should fashion always be politically correct?
Last week I came across an opinion piece ‘The Age of Political Correctness Will Kill Great Fashion’ by Eugene Rabkin (published on Highsnobiety, the online fashion media platform). The thrust of his piece argues that our widespread disgust at recent racism scandals (like Prada’s blackface keyring) will ultimately deprive fashion brands of their artistic freedom. Today’s designers are so fearful of overstepping the boundaries of moral and political acceptability, it has placed unjust restrictions on their creative output. A designer’s position as autonomous creator or ‘auteur’ has been severely compromised.
If a fashion collection is seen as offensive or politically incorrect, there will be legions of commentators poised to take them down (or in social media speak ‘cancel’ them) in the most public way. For Rabkin this general climate of censorship and the democratisation of fashion is becoming the enemy of creativity. With Instagram watchdogs such as the now-infamous Diet Prada biting at the heels of designers who step out of line, he predicts there will eventually be a retreat to mundane, easily-palatable fashion collections.
I remember Marc Jacobs addressing these same issues during a debate with Edward Enninful at the Oxford Union back in 2017. Having faced criticism for culturally appropriating dreadlocks in his SS16 catwalk show, Jacobs admitted that it was an important lesson about exercising sensitivity. But he also cautioned: “I think it's very dangerous to say: ‘You can't use this, you can't look at that, you can’t borrow from that, you can't be inspired by that’. “You know, ‘stay in your own lane’. I don't really understand that mentality and I think it's a very dangerous way of thinking.”
Whilst I agree with the value of artistic license, Rabkin’s suggestion that our outrage towards recent racism scandals could be confused with “smug moral superiority” is seriously a step too far. The right to offend isn’t the marker of a great fashion collection when it marginalises and hurts a vast number of people. This doesn’t serve anyone and by accepting it, we only normalise these discriminatory ideas. Within fashion design, there are infinite creative possibilities so, in my view, the concept of reigniting archaic, discriminatory motifs (such as the blackface) is the very opposite of creative innovation.
Additionally, I think the statement that designers must be politically correct is incredibly illuminating. It exposes the lack of diversity in positions of creative authority. If there were more minorities in these creative roles, fashion brands wouldn’t need to be spending money on what Rabkin refers to as “apologies”, “lip service in the form of ‘diversity councils’” and damage control PR. We need more representation in positions of creative decision making, so these scandals never occur in the first place. It’s not about curtailing creative freedom, it’s about changing the artistic point of view.
Instead of deriding what the writer suggests is a destructive “climate of censorship” and “design by committee”, we should be focusing on fashion’s potential for inclusivity because what’s more revolutionary than that?