Appropriation in Fashion

“Have I ever showed you my little blackamoor heads from Cartier with their enameled turbans?”, the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland wrote in her memoir D.V. “Baba Lucinge and I used to wear them in rows and rows…they were the chic of Paris in the late thirties.” Baba Lucinge, a French aristocrat, model, and ‘it-girl’ of 1920s and interwar period France, was known for incorporating negrophilic exoticism into her personal style. Cecil Beaton wrote, “Baba…was the first to bring into fashion the exotic, simian grace of the jungle and thereby created an astonishing effect of originality.” Baba and Diana were on the vanguard of drawing selectively from their visions of Africanity and blackness, and incorporating items like Cartier blackamoor brooches into their wardrobes. “I was covered in blackamoors!”, Vreeland exclaimed. 

Sometimes blackamoors appeared in decorative arts, as evidenced in a photo of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, posing between two life-size blackamoor statues in this 1937 photo by famed fashion photographer Cecil Beaton [Fig. 1]. Sometimes blackamoors were used in costume jewelry, but more often made with precious metal and stones. For that reason, they survive in many permanent collections, and still make it on the marketplace by way of antique dealers and auction sites. An example would be a pair of vintage 18k carat gold Cartier blackamoor brooches, adorned with several diamonds and pearls and selling for $34,500 on 1stdibs, an online luxury marketplace [Fig. 2]. These brooches, which were manufactured in 1930, are relics from a not-so-distant past when it was acceptable to exploit the image of people of African descent in this manner. Though artifacts of a bygone era, the commodification of blackness can still fetch top dollar. 

The ornamental use of blacks in European luxury fashion and decorative arts continues to appear periodically. Take, for example, Dolce & Gabbana’s infamous Spring/Summer 2013 collection, in which images of blackamoors were featured prominently on jewelry and clothing [Fig. 3]. Or, when Princess Michael of Kent, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, wore a blackamoor brooch to a Christmas banquet at Buckingham Palace [Fig. 4]. Her wearing the brooch was particularly egregious, considering she was attending the event with the soon-to-be Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, who self-identifies as a woman of African descent.

Details

Re-appropriation in Art

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'ReSignifications' (Academic Year 2014-2015), Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy

Villa La Pietra was acquired by New York University from the Italo-British Acton family in 1994. The Acton family were extensive collectors of American and European art, as well as a vast collection of decorative arts that used blackamoors. Since the acquisition, the school has hosted a number of academic conferences like “Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging Histories” and exhibitions as creative interventions such as ReSignifications. Curated by Awam Amkpa, artists included in the exhibition include Omar Victor Diop, Joanne Petit-Frere, Hank Willis Thomas, and Mary Sibande.

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Fred Wilson, 'Beauty and Ugliness'

Conceptual artist Fred Wilson is best known for his groundbreaking exhibition, Mining the Museum, which paired decorative objects that you would typically find in a museum against explicitly racist relics from the Maryland Historical Society’s permanent collection. Since then, his practice has focused on using physical objects to force viewers to rethink the relationship between race, power, and material culture. At the 2003 Venice Biennale and at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2004, Wilson continued this exploration by tacking the enduring presence of blackamoors in traditional art spaces. He reappropriated the figure of blackamoor to disrupt the way we think critically about the construction of beauty and ugliness.

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Lyle Ashton Harris, 'Blackamoor Study #2'

In the great tradition of black artists putting their bodies on the line for the sake of their art, Lyle Ashton Harris often appears nude in his photographs. In this piece that he created for ReSignifications, he appears alongside three other nude black models in a room at La Pietra that is filled with blackamoors. By juxtaposing real black male bodies against facsimiles of them, Harris reminds us that representations of people of African descent have consequences on actual black people. 

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Titus Kaphar, 'Shifting the Gaze'

Kaphar was inspired by the 1648 painting by Dutch painter Frans Hals, who painted an unidentified black boy into the shadowy background of a white family’s portrait. In Kaphar’s Shifting the Gaze, the family is whited out, literally shifting the gaze to the black boy. Here, Kaphar plays around with memory, willful omission, and historical reversal and revisionism. Kaphar forces us to confront the identity of a figure who, like many figures who appear in European portraiture, have been silenced–if not erased–from the historical record.

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References

Bindman, David, Henry Louis Gates, Karen C. C. Dalton, and W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African African American Research Owner. The Image of the Black in Western Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018).

Shohat, Ella. “The Specter of the Blackamoor: Figuring Africa and the Orient.” The Comparatist 42 (2018): 158-88. 

Vreeland, Diana. D.V. (New York: Knopf, 1984), 53-54.