When looking at lingerie, I love exploring the designer’s inspiration–but it can also be very revealing of how a designer views the world, for better or for worse. Unfortunately, one thing I’ve noticed a lot recently is the way that many collections from lingerie designers use ‘exotic’ inspiration in a way that is troubling.
Victoria’s Secret is one brand that has been critiqued for their tokenizing use of Japanese and Native American culture and rightly so. The Lingerie Addict has a great article explaining exactly why this is something that you should be upset about. Victoria’s Secret has neither been subtle nor truly apologetic about the way they consistently use the dress, symbols and ideas from non-Western cultures in an exploitative and demeaning manner.
But there are many other designers who I see using ‘inspiration’ as an excuse to treat cultures other than their own as ‘exotic’, using a euro-centric or colonialist attitude in the way they approach and utilize imagery and inspiration that is supposed to come from non-Western cultures or continents.
I recently read this explanation of Marlies Dekkers’ inspiration for her Spring/Summer 2014 collection:
During my research for my fall/winter 2013 collection, The Mauritshuis, I became intrigued by world traveler Johan Maurits and his adventurous appetite to explore the unknown. In his role as a governor he often visited his beloved Brazil and was inspired by the local population, artifacts and wildlife. It became his mission to document all these unidentified exotics and share his findings with the world – a phenomenon known as Brasiliana. Through my designs I want to take you on a magical journey and let you experience these breathtaking discoveries. A fantasy I want to share; my spring/summer 2014 collection: Brasiliana. (Source)
What struck me when I read this paragraph was the way that Marlies Dekkers’ entire to approach to her inspiration seem to romanticize and exoticize her subject matter. The story of the 17th century governor Johan Maurits is so heavily tied to colonialism, focusing on ‘exploring the unknown,’ while discussing places that were known, to the local population. This kind of cultural tourism seems shallow and exploitative, reducing a land full of rich culture and heritage into a colorful collage of ‘discovery.’ The idea of discovery itself, when discussing a land already filled with a rich history and populace of its own, is deeply problematic.
Now, I think Marlies Dekkers is an extremely talented designer and she’s made some beautiful bras. But this attitude makes me not want to shop with her. One of the reasons I wanted to do my ‘Around the World in Lingerie’ posts is because there are so many cool and unexpected ideas happening all over the world and I would love to see more. An attitude in which the rest of the world is just an inspiration all-you-can-eat buffet without history or consequences is no longer acceptable.
Fred & Ginger ‘Arabian Delights’ collection is another example of a using cultural references in a way that felt superficial. The idea of using the ‘Arabian Nights’ as inspiration is not a problem in and of itself. What becomes questionable is the use of ‘Arabian Nights’ to explain a stereotypical portrayal of Arab or Persian culture (the origins of the tales are in fact Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore).
For anyone who had read and engaged with the ‘Arabian Nights’ stories, they would see that they are a diverse and multilayered group of stories from a variety of cultures– creating a lingerie collection that seems to truly draw inspiration from Jasmine in the Aladdin Disney movie makes the ‘Arabian Nights’ inspiration seem like an excuse for some parachute pants and interesting facial appliqués, rather than a true engagement with the text.
One thing I would also add is it is relevant that the lingerie world (including the designers I’ve mentioned here) is overwhelmingly white and European and uses white models in almost everything. A lack of people of color is an issue throughout the lingerie industry, which makes the exotification of other cultures even more of a problem. This can also be seen in the rapant and unapologetic use of the word ‘nude’ to describe a shade only appropriate to white consumers. This matters because it means that there is less question when brands blatantly exploit non-Western cultures– but it also means that those who might otherwise be able to expand and add to the lingerie world in exciting ways are shut out when it becomes clear that there is no effort being made to integrate or engage with diverse influences in a manner that is not condescending or colonialist. One thing I always talk about when it comes to diversity and cultural awareness is the idea of respect. Taking a culture, a place or an experience and reducing it down to a motif is not respect.
If you are an indigenous Brazilian or even simply someone who know Brazil on a more intimate level, how can you possibly take seriously the claims that Marlies Dekker’s Braziliana collection will “take you on a magical journey and let you experience these breathtaking discoveries.” The press release describes it as a ‘fantasy.’ But Brazil, either now or in colonial times, was not a fantasy. And to treat it like a not-real place is not to respect its real culture, history and people. Truthfully, I expect more from designers and companies if I’m going to continue admiring and supporting them.