The Devil Wears CornrowsCould Appropriation Lead to the End of Fashion?

This article was published in Glamour Issue #84 | Fall 2019

It was a glorious rave. There was pounding, driving, unsoftened sound, smoke, and mood lighting. People dressed in tiny silver and teal shorts, tight miniskirts, camo jackets, and platforms like small skyscrapers in every imaginable shade, including red, kelly green, and purple. Thigh-high socks and patches stitched precariously, or at least the illusion of such. Tiny women wearing metallic eye shadow and tiny metallic purses and big shoes and even bigger hair—dreadlocks dip-dyed pink, purple, and sidewalk-chalk blue and piled atop their heads in elaborate knots.

In 2016, Marc Jacobs attracted a small controversy when he sent his spring 2017 ready-to-wear line down the runway during New York Fashion Week. The scrutiny had nothing to do with what the models, dressed as rococo ravers, wore on their bodies but rather what was on top of their heads: candy-painted dreadlocks. Jacobs said he had been inspired by the multicolored dreads of The Matrix codirector Lana Wachowski, who had been announced as the face of his brand’s spring-summer 2016 season earlier that year. For the 2017 show, Jacobs recruited a dreadlocks specialist, a white Etsy designer named Jena Counts, along with Anglo Spanish stylist Guido Palau, who created and “texturize[d]” the “locs” for the occasion.

Palau cited numerous influences for the looks that eventually bounced across the stage that evening, including rave culture, Boy George, and the ’80s in general. When New York magazine’s Kathleen Hou asked the stylist if he’d found any inspiration in Rasta culture, he responded simply, “No, no at all.” Jacobs, to his credit, seemed to rethink the show a year later. He told InStyle: “What I learned from that whole thing, what caused me to pause after it died down a little bit, was that maybe I just don’t have the language for this, or maybe I’ve been insensitive because I operate so inside my little bubble of fashion.” The next year, Jacobs’s models wore turbans and head wraps.

Worth so much more, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada is memorable for two stunning moments. Hustling along to a meeting with the staff of the Vogue-inspired fictional Runway magazine, Miranda sends florals to a well-deserved grave. Elsewhere in the film, she absolutely withers Anne Hathaway’s Andy, the aspiring journalist fortunately unfortunate to land a job as an assistant to the mother of fashion editorial, who assumes it all—gestures vaguely to the industry—irrelevant to her daily life.

Oh, okay. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of “stuff.”

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The moment amazes not simply because Miranda summarily dresses down a self-important youth who scoffs at the expertise of an elder. I age further from Andy’s postgrad naiveté every year, but even as a nervous teenager seeing The Devil Wears Prada for the first time, I couldn’t help but stand with Miranda in this instance. The lines captivate with their movement. Streep provides a slight serpentine drag, as if the handiwork of a woman making a million microcalculations per instant, searching and retrieving and translating each historical artifact for the benefit of someone who surely doesn’t deserve it, but absolutely deserves this read. Though fashion is the subject of the matter, Miranda’s poetic takedown serves as a prescient reminder that we are unwittingly bound to decisions made above us, on our behalf.

However, the monologue conveniently elides the no-less-chilling truth that those decisions made on high are, too, influenced by the people who live and move about at the bottom. “What has always irritated me about that clip is that the fashion designer who showed it in 2012 probably stole it from some kid they saw on the street who was very stylish,” The Cut’s Stella Bugbee remarked years later. Fashion “trickles up and then it trickles back down.” Just as Andy’s cerulean sweater represents the long-fingered reach of high fashion, pastel dreadlocks weren’t the brainchild of Jacobs or Palau (or Wachowski, for that matter). Even Counts, the white Florida designer who dyed more than 12,500 yards of yarn for the show and continues to sell her custom wool dreadlocks online with many five-star reviews, did not dream up or revolutionize a product intended to imitate the look of anglicized dreadlocks, which are themselves the unwashed, matted answer to dreads palm-rolled or twisted from Afro-textured hair.

