Rick Owens: purveyor of the alternative leather jacket and arbiter of grunge glamour and Goth chic has gnashed his creative teeth to the swoon and adoration of the fashion glitterati since 2002. His latest Spring/Summer 2014 show at Paris Fashion Week was no exception. With the fashion press and bloggers calling his show “powerful” and “the style statement of the season,” Owens had (almost) everyone applauding his use of mostly black “real sized” women in place of typical runway models.
Indeed it made a refreshing change to see classic looking women in a fashion show as opposed to the twiglike, not-too-far-from-puberty girls we usually see. I will always enjoy seeing black women represented on the catwalk as it is fairly common knowledge that the fashion world and the concept of diversity are not firm friends. However, I feel that although Owens may have thrown black women a bone from the scraps of the fashion table, something about these scraps is a bit hard to swallow.
The women in Owens’ show were a mixture of American university sorority step crews that had been recruited to model the clothes whilst step dancing. Owens reportedly got the idea to use step crews after scanning YouTube and noticing the “grit face” (a scowling, angry facial expression) on several crews, apparently deciding it was like a rejection to “conventional beauty.”
This in itself is problematic. “Grit face” is not adopted by all sorority step crews and is decidedly a battle face when competing against other crews. Was the idea then that these women were competing against the conventional standard of beauty…in a fashion arena…whilst wearing thousand dollar ensembles? If this was the idea, this notion is dubious, as just being black and being seen as beautiful/attractive/acceptable in the first place is tricky without being saddled with the yoke of defying convention. Where was the social education that has the masses suddenly understanding that subtext!?
Without the global understanding of this subtext, “grit face” in a fashion show does little more than perpetuate the stereotype of the Angry/Aggressive Black Woman or ABW. One of the most alluring things about step dancing is the rhythm the dancers create through body percussion, call and response, and stamping. This was lost at the Owens show as nothing could be heard over the incredibly loud industrial music. This left the viewer with images of the women thrashing about and looking “gritty” for seemingly no apparent reason other than them being black women that are just…angry!
As I said earlier, it’s wonderful to see a diversity of women on stage. However, I can’t help but feel that the image of black women stomping down the catwalk with faces contorted in anger looking like they’re out to kill someone, is a perpetuation of the ABW myth that follows black women everywhere. Society has told us black women are erotica or aggressive, certainly not beautiful. As eager as I may be for accurate representation of black women within fashion this is one bone I’m willing to throw back.
Picture ©The Cut
Video ©Ori Rosenthal