture for his “unique,” high-fashion look. But he also chose not to acknowledge that culture by sending primarily white women down the runway. As Refinery29’s Phillip Picardi put it, “It is cultural appropriation to use ‘chola’ as an inspiration for a show, or a beauty look, and then largely ignore the women who’ve popularized the look you’re riffing.”

This isn’t the first time baby hairs have found their way onto white models’ heads: DKNY’s beauty look at New York Fashion Week last year was described as “Urban Fabulous” and featured white models wearing the gelled style. And Katy Perry donned the look in both a 2014 music video and at the Givenchy show this week.

Guess what? We’re over it. Racism and cultural appropriation aren’t art, they’re offensive. Instead of using your platform to showcase ripped-off “tribal” prints and racialized slang terms, why not try to inspire a younger generation to feel good in their skin?

And by the way: Vogue, calling baby hairs a “subculture trend” that’s “about to go mainstream in a major way,” is about as tone deaf as the time you declared that we’re in the “era of the big booty.” It’s called Columbusing—and we’re over that too.


Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.