Black hairdressers have, of course, developed their own fiber alternatives to the years and patience required to grow glorious waist-length dreads, an innovation Counts evidently decided not to consult on the journey to perfecting Dreadlocks by Jena. While the fashion industry demands an ongoing bibliographic record of who did what which way, weeding out counterfeits, naive assistants, the working class, and anything that might disturb the sanctified lineage of designer fashion, the industry also relies on the underclasses to breathe new life into the same tired old lines, patterns, and schema. “In fashion, there is a fine, sometimes indistinguishable line separating inspiration and theft,” wrote the New York Times’ Katherine Rosman. Palau, who denied his work bore any connection with Afro-diasporic tradition, had sampled from Black styles in the past.

He gave a cast of predominantly white models cornrows for Valentino’s African-inspired spring 2016 show, immortalized by coverage in Vogue. Designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli without irony placed themselves in the tradition of Pablo Picasso, whose predilection for the Africa of his own imagination secured his spot in the European avant-garde. “The message is tolerance,” Piccioli told Vogue. “And the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.” Less than a year later, Palau sent another set of mostly white models down the runway wearing Bantu knots for the house’s pre-fall 2016 collection. He told HuffPost that the style came from ’90s Björk, “a continuation of last season with that very girly, punky vibe. It’s kind of the same girl, but she’s going to a rave now.”

The list of publicized gaffes in designer fashion in recent history is long, exceeded only by quieter appropriations that never make it into the press. Louis Vuitton’s 2012 spring menswear collection included Maasai-inspired scarves priced at $1,000. For its spring 2015 show, DKNY gave models long, sweeping baby hair, styled after women born with kinky hair textures who’ve developed practical and artistic means of smoothing down their edges. In late 2018, a Prada store in New York was caught displaying a line of figurines and key chains closely resembling blackface minstrels (and retailing for $550). Shortly thereafter, in early 2019, Gucci issued an apology for selling an $890 black balaclava (or ski mask) featuring a pair of exaggerated red lips to be pulled over the wearer’s face. This, not two years after Gucci plagiarized the legendary Black tailor Dapper Dan in its 2018 Cruise collection and called it “an homage.” But high fashion is not alone.

Cost-effective “fast fashion,” cherished for the ability to turn around runway look-alikes by the start of the season, has instituted an aesthetic regime all its own, one impacted but not dictated by the Miranda Priestlys of the world. Fast fashion has the “advantage” of relying heavily on poor, underpaid workers (nobody looks for “Made in Italy” on an H&M tag) and freer seasonal schedules, so retailers can bypass the runway and find the same “inspiration” at its source. Recalling the heyday of Abercrombie & Fitch’s all-American girls, I recognize their mutations while perusing the virtual racks of the teen mecca Forever 21. The models are still white, of course, or ambiguously quote-unquote “ethnic,” which is just to say they might be a person of color or simply a white woman with an Italian last name—which is really to say that everyone is tan, and not orange, in a might-be-from-SoCal sort of way.

Needless to say, Black aesthetic innovations don’t matter until repurposed by the select group of people who do. For the fashion world to truly cite the aesthetics that make it possible would mean ripping out the very parameters of reinvention. 

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In that same sort of way, everyone is in hoops, gold hoops, to be precise, with gold necklaces (plural), and gold rings (also plural) on each finger. And not the tasteful, maybe “16-birthday present from the child-free aunt” category of gold, but the gaudy, ostentatious, got to got to be faux type of show-me, you-won’t-miss-this-honey gold. When asked about the origins of the “Carrie” necklace, which became synonymous with one of Sex and the City’s most poignant Carrie moments, the show’s costume designer, Patricia Field, was conspicuously vague. “I have a shop in New York City, and a lot of the kids in the neighborhood wore them,” she told InStyle in 2015. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll show it to Sarah Jessica [Parker] and she’ll like the idea.’ She did, and she made it happen. It became a universal, long-lasting thing.”

Field neglects to mention that nameplate jewelry had already been a thing—for Black and brown girls living in the boroughs and ’hoods Carrie and the gang would never frequent. Says the NYC native and journalist Collier Meyerson, “Nameplates have always leapt off the chests of Black and brown girls who wear them.” They are thickly beautiful but also small emblems against respectability. Like hoops and neon five-inch heels, the necklace possesses the power to make whites scrunch their noses in offense. Until Carrie made it chic.

