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Tactless is as tactless does

13/03/2012

In August 2011, vogue.it, the Vogue Italia website, featured photos of over-large gold earrings with a breathless burst of copy by Anna Bassi describing the trend:

Jewellery has always flirted with circular shapes, especially for use in making earrings. The most classic models are the slave and creole styles in gold hoops. If the name brings to the mind the decorative traditions of the women of colour who were brought to the southern Unites [sic] States during the slave trade, the latest interpretation is pure freedom.

This triggered a barrage of furious emails and tweets, condemning Vogue Italia for a “disgraceful” attempt to “glamorise slavery”. A furious Facebook page was launched. Anna Bassi’s private email address was published.

Inevitably, given the guiding principles of this blog, Vogue Italia’s editor in chief, Franca Sozzani, excused herself thus: “We apologise for the inconvenience. It is a matter of really bad translation from Italian into English. The Italian word, which defines those kind of earrings, should instead be translated into ‘ethnical style earrings’.”

The fashion press distinguished itself in similar fashion in 2010, when Michelle Obama wore this pale dress to a White House state dinner in honour of Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister. The Associated Press report referred to the colour as “flesh”, which it revised after a barrage of internet cat-calls along the lines of: “Whose flesh? Not hers!” To be fair to AP, even the designer of the dress, Naeem Khan, had described it as “a sterling-silver sequin, nude strapless gown”. “Nude” has been lazily appropriated to describe neutral, pastel shades but, in the matter of race in fashion, “nude” is hardly neutral. While we’re on the topic, look at those earrings.

This all reminds me of the American journalist who interviewed Nelson Mandela, and asked him for his considered opinion of something or other “as an African-American”. There was a brief, embarrassed silence while the proud and dignified Zulu considered this refreshingly novel description of his ethnic heritage.

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