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Runway Politics

When one thinks of social or political change, the first thing that comes to mind is typically not a slew of five-foot-ten models walking down a dimly lit runway. Yet, much of the recent controversy surrounding cultural appropriation and standards of beauty happen through Fashion Weeks around the world. In this year’s New York Fashion Week for Spring/Summer 2017, designers have spurred discussions—sometimes by transcending social stigmas, and sometimes by perpetuating them.

When Marc Jacobs debut his collection on the last day of Fashion Week, his work was met with criticism. Jacobs had styled the hair of his models in dreadlocks, and critics argued that the authentically African American hairstyle was in poor taste on an almost entirely white cast of models. To top it off, the dreadlocks were dyed in an eclectic yet artificial array of pastel colors, a far cry from the appearance of the authentic dreadlock. The dispute over Jacobs’ show crowded social media. Opinions were divided. Some thought Jacobs’ efforts were merely a creative expression of appreciation for the hairstyle while others believed he went a step too far, offensively appropriating African American culture. In response, Jacobs took to Instagram, defensively saying it was “funny”  people don’t “criticize women of color for straightening their hair.” He proceeded to say that he was “sorry to read the so many people were narrow-minded.” In a now-deleted Instagram comment, Jacobs wrote, “I don’t see color or race—I see people.” By Sunday, he had corrected himself and apologized “for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity,” and also added: “Of course I do ‘see’ color, but I DO NOT discriminate. THAT IS A FACT!”

When asked about his inspiration for the dreadlocks look, Jacobs lead stylist, Guido Palau, explained that it was inspired by “certain types of culture, like rave culture, club culture, acid house, Boy George and Marilyn.” He continued by crediting Marc Jacobs for taking “something so street and raw” and making into a “total look.” Palau’s explanation for the dreadlocks is exactly why so many people had a problem with it. Dissenters argue that celebrating another culture becomes problematic and controversial when credit isn’t given where it’s due. Nowhere in Palau’s explanation did he ever mention a person of color. Fashion bloggers such as The Man Repeller turned to their readership to question what Palau meant by the word “street”—was he referring derogatorily to people of color? There is a very fine line between creativity and cultural appropriation.

This isn’t the first time dreadlocks have appeared in the spotlight of media controversy. Just a little over a year ago, African American actress and singer, Zendaya, blasted Fashion Police host, Giuliana Rancic for her comments regarding the actress and singer’s hair—worn as dreadlocks during the 2015 Oscars. Rancic disparagingly said that the dreadlocks made Zendaya look like “she smelled of patchouli oil and weed.” What followed was a lengthy and pointed monologue from the actress/singer herself, along with a substantial amount of  celebrity support. Not to mention, Rancic was badgered ferociously by anyone and everyone on social media, eventually leading to a public apology.

On September 15th, the issues prevalent in the fashion world were codified in a court decision issued by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 3-0 decision, the court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a company that refused to hire a black woman because she wouldn’t cut her dreadlocks.

In 2010, Chasity Jones was hired to work as a customer service representative for Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS). A condition of working for the company required Jones to cut her dreadlocks, which were considered a breach of the company’s grooming policy. When she refused, her job offer was rescinded. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which states that refusal to hire someone over race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is against the law, the EEOC claimed that the actions of CMS constituted racial discrimination.

The court decided to rule against the EEOC, coming to the conclusion that Title VII refers to “immutable traits,” not choices of hairstyles. The court also upheld the company’s interpretation of business professionalism, prompting a slew of critics to respond angrily on social media.

Even as this season’s Fashion Week brought an onslaught of accusations and heated discussion, it also helped destigmatize the standard of beauty in many ways. For instance, the production company FTL Moda employed model and acid attack survivor Reshma Qureshi, in her first trip to the United states, to walk for Indian designer Archana Kochhar. In 2014, Qureshi suffered severe facial burns and lost an eye after being attacked with sulfuric acid by her sister’s ex-husband. She strutted down the runway to promote a ban on the sale of corrosive substances used to wound women and children. Qureshi also walked the runway to send a message of empowerment and bravery to other victims of these attacks in India. This teen’s enthusiasm for participating in such a renowned event was perfectly captured in her own words: she described the day as “…beyond my wildest dreams.”

Qureshi wasn’t the only person to break barriers at this year’s Fashion Week. Designer Anniesa Hasibuan became not only the first Indonesian designer to present her collection at New York Fashion Week, but also the first to present a collection that had every look outfitted with hijabs. Her inspiration came from her hometown, Jakarta. The hijabs were elegantly paired with trousers, suits, kimonos, tunics, and gowns, all in colorful silks and patterns. The purpose of her collection, Hasibuan told the press, was to expose the fashion industry to Indonesian culture. “I want to bring the Indonesian name to the fashion world,”she said, “and use my clothes to introduce people to the different and diverse parts of Indonesia.”

For better or worse, Fashion Week has become platform for social change. The many more shows to come are certain to create buzz around important issues, and with any luck, some productive discussion as well.