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They are available for purchase, priced above beauty-supply stores—at once cheaper and more expensive than the real thing. The styles, as they slide from ’90s to ’00s revivals, nonetheless adhere to the guiding light that approximates Black style. Retro-style band tees broadcasting an affinity for Run DMC and Biggie have been replaced by tube tops, camisoles, and cropped tees in deliberately synthetic-looking fabrics like spandex and “velvet,” a.k.a. polyester, with the words “Baby Girl” or “Harlem” across the chest. Let’s not forget the boys, the too-cool-without-trying slimfitters who populate menswear ads, where we can spot Black-boy influences where way too few Black boys can be found. The translation occurs more subtly in the sense that everything within the acceptable bounds of men’s fashion must present itself subtly, without comment, without the indication that men actually give a shit about what goes on their bodies.

The skinny jeans seated below the waist to reveal the broad, brand-name waistband of jock-hugging briefs; basketball shorts as casual wear; jerseys as casual wear; sneakers as casual and semiprofessional wear; the stripped-down basic sneaker for nothing but being ain’t shit in someone’s house; the limited and expensive multisyllabic colorway collected and treasured by those called “sneakerheads”—who, like their close cousins, “hip hop heads,” grow less and less melanated by the minute as regular “streetwear” prices surge to extravagant heights. Reddit’s “Basic Bastard” wardrobe, an easy online how-to for men upgrading from free college t-shirts to something more adult, amazingly looks like the watery residue of hip hop’s take on preppy—Tyler, the Creator for the less adventurous set.

Designers, executives, and shareholders stake their wealth on imitation without attribution. Profits might not even be profits if brands were financially beholden to the individuals and cultures responsible for moving fashion forward. Appropriation is a boon also to editors, stylists, photographers, bloggers, and consultants who are paid in both money and cachet to corroborate the dependency. Black people, when their exceptional brilliance and extraordinary luck permits entry to the rarefied ranks for a purpose besides wearing clothes well, must wear the albatross of “The Only One,” per the title of critic Hilton Als’s profile of queer Black fashion dignitary André Leon Talley. “It’s exhausting to be the only one with the access, the influence, to prevent the children from looking like jigaboos in the magazine when they do appear in the magazine,” he’s quoted as saying. “It’s lonely.”

The answer to a sartorial anxiety of influence comes readily: support Black. Not just businesses, but designers, hairdressers, stylists, photographers, and reporters who know a Doobie wrap when they see one coming down the American Music Awards red carpet. But this call to ethics obscures what is a problem of seeing as much as a problem of spending. Miranda Priestly exactly articulates the power imbalance between consumers and tastemakers, a monologue incidentally prompted by the ability of everyone in the room to see what Andy cannot perceive. Their sight isn’t better, merely better trained to pick out aesthetic differences that matter—to themselves and to others in power.

Needless to say, Black aesthetic innovations don’t matter until repurposed by the select group of people who do. For the fashion world to truly cite the aesthetics that make it possible would mean ripping out the very parameters of reinvention. It might mean doing away with reinvention as an organizing principle, for so much reinvention is not an appropriation of the past but an appropriation of the present on a blank canvas. A true reckoning of fashion’s debt might mean the end of houses, the end of fashion week, the end of “high” and “low,” the end of trend forecasts written by anyone who isn’t a 15-year-old brown girl from Chicago’s West Side, the end of “who are you wearing?” answered with the name of the person who hasn’t touched a hem in decades, the end of brands, the end of “hits and misses” where the “misses” will in a few years be on trend so long as the right designer can find the right young white celebrity to shill their horrible take on a “harem” pant. It might mean the end of designers. It might mean the end of fashion.

Excerpted from White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue… and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation. Copyright © 2019 Used with permission of Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

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by Lauren Michele Jackson
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Dr. Lauren Michele Jackson teaches in the Departments of English and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Her first book, White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue… and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, is due out by Beacon Press on November 12, 2019. Her work (research, criticism, essays, and—on occasion—poetry) has appeared in the Atlantic, the AwlComplexFeminist Media StudiesHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe JournalNew Republic, the New Yorker, the Paris ReviewThe PointRolling StoneSpoon River Poetry ReviewTeen Vogue, and Vulture among other places.