Dolce & Gabbana’s ‘Blackamoor’ Earrings and the Commodification of Culture
Dolce & Gabbana made a splash when presenting their Spring 2013 collection recently, sparking controversy with their usage of Blackamoors—figurines depicting black Africans used in sculpture, jewelry, armorial designs and decorative art. The figurines were made even starker as Dolce & Gabbana sent mostly white models down the runway.
Since the debut at September's Fashion Week in Milan, the luxury fashion house issued an explanation on Swide.com. The site describes these “beautiful artifacts” as inspired by “Moorish figures," to which they add that “Moorish” represents “many peoples throughout history … in Sicily’s case it defines the conquerors of Sicily."
Swide continues to describe a legend associated with the figurines, about a woman cutting off her Moor lover’s head and using it as a vase. Envious of the lush growth that came forth of the Moor’s head, neighbors built vases shaped like a Moor’s head since then—or so the legend goes. Despite this telling of the figurines’ historical background and cultural context, the political ramifications of these black caricatures seem questionable.
When looking up the definition of ‘blackamoor,' one would discover that the word is considered offensive slang to describe a very dark-skinned person. The term was first used in the 16th century, during a time that black servants were extremely prevalent in London homes.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, “court blackamoors” consisted mainly of abducted children taken to Europe and dressed in “oriental” clothes, serving their masters as a kind of toy. Considered status symbols, deceased court blackamoors were prepared by taxidermists to be put on display by aristocrats. According to “Ten Little Niggers”: Racial Discrimination in Children’s Books, by Wulff Schmidt-Wulffen, “blackamoor” images were considered positive versus the colonial “negro:"
While the black African was considered as an incarnation of the devil because of Noah’s curse, the ‘blackamoor’ represented the fabulous-mysterious oriental world perceived as enviable… they did not stand for ‘animistic’ or ‘wild’ black Africans, but for Muslims who were, culturally, at least, equal to Christians, who were thus formed by the cultural achievements of the orient. ‘The image of these ‘mascot blackamoors’ was not a devilish one’ – in contrast to the colonial ‘negro’. They symbolized participation in the privileged enjoyment and extravagantly dignified way of life and, therefore, became a courtly fashion, as status symbols in the development of courtly splendour and spreading a positive image.
Though the “blackamoor” figurines have been re-contextualized time and time again, its origins are anchored in a history of servitude and exoticism. Dolce & Gabbana’s commodification of the image continues the figures' misappropriation, and their indirect explanation—which attempted to provide some historical context—failed to address the oppressive history of the figurines.
Jamilya Ramos is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @callmejam.