Claudia Schiffer has been attacked for offending black people after posing on a magazine cover made up as a black woman. The 39-year-old German supermodel wore black foundation and an afro-style wig in the photograph taken by fashion designer and photographer Karl Lagerfeld.
Lagerfeld had Schiffer made up as a black women in one of six photographs he took while putting together an advertising campaign for the vintage champagne Dom Perignon. The photos were published by German fashion magazine Stern Fotografie when it celebrated its 60th anniversary.
Accusations against Schiffer and Lagerfeld followed from Shevelle Rhule, the fashion editor of a London black lifestyle magazine, Pride. Ms Rhule said:
“It shows poor taste and it’s offensive. There are not enough women of colour featured in mainstream magazines. This just suggests you can counteract the problem by using white models. I don’t believe they deliberately set out to offend. They obviously see it as being arty and feel that they are pushing boundaries. But clearly no thought has been given to the history behind what they have done and the comparisons it draws with minstrel shows.”
To which I would reply: ‘Shevelle, lighten up’. Her comment is the kind that perpetuates raw nerves about race and creates a path of spikey eggshells for people, black and white, to walk on. Society doesn’t need race relations zealots, quangocrats or Pride fashion editors lecturing designers (or filmmakers or writers or rap singers…) on what they can or can’t do. It’s small-minded. Already an online magazine has responded to the photos with conformist knee-jerk political correctness by saying one of the other photos, of Schiffer as an Asian, is “just wrong”, scolding that Lagerfeld should have used more than one model in the interests of racial diversity.
Fashion, like fiction and film and other creative industries, should be free to play with any images it chooses. Did Ms Rhule also take offence at white French actor Gerard Depardieu recently playing mixed-race Alexander Dumas (using black make-up)? Or Eddie Murphy impersonating a white (jewish) person? Or black British actor Adrian Lester who played the white Danish prince, Hamlet? Or the black actor, David Oyelowo, who played white English king Henry VI?
Would she criticise images of Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones dressed up as women? How about pantomime dames, women actors dressed as men, Eddie Izzard in frock and lipstick, comedians pretending to be children…?
As soon as you get into determining whether blacks can play whites and women can play men but not the other way round, you’re proscribing the creative process and engaging in censorship. Clamping down on the arts in that way (even commercial arts like advertising) is as restricting as squashing free speech.
As for Rhule’s comment that Lagerfeld and Schiffer were suggesting the photograph of a ‘black’ Schiffer would substitute for using black models in mainstream magazines – that’s just plain foolish. Rhule then seems to have chucked minstrels into the discussion just for shock value.
In fact the photo was one of a series of six in which Lagerfeld was playing with Schiffer’s image. Another showed her as a secretary, a third as an Asian woman. In a fourth she was dressed and made up as eighteenth century French queen, Marie Antoinette and in a fifth she was androgynous. The fashion shoot theme was fantasy and imagination. Lagerfeld wanted to play with Schiffer’s face and Shiffer’s image. He didn’t want to use other models. He wasn’t trying to portraying racial diversity – he was portraying imaginary Claudia Schiffers. And has every right to.
A spokesman for Lagerfeld responded to Rhule’s criticism, saying she was taking them out of context: “The images were designed to reflect different men’s fantasies. The pictures were not intended to offend, they were done very creatively and are some of Karl Lagerfeld’s favourite images of Claudia. People should not jump to conclusions.”
Yet there are many people with vested interests in Britain and other liberal democracies who make a good living from jumping to conclusions and playing the race card in cases which can only trivialise genuine instances of racism. Political correctness about race and ethnicity has battened onto society like a barnacle on a boat. It would be a democratic step forward if those who have a professional interest in taking offence at ‘racism’ and other -isms would pick their battles more wisely.
It would also be good if the race relations industry ditched the term “people of colour”. What is it supposed to indicate?! What colour? Black? Dark brown? Sienna? All those and more? Does it imply that white people – with their variously pink, peachy, creamy, olive-toned, ugly red, bluey-white, brown or orangey skin – have no colour? Why aren’t whites called “people of non-colour” then? Or “people of no-colour”?
Black and white are just words. They’re quick and easy terms to use for those who want or need to indicate skin colour and they’re neutral. People (like Ms Rhule perhaps) who want to take offence at one (and not the other) always will. But they’re misguided. Countering racism is always worth doing. But cranking up and maintaining raw nerves unnecessarily does no-one any good. It just increases division between black and white and injects a zealous, scolding tone into debate which would benefit from more freedom, less ