When Karl Lagerfeld passed away, the fashion press celebrated his ‘controversial genius’1 with a plethora of articles which listed his most contentious designs and statements. In considering examples of his most innovative work—think the sportswear and hip-hop-inspired maximalism of Chanel’s 1991 Autumn/Winter collection, which masterfully subverted the founder’s sartorial vocabulary whilst simultaneously paying homage to it—alongside eyebrow-raising instances of cultural appropriation like the dresses from Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1994 with printed quotes from the Koran, these articles made a tacit statement: that these examples should be considered as equally creative and even, perhaps, as the two sides of the same coin. In doing so, the fashion press was amplifying Lagerfeld’s own thoughts on the matter, which were summed up in 2010 by one of his famous aphorisms: ‘Be politically correct, but please don’t bother other people with conversation about being politically correct, because that’s the end of everything. You want to create boredom? Be politically correct in your conversation.’2
Despite this statement, the designer has usually apologised to those who felt disrespected by his work. This is not by any means an isolated case; from Yves Saint Laurent to Rei Kawakubo and Marc Jacobs, examples of cultural unawareness are historically accompanied by reluctant apologies. These apologies often sound like crocodile tears, in part because they tend to employ PR speak, in part because culprits like Lagerfeld often quickly move on just to stumble upon another cycle of controversy-apology a couple of years later. This overall feeling is amplified by the pervasive omertà of the fashion media at large which, as some commentators have noticed, are happy to publish these stories for clicks yet keep tacitly condoning this kind of behaviour by invoking creative genius or eccentricity to shift focus from the structural issues of the system.3
Sometimes, however, journalists set their usual professional caution aside. In the March issue of Vogue Italia, writer Angelo Flaccavento penned a self-professed ‘rant’ against political correctness in fashion, which he sees as ‘a conformist trap, set in the name of a false respect that is perhaps even more divisive and discriminatory.’4 ‘Awareness,’ he continues, ‘cannot be cultivated by force’ because the creative act is by definition ‘anarchic, boundless, bulimic and incorrect’5 and should therefore elicit outrage. The article was written as a reaction against what Flaccavento sees as the ‘intransigent moralists who raise their shields at the slightest hint of appropriation, whether real or presumed’ and the ‘guard dogs who, in the name of a foolish notion of inclusiveness, impose ridiculous parameters that are merely exercises in censorship.’6
But if fashion designers can and should shock and provoke, isn’t the social media outrage not only to be expected, but also an intrinsic part of increasingly performative fashion conversations as well? And why would fashion designers specifically enjoy unlimited freedom of expression? Who would claim this right next? Artists? TV presenters? Politicians? Do fashion designers really want to be the creative equivalent of Piers Morgan?
More to the point, any claims to censorship in this case sound preposterous given the meaning of the term and its relation to power. The word censorship describes ‘the suppression or prohibition of speech or writing that is deemed subversive of the common good’7 and is usually applied by governments or by those in power positions through laws and regulations. So how can someone who is given a voice in the pages of the most powerful fashion magazine in the world claim that fashion is being censored? And can social media backlash against creative directors at the helm of powerful global brands like Lagerfeld or, more recently, Miuccia Prada and Alessandro Michele, ever be considered an example of censorship?
While creative freedom is essential, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman notes that some social media outrage is equally ‘legitimate’ and that one needs not ‘climb on a politically correct high horse’8 in order to question a designer’s output. Scholar Mathilda Tham once argued in Vestoj that both risk and shame should have a place in fashion and calls for a ‘collective vision … for defining what types of risk sincerely have a place in fashion and which have not.’9
Building on this, I propose that we frame the question not in absolute terms — as in, should fashion be politically correct or politically incorrect? — but rather in terms of risk. We could ask instead: what role can political correctness play in fashion? In doing so, political correctness can help us frame a collective vision and discourse which establish what risks are worth taking to maintain fashion’s provocative, playful, innovative and subversive enfant terrible attitude and what risks are to be considered fashion faux pas — and I am not referring to sporting white after Labour Day.
In my experience of teaching historical and critical studies to fashion students, I have seen first-hand how political correctness can work as a tool for unpicking the system in productive ways. Discussing controversies in the history of post-war fashion for instance — from Dior’s New Look and YSL’s wartime-inspired Libération collection to the poorly-timed 1995 Comme des Garçons show for which Rei Kawakubo was accused of appropriating the concentration camp aesthetic — can become a way for students to think collectively through concepts like creativity, power, representation, and socio-cultural context. The first two examples in particular show students that the term political correctness itself is relatively recent and that, at a time when it did not even exist, designers nonetheless received plenty of criticism, only it was not as immediate and wide-reaching as it is in the age of social media.
In other words, political correctness should be divested of the connotations which politically conservative political discourses have assigned to it in the past couple of decades — let us remember that this is the rhetoric used by those who mock people who fight for the collective good by calling them ‘snowflakes’ and ‘Social Justice Warriors’— and reclaimed instead as a productive tool to discuss the underpinnings of the industry in innovative and forward-thinking ways. After all, I would suggest that when we talk about political correctness in fashion, we are actually having a conversation about the creative constraints and challenges within which fashion operates. Political correctness challenges designers to walk away from the easy temptation of cultural appropriation, to leave their ivory towers and to think outside of the box. As a conceptual tool it forces us to realise that true creativity in fashion flourishes within and because of real-life constraints and that it is these constraints that make us appreciate the magic of fashion even more. Political correctness functions as the moral barometer which helps us distinguish between true creativity and laziness, between innovation and cultural stagnation, between ‘Yas qween!’ and ‘thank u, next.’
Alex Esculapio is a writer as well as a PhD student and lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK.
‘The controversial genius of Karl Lagerfeld,’ BBC News, 20 February 2019. ↩
‘Karl Lagerfeld Quotes,’ Vogue, 19 February 2019. https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/karl-lagerfeld-famous-quotes. ↩
See for instance Lara Witt, ‘Stop mourning oppressors: anti-condolences for Karl Lagerfeld,’ Wear Your Voice Magazine, 19 February 2019. https://wearyourvoicemag.com/culture/anti-condolences-karl-lagerfeld?fbclid=IwAR1D7QGNs1kLbHt2u_nYAL5wIgO0T5UGEq3K2fq4kGy49CnqC4kuPN3zfuM ↩
Angelo Flaccavento, ‘On creative freedom and political correctness,’ Vogue Italia, 13 March 2019. https://www.vogue.it/moda/article/di-liberta-creativa-e-politically-correct ↩
George Anastapio, ‘Censorship,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/censorship#ref58991. ↩
Vanessa Friedman, ‘Should fashion be politically correct?’ The New York Times, 15 October 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/15/fashion/should-fashion-be-politically-correct.html. ↩