December 17, 2014

Ralph Lauren's "assimilation aesthetic"

Assimilation Aesthetic

By Ruth HopkinsImagine my horror this morning, upon discovering Ralph Lauren’s latest venture. Let’s call it Assimilation Era Chic.

Old portraits of Native men from the Allotment and Assimilation Era (1887–1943) are displayed like cover models among Ralph Lauren’s latest line for the 2014 Holiday season. I did a double take for an instant, because one of the men pictured looked like my ancestor.

Hopkins explains what's wrong with this:Mr. Lauren, these stylish Native men in your pictures are not your employees, nor your slaves. They lived. They have names. They come from a proud lineage of Native peoples older than America. Each warrior pictured is someone’s grandfather, and I guarantee they suffered mightily just to survive the genocidal holocaust European invaders inflicted upon them. Why do they look so stoic? They were brave Native warriors who witnessed the massacre of innocents, had their lands stolen from them, and faced an uncertain future after the Federal government broke every treaty they ever made with Native nations in this country. They were fighting for the survival of our kind.

What many people alive today fail to realize is Natives of the Assimilation Era wore western clothes because they were forced to do so. We were hunted by cavalry soldiers and made to give up our freedom and live on reservations. Our culture and language was ripped from us. Our ceremonies and religious practices were declared illegal. My own father and uncles, who were torn from their mother’s embrace and put in boarding school, were mercilessly beaten for speaking their Native tongue. They didn’t want to wear itchy woolen vests and tight narrow shoes made for white children. They had no choice. The fashion Ralph Lauren glorifies arose from oppression.
Adrienne Keene notes more problems with the ads:

Keene: Dear Ralph Lauren, Our Ancestors Are Not Your Props!

By Dr. Adrienne KeeneCultural appropriation takes away our symbols, our art and our designs, and with it, takes away our power over our cultural markers. This is dangerous, because not only is it blatantly disrespectful to the places, people, and traditions these images come from, it continues the colonial mentality that Native peoples, lands, and traditions are free for the taking.

We become commodities—objects that can be bought and sold. I mean, the heading of this page says “featured stock,” referring to the clothing, but when there are images of Native people right next to the $265 headdress t-shirt, it’s hard to separate the people from the products. Additionally, when the word is “stock,” one can’t help but think of animals (or slaves) for sale.

There’s also this piece that I can’t quite put my finger on, and don’t know if I can adequately express. The photos are all men in (mostly) western clothing, with “tribal” accents here and there. I feel like there is a subtext here of “civilizing”—even the “wild Indians” can look dignified in these clothes. You can have your Americana aesthetic without the savage overtones! It just reminds me of the "Tom Torlino—Navajo" photograph, which is representative of the cultural genocide of government boarding schools.

Finally, there is the economic piece at play here. Look at the prices. A $265 T-shirt featuring a sacred headdress, a $1,300 plaid coat, $400 sweaters—and all of this money is going straight to building Lauren’s personal wealth and empire, none of it is going to the communities he is directly exploiting to sell his product. How American of him: seeing Natives as inherently disposable and exploitable, and using Native resources to build his personal wealth, while simultaneously yearning for the romanticized past when Natives roamed the plains, and ignoring his own complicity in the ongoing settler colonial project. Pretty much the story of the United States.

Ralph Lauren backs off

Ralph Lauren apologizes for Native American ads

By Sarah LeTrentRalph Lauren's 2014 holiday ad campaign for its RRL line was raked over the coals on social media this week for its "assimilation aesthetic," featuring what appear to be antique photos of stoic Native Americans dressed in Western attire.

Now, the company is apologizing for the imagery and has since removed the images from its website.

"Ralph Lauren has a longstanding history in celebrating the rich history, importance and beauty of our country's Native American heritage," the company said in a statement. "We recognize that some of the images depicted in the RRL look book may have caused offense and we have removed them from our website."

Ruth Hopkins, a contributor to the site Last Real Indians, took issue with the campaign's use of Native Americans, claiming that the imagery is not only ignorant, it's a harsh reminder of a time of extreme oppression, and even genocide, for the nation's indigenous people.
Celine Cooper: Withdrawn Ralph Lauren advertising had used offensive images of Native Americans

By Celine CooperLast week, American company Ralph Lauren debuted its Double RL & Co 2014 holiday line of clothing. The website campaign didn’t feature the usual doe-eyed teenagers wearing tweed hats and polo shirts. Nope. Instead, the advertisement was organized around old sepia portraits of Native American men and women, unsmiling and wearing Western clothes, from the Allotment and Assimilation Era in the United States as its cover models (presumably without the permission of their descendants). Beside their images was Ralph Lauren’s “New Stock” of holiday clothes—cargo pants, wool jackets, button-down shirts and purses.

Thankfully, Ralph Lauren, that doyen of classic Americana, was immediately met with an online campaign against the company’s questionable “assimilation aesthetic.” (You can read the outrage on the Twitter hashtag #BoycottRalphLauren).

The online activism worked. On Friday, the company took down the images. Although they didn’t offer an actual apology, they did release the following statement: “We recognize that some of the images depicted in the RRL look book may have caused offense and we have removed them from our website.”

Offence, indeed. Here’s the thing. What Ralph Lauren wants to sell is not the actual history of America, but an idea about America, a certain nostalgia and patriotism. Their ads were meant to evoke a pioneering spirit; the outpost, the frontier where natives were tamed and the Wild West was won. Cowboys and Indians. Classic Americana, that.
A previous Ralph Lauren problem:Jessica Deer ‏@Kanhehsiio
Ralph Lauren is one of those repeat offenders of cultural appropriation. Stumbled upon this gross stuff in Feb.

And Indians from that era who weren't modeling Ralph Lauren:

Yes, He's Handsome--But He's Not Your Model. 25 Photos of Natives in European Dress

The stereotype here is that Indians were willing participants in a 19th-century fashion revolution. That they would've sat and posed for pictures to help Ralph Lauren sell its goods.

For more on the subject, see Ralph Lauren's Fetishistic Native Collection.

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