“Urban” Is the New Black

I love fashion. I love it for the personal stories it tells and the cultural histories that it holds. I love its dynamic ability to be both a singular, yet shared experience. Fashion can be revolutionary, and fashion can be great. I am not however a fan of the industry’s relationship with persons of color, appropriation and how popular media outlets facilitate and exacerbate cultural exoticism.

Season after season, designers draw inspiration both from themselves and from others. Even the most surprising collections bring back patterns and silhouettes of seasons past, drawing on themes from art, landscapes and lived (or imagined) experiences. It is only when this inspiration rests on the difference and unfamiliarity of outside cultures, nations and identity groups that it can become problematic.

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Between pop stars in bindis, fashion folk in turbans and festival queens in false native headdresses, Vogue is hardly the first major content producer to exoticize and rewrite the narrative of a particular cultural facet. But it is one of the most visible. In an article published both online and in print this past September, writer Patricia Garcia focused on the popularization of female butts in popular media. Garcia mentions names like Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, but only when sandwiched between the validity delivered by names like Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and “belfie” queen Jen Selter. What’s concerning about her story is the assumption that these bodies and body types never existed and were never a desirable standard of attractiveness to begin with.

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I’d like to believe that the fashion industry isn’t completely incapable of reflecting diversity and inclusivity in a positive way. Trying to rebuke and condemn the industry as a whole would skirt around the issue entirely. What is in question is the way that the public and media thinks and talks about beauty/fashion and race. A successful example of the two is this past fall’s DKNY S/S RTW show. The theme: New York Nation. The hair: braided and baby haired à la Chili of TLC. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the model roster: noticeably not whitewashed. In an interview with Essence magazine, runway hairstylist Eugene Souleiman was clear that he “wanted to create a look that reflected the different New York mix of urban cultures, celebrated racial diversity…”

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Still, the case of Vogue is not an isolated incident. In an article released by LA Times, writer Ingrid Schmidt reports on runway trends straight from Fashion Week’s spring/summer catwalks. In it, she discusses the wearability of fall’s biggest hair trends with commentary from LA hairstylist Jon Reyman. Cornrows were among the “trends” discussed for the upcoming season. Schmidt identifies Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart as wearers of the trend, and even goes so far as to highlight Madeline Brewer, Tricia Miller on Orange Is the New Black, as “another forerunner of the trend.” Not once in a total of about five examples does Schmidt mention a woman of color.

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Her hair expert, Reyman, even takes the time to point out that “[c]ornrows are moving away from, urban, hip-hop to more chic edgy.” He makes this clear distinction with implication that the concepts of “chic” and “edgy” can in no way coincide with the blackness. Reyman goes on to specify that “[j]ust one one cornrow or a couple on the side is really cool, but they have to be on the right person with the right clothing…[someone] looking for that Elizabethan or ‘Game of Thrones’ edginess.” Someone white.

A more recent feature on from NYLON’s, showed the magazine’s Editor in Chief Michelle Lee in a Hair How-to for “Punk Braids.” MTV Fora, MTV Canada’s style platform also jumped on the trend-driven bandwagon with a cleverly titled “The Braidy Bunch.” In it, members of the site’s staff and editorial team flaunt intricately braided hairstyles and slow motion hand signs. The obvious juxtaposition of their hair and dance moves, accompanied by alternative ambient pop, creates an obvious contrast. The style is then interpreted as edgy and alternative. But edgy and alternative to what? A Eurocentric beauty standard.

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We’re at a critical point in US race relations when we have to start asking why is it ‘okay’ to exhibit marginalized interpretations of beauty and blackness only once they are with appropriated into white media. Appreciation and appropriation straddle a fine line, but when the words ‘black’ and ‘blackness’ are scarcely present in conversation, then where do these histories and people go? Style choices viewed as characteristically black are almost always described as ‘urban’ or ‘street,’ [Note:Souleiman’s use of the word does not fall into these generalizations]. This would have been fitting when a majority of black faces were confined to living in large cities (due to economic and political circumstances), but a supposedly ‘post-racial’ society a rejection of the words ‘”black” and “blackness” become a denial of black bodies and blackness in itself. “Urban” is laden with negative associations between class and race.

Blackness, and non-whiteness in general, shouldn’t be reduced to an accessory simply for the sake of easily digestible fashion. It’s not a costume that can be worn at will and taken when convenient or some trendy knockoff you can try on for a spin and return to Forever 21 when you decide it doesn’t fit right. If fashion producers and media makers want to successfully create frameworks of diversity and inclusion, we at least have to answer to the responsibility of acknowledging and naming where these differences come from.

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