Has Fashion's Freedom of Expression Gone Too Far?

“Slave Earrings.” That is what Italian Vogue labeled as the “must-have” fashion accessory for this season. An article on the magazine’s website shockingly suggested that its readers take inspiration from “the decorative traditions of the women of color who were brought to the southern United States during the slave trade.” Unsurprisingly, the piece ignited a wave of criticism and a full-blown attack on the magazine’s Twitter page.

During this year’s New York City Fashion Week, designers from all over the world have promoted their clothing and accessories. Michael Kors’ beautiful collection took inspiration from African traditions and Donna Karen also used tribal prints in many of her pieces. But the state of modern design should be questioned when accessories branded as “slave earrings” are fashionable. It is important to examine how fashion has evolved to the point where labels, such as these, have become acceptable.

Italian Vogue was, without inhibition or consideration, dragging one of history’s most atrocious acts out from the past and throwing it onto catwalks in the form of a glittering and a glossy autumn/winter trend. “Jewelry has always flirted with circular shapes, especially for use in making earrings. The most classic models are the slave and Creole styles in gold hoops,” wrote author and fashion Editor Anna Bassi, who later defended the piece by saying that “this latest interpretation is pure freedom.”

Readers were infuriated with the seemingly unapologetic manner in which the piece was written. One commenter explained, “African women were not 'brought' to the U.S.; they were captured, raped, beaten and taken against their will in chains.”

Campaigners were enraged, calling for the piece to be instantly removed. Vogue did not remove the piece. Instead, they begrudgingly changed the word “slave” to “ethnic.”

This was by no means the first time Vogue has caused controversy in its campaigns. In 2008, the company held an infamous fashion shoot in the heart of Mumbai’s slums. Images included that of an elderly gentleman standing amongst the settings of his meager home, holding a Burberry umbrella worth approximately $250. Another picture displays a family of three riding on one motorbike with the mother in the picture posing with a Hermes Birkin bag, which retails at about $10,000. 

It seems likely that viewers could have respected these images as something more than a crude capitalization of those living in poverty. Perhaps they would be seen as a bold and gripping display of juxtapositions; a political reminder that the gap between rich and poor in India is growing faster than ever, or maybe just a message about the unhealthy voyeurism people take from seeing the distress of others.

Yet, the comments made by Vogue India Editor Priya Tanna did nothing to counter concerns. She exclaimed that people should “lighten up” as “we weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world.” And, of course, no one expects them too. But is there not simply a question of taste and decency when placing someone who lives on $1.25 a day in accessories by Fendi, Gucci and Alexander McQueen? Heather Timmons of the New York Times, who had initially reported on this issue, drew attention to the fact that the people in these pictures were not even named. “Instead, Vogue names the brands of the accessories in the captions, and says they are worn by a lady or a man.”

These were not images to be purely observed, they were an advertisement, a call to purchase. It seems only fair to say that, by making “slave earrings” cool and the slums of Mumbai the set of a glittering fashions show, Vogue unreservedly tried to glamorize poverty, racism, and exploitation as a means of commercial success.

It is difficult to accept Bassi’s comments that these expressions are “pure freedom.” Many will argue that fashion, like art, knows no bounds and that political correctness has no place. Modern art is a lucrative sector, but it does not work on the mass scale that the fashion industry does. Art can be created for creation’s sake, whereas fashion remains a commercial entity too closely tied with advertising for images like these to be acceptable.

Photo Credit: Tammy Manet

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Jessica Sarhan

Jessica Sarhan is a Deputy News Editor for Al Jazeera English, and is based in Doha, Qatar. Before joining Al Jazeera, she worked as a Deputy Foreign Editor for Sky News in London and reported for various publications across the Middle East. Having lived in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the U.A.E., Thailand, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. – she has certainly got the travel bug and has developed a real passion for women's rights and international women's development along the way.

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