Milan Fashion Week 2015 or 19th Century Blackface Theatre?

Fashion is the industry that never ceases to amaze and cause controversy. From its cutting edge designs that showcase brilliance and talent to its drug and eating disorder scandals. This year we have seen some great designer collections at the New York Fashion Week, London Fashion Week and Milan Fashion Week. So far, nothing has sparked more debate around the Internet and fashion spheres than the Milan Fashion Week. Specifically, Italian designer Claudio Cutugno.

On February 24, Claudio Cutugno held his runway for the Milan Fashion Week. For this fashion week, Cutugno decided that he was going to go with an all black theme. In light of that theme, he went about covering the faces of his models with glittery black paint. It is here where our controversy rests.

As soon as the fashion show went live and these models stepped onto the runway, many noted the similarities between the paint of the models and the 19th century Blackface theatre. Blackface refers to a practice beginning in the 19th century during which White actors would blacken their face with paint and exaggerate their lips in order to resemble African American plantation workers at the time. The actors would exploit the stereotypes of “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” and “dandy coon”. The practice became extremely popular in American theatre and extended into places such as Great Britain, Germany and even Australia. The practice formally ended in the United States during the 1960s Civil Rights movement and has grown to be seen as representative of White supremacy, slavery and injustice.

Man in Blackface costume.

Since the presentation of the fashion show, there was a media outcry with writers and reporters everywhere condemning the runway show for glamorizing racism. A writer for Bustle wrote “I’m all for unique and interesting styles that command attention – but come on, you can hardly see the models’ faces. Not to mention that this is literally blackface, which is, you know, racist.”

Italian designer, Claudio Cutugno between two models wearing his 2015 MFW collection.

The designer recently responded to the accusations and tells E! News:

“I think is a pleasure to have the chance to answer the criticism about the make up I decided to use. Anyway just to be clear: the collection was inspired by Emilio Isgrò artworks. He was literally erasing parts of the text of some books, he was putting some black ink on top on some words he wanted to erase so to let some words come out from the text and be underlined. As well as this, in ancient Greek, the meaning of the words that were underlined was related to the tradition of wearing black veils around the heads when women needed to say goodbye to their husbands. This also today is a tradition which in Sicily is used when women go to burials. So the black make up we decided to use was actually a translation of the black veil. I chose not to use the real veil because I did not want to cover the whole faces of the models. I did not even wanted to refer to the bees Isgrò is using in his artworks: someone said I wanted to represent the faces “as they would have been swarmed by bees” but to me that idea would have not been cohesive with the whole creative process behind the collection and above all pretty cruel. I am extremely sorry if many people thought this make up would result offensive and also that I am racist, but that was not my intent. I am extremely respectful of the afroamerican culture and extremely sorry for each type episode of racism. Furthermore my inspiration was coming from a completely different idea which has nothing to do with the theme of afroamerican culture. I would have never tought someone could have find the make up offensive, otherwise I would have never used it.”

It would seem as though the designer had no idea that what he would do would be taken as offensive by some of his spectators. Which leads me to my next question, has racism been taken too far by media outlets? Have we become so enveloped in the idea of racism that we see it everywhere, even where it does not exist? When we examine a situation we must examine it in the context of where it is taking place. Blackface originated in America and then spread to parts of Europe, but never really took on in Italy. The Italians have little to no experience with Blackface. So, is it really fair that we hold this designer accountable for something that he had no knowledge of beforehand? Ignorance is not an excuse, but this might just be the exception. Claudio has had other experiences that have thusly shaped his perception of things. Just as we Americans have had certain experiences that have shaped our perception of things. While we might see something as offensive, others around the world who have had different experiences will see them differently. Claire Sulmers of has put it perfectly, “Is this dark paint on the face? Yes. But is he mocking African American culture, or using black paint in place of a black person? No.”

What do you think?


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