October 8, 2012

Just Another Pocahontas Fantasy Story: Critiquing Galliano

In 1998, John Galliano launched his fall collection for Dior that had a distinctive Native influence.

This wasn't the first time Galliano dipped into the Native Inspiration Bucket, but this one was possibly his most extravagant use of the Inspration Dipper.

The collection was titled "A Voyage on the Diorient Express, or the Story of the Princess Pocahontas," and models clad in updated 16th-Century European attire stood next to models covered in remixed Native attire.

In true theatrical Galliano style, the models arrived on a train, and disembarked in royal fashion. Watch the video of it below:

On the first level, we're entertained, it is visually striking, and we think it's unlike anything we've seen before. At first, you notice things and point out single features. "Wow, look at that hat. Check out that bone breastplate. Is that a real Indian?" To me, Native American elements stick out first - I see headdresses, Navajo-inspired blankets, Plains beadwork, Woodlands floral patterns, ribbonwork, Plateau parfleche designs, Plains leather and fringe, Ghost Dance symbolism. It's extravagant. It's striking. It's historic (in the sense that it is inspired by history, but is also making up history).

On a descriptive level, we see Galliano playing the Native Inspiration Card. It happens, Native American cultures are, well, very inspiring. But is his interpretation of Native American cultures an example of misappropriation? Does he misuse Native references? Does he further the misrepresentation of Native cultures in mass media (via the runway)? Or does he do a good job at providing a model for utilizing Native inspiration points?

Galliano explained, "It [the fashion he creates] is a dialogue between past and present. The starting point is usually factual, but we allow our imaginations to run riot. The story happens differently each time. Certain things begin to go around in my head and then we start to embroider on them."

Indeed his pieces are dialoguing with one another. From a 16th Century European perspective, Galliano puts the 'savage' next to the 'civilized.' He puts the 'exotic' next to the 'norm'. The rich jewel-toned color palette seems to blend these diverse elements together, highlighted with striking accents in bright yellow, crisp white, or even silver. But instead of diffusing the perceived boundaries between these categories, Galliano almost reinforces them (see above).

In this collection, Galliano does what he does - he combines ‘cultures, continents and centuries.’ Some critics have suggested that this juxtaposition reduces 'non-European cultures to exotic spectacle.' Of course, for a lofty claim as this, you need some sources, and the Parisian department stores of the past provide Galliano's show with that context - Parisian store owners staged similar window settings that eclectically mixed items from different cultures into an Orientalized 'fantasy bazaar'. See, there's a history of exoticizing non-European cultures in fashion and art, and we need to decide if we want to perpetuate that, or provide a means to express a new vision that doesn't reduce entire communities into one hodge-podge setting, or worse, reduce these communities to mere objects (which is exactly what happens in Galliano's show when you watch the full video here - you see that the 'Native warriors' become moving props for the non-Native women).

With this in mind, Galliano definitely evokes the 'fantasy bazaar' - reinforced by the props at this fashion show: the models arrived on a steam train called Diorient Express. With a nod to Orientalism, we see yet another outsider's interpretation of 'the East,' shaped by attitudes of European imperialism, fantasies of opulence, the charm of the unfamiliar, and the representation of one culture for consumption by another.

The models step out onto a platform decor of imported sands and potted palm trees recalling the East, alongside vintage luggage, bronze platters of spices, and draped textiles. Again, the train, called the Diorient Express, plays off of the Orient Express, which was a long-distance passenger train that was in operation from 1883 to 2009 and counted Paris and Istanbul as prime destinations. The Express became synonymous with luxury travel to enchanting and exotic locales. These ideas of opulence (and capitalist excess) and exoticism is highlighted in the nipple-baring models below, who are pictured wearing over-sized Renaissance dress.

Interestingly, after the Native-inspired dresses, there was a parade of Renaissance looks: ornate royal Henry VIII influences, pageboy styles with billowing bloomers, heavily embellished jackets with mutton sleeves and lamb-chop frills, and floppy musketeer hats with plumes - all items of which confused some fashion critics. For me, I was left thinking, "What happened to the Indians?"

The juxtaposition of European influences with Native American influences is interesting - this collection, as noted, is inspired by history. In some of the designs (such as above) the 1800s are invoked. Chaste Victorian fashion was in vogue, and Western industrialism hit a peak and thousands of miles of railroad tracks were laid, effectively 'opening' the western frontier for thousands of American white settlers. It was a very dark time in Native American history. The way Galliano's work depicts this 'opening' of the west is rather crass (see above right). Ideas swirl in my head tying women with the land, and sexual violence against Native women, and the 'rape' of the land and of her resources. It is all rather convoluted - but by this point, it is clear that Galliano is telling this story from a distinctive perspective that perpetuates the misappropriation, misuse, and misrepresentation of Native American people and their cultures.

One final point, some of the representations at this fashion show are of Native American sacred clothing. We know about the headdress issue because we've read about it here and here, so we know that this component of his show is a fail, but, if you look closer, you can also see references to Ghost Dance dresses (at about the 1:23 minute mark, and pictured below):

The Ghost Dance dress was a central item in the religion of the same name, which saw the return of the buffalo, the return of our murdered ancestors, and the departure of the white man. The old ways would come back, and this dress was imbued with so much power that it was seen as being bullet proof. However, the Indian dancing and singing that accompanied the Ghost Dance movement struck an intense fear in the settlers that ultimately resulted in the horrific Wounded Knee massacre in which over 150 Native people were brutally murdered. Therefore I believe strongly that the Ghost Dance dress symbols should never be replicated by a non-Native person to promote their own business for profit.

Ok, so you've heard my description, analysis, interpretation, and my judgment of this collection and show, but is there anything to gain from my perspective on this fashion show that happened nearly 15 years ago? What do you think of it? In all honesty, when I first saw the image at the start of this essay I was captivated by Galliano's presentation of a parfleche hoop dress! In my head, I thought "This guy is placing Native inspired couture next to European inspired couture - rock on," and I would have been content if he did this kind of 'thinking outside of the box' for the entire show (such as the way he thought about the cape that Linda Evangelista wore, or the rainbow-hued military-cut jacket), but after watching the fashion show, and seeing the other photo spreads from this collection, I became more critical and couldn't blindly accept what he was presenting as an entire package.

At first I thought he had done a great job at remixing Native inspirations, but after further investigation, I discovered that he's just playing with the same old tropes and presenting the same biased perspective on our histories. After all, it's just another Pocahontas fantasy story.

Click here and here and here to read more. All images from here.

Total side note: Galliano is no stranger to controversy, and in 2011, Dior announced that it had suspended Galliano following his arrest over an anti-Semitic tirade in a Paris bar.