Neo-orientalism in fashion - generalisations that lead to racial stereotypes: Alexander McQueen F/W 2000 ‘Eshu‘
It was a show notable for a number of things. Firstly, it was McQueen’s first show in Paris fashion week after having shown his collections exclusively in London fashion week thus far - a symbolic move in itself to a globe that took the art of fashion, of sewing and of creation more seriously. Secondly, it was a show that had been preceded by rumours of bombs or PETA violence because of the shows controversial theme. Most importantly, it was a show that was a continuation and a development of a theme explored in his earlier show ‘Nihilism’ (S/S 1994) and a theme that is still relevant today: the misrepresentation of the ethnic minorities that perpetuate the neo-orientalism so dangerous to the modern mindset.
The collection was inspired by the Yoruba tribe and specifically, by a deity called Eshu that often created conflict to test and teach humans (Alexander McQueen: Evolution by Katherine Gleason, pg.75), and so the collection showed reworked representations of Yoruba clothing including the orthodontic-looking device that pulled a model’s lips apart into a painful-looking rictus (Gleason, pg.76) as shown above. Of the collection, McQueen himself said “[It] was a reaction to designers romanticising ethnic dressing, like the Masai-inspired dress made of materials the Masai could never afford.” (Alexander McQueen by Andrew Bolton, preface pg.III).
When Edward Said wrote his book ‘Orientalism’, he was addressing the motives of colonisation - both economic (as prescribed by Karl Marx) and nationalistic - in shaping the study of the ‘Orient’ or the Middle-eastern/Asian cultures that fundamentally changed the way they were viewed as an ‘other’, creating the alterity that separated the savages from the civilised westerners. To some extent, McQueen’s ironic statement by himself appropriating the Yoruba clothing in extremes addresses the crass commercialisation of culture in the economic motives that have shaped the representation of minorities in fashion. In this way, it is a statement on the Neo-orientalism that has shaped cultural appropriation in fashion as Orientalism shaped western perception in the 1800s, where the profit margin relegates complex cultures to exotic ‘others’, the timelessness of McQueen’s statement underscored by Victoria Secret’s 2013 ‘Sexy Little Geisha’
The question remains, was McQueen successful in separating himself from this movement, even in his self-conscious acknowledgement to it? The meta-fashion that McQueen practices - fashion reflecting on fashion - perhaps saves him through his awareness. I find his obsession with the ‘Noble Savage’ incredibly interesting, and will perhaps explore it more thoroughly in another segment.
written by somethingvain
Santoine: I will always respect A McQueen and his genius. Nevertheless, neo-orientalism is still another reincarnation of the insidious acknowledgement and understanding of non-Western cultures, especially African and Asian cultues (among the most heavily appropriated cultures in fashion).