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English Scandal of the month

Shelley’s art scandal – Gucci Jumper in Racial Slur

Art comes in many forms, and by the sheer definition art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, so it makes sense that the world of art would encompass fashion.  I don’t usually lean to the world of fashion for an art scandal, as I would be writing an article every other week if that was the case, but this one really caught my attention.

During the autumn/winter season of 2018, Gucci released a jumper which seemed gathered social media attention at an alarming rate.

It seems crazy that 98 years after the first Gucci shop was opened, by its founder Guccio, known for their craftsmanship in leather goods, would now be held to account on something that could send ripples of assumed racism through networks such as twitter.

The item in question is for all intents and purposes a black jumper, but it has been designed to cover half the face, with a cut-out mouth, adorned with red lips.

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Immediately this threw me back to images of “Golliwogs” that would be displayed on marmalade jars, this character was eventually boycotted in 1988, and use of the image ceased.

It seems that people on social media felt exactly the same way, likening the jumper to images of “Blackface”.

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This reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from “white” to “black”.

Before I really get into the jumper saga, I wanted to give some context as to why this is so controversial.

Blackface around since the 1500s and then later the Golliwog coming about at the back end of the 1800s was the embodiment of the time of how people originating from Africa were a form of intrigue and entertainment across the western world.

Blackface was routinely depicted by white people who painted their faces in black with large red lips, to appear on stage or in pictures.  Blackface really came to the forefront of performance in 1769 in New York, when a version of “The Padlock” was staged and a character called “Mungo” was displayed in this way.  Due to the attracted attention, other performers too this style on which later led to shows such as “The Black and White Minstrel Show” and Al Johnson’s performance in “The Jazz Singer”.

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Singer and actor Al Jolson wearing blackface in the musical film The Jazz Singer

Later Florence Kate Upton would come up with the Golliwog, which would appear in children’s books and become the logo for James Robertson & Sons jam, but would also be used as an image to promote anything from chocolate to perfume.

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Florence Kate Upton’s Golliwog in formal minstrel attire in The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog in 1895

Changes in political views, have pushed these icons into the arena of racism, due to the imitation of race and the terminology used.  Let’s face it, these are pretty ugly representations of people at best, and the colour of skin shouldn’t denote any difference in people, so the rise in awareness can only be a good thing, although it seems crazy to think that these images and performances were still mainstream in the 1980s, showing how close to present-day that this was still thought of as acceptable.

With all this in mind, let’s go back to that jumper.  It is very easy to see how the public who remember this iconography well made the jump from a poorly designed jumper to the racist slur.

In February 2019, twitter picked up on this, as Black History month was in motion, with comments on twitter referring to the jumper.

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Some put this down to sheer racism, where others felt that this was a lack of diversity within the Gucci workforce.  The attention was a force to be reckoned with, to the point that Gucci withdrew the item… not that I can see why anyone would want to wear a jumper over their face, regardless of whether it has been deemed racist or not.  It was said that the idea behind the jumper had originated from the ski balaclava, and was designed to add an air of mystery to the catwalk.

Gucci later apologised publicly and pulled the jumper from its collection with a statement: –

 “We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make. We are fully committed to increasing diversity throughout our organisation.”

They went on to say how this would be a powerful learning tool for their team in how to fully commit to increasing diversity.

Gucci art, not the only company to fall foul of this faux pas, with brands such as Prada and Dolce and Gabbana creating items which led to accusations of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation has always been routed in aesthetics, which is why artists, fashion designers, the tv and film industry run the gauntlet as the mix of cultures within communities becomes ever more diverse.

Does this make it right to present something that can be very offensive to cultures…no it doesn’t.  There are very few excuses on this subject for Gucci with the exception of poor judgement and lack of socialisation of a design prior to production.  Do I think that this was done intentionally as a narrow-minded attack on culture, again no?  Creative people tend to get carried away with design, and I would think that this went from a very innocent design in a range of colours, to something that was created in perhaps just the one colour to cut costs, and that colour happened to be black because it is the popular choice.

Needless to say, I don’t think we will be seeing this item in the Gucci hall of fame, and I would think that this scandalous item will make their designers rethink their approach to the displays that they put on the catwalk.

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