Fashion is a distinguished art form. It requires not only talent but also an insightful perspective that can transform clothing from a material good into a critical means of expression. There is, however, a thin line between analytical irony and cynicism, one that many designers are dismissing. While art schemes are supposed to bring fresh perspectives to the table, this should not turn into an excuse for stylists to act disdainfully cool and above it all.
Earlier this month, a Brazilian clothing line made headlines when it revealed a T-shirt with artwork depicting black slaves serving white women. The brand claimed that its outfits were inspired by the paintings of Jean-Baptiste Debret. The artist in question was part of the French Artistic Mission in Brazil — a group which came to the country in the early 19th century to portray its social reality. This dark period in Brazil’s history included widespread slavery, and most of Debret’s paintings portray this era. While fashion as an art form should criticize societal behavior, mass production of a slave-patterned T-shirt is not analytical. It is blatantly insensitive and propagates the idea that these scarring social issues should not be taken seriously, even when the impact of this old practice is so prominent.
This disregard in the world of fashion was also present during New York Fashion Week when the Italian brand Moschino presented its collection featuring pills as its main pattern. When the media called out the brand’s distasteful behavior, a spokesperson said that the collection was based on word play of the fashion term, “capsule collection.” Apparently, if a clothing line is acclaimed by Vogue, then the real-world consequences of these fashions can be ignored; prescription drug abuse is a massive problem. Randy Anderson, a drug and alcohol counselor from Minneapolis, denounced the show, arguing that tens of thousands of people die each year from overdoses, and he is right. By taking advantage of real issues that affect so many lives, designers — and the publications that cover them — are revealing their nonchalant attitudes toward troubling trends.
There is no denying that fashion is one of the most influential art forms of our generation, but it should also encourage reflection. When an indelicate topic is mass-produced onto outfits, no such benefit is seen. There is a constructive way to highlight issues of the day in fashion that can make audiences think, react and discuss, but doing so just for the sake of raising profits is shameful. Designers should be sensible and conscious when approaching controversial and delicate issues. They also need to realize that the influence of their clothing lines extend far beyond the runway, and it is incredibly important to shape this influence responsibly.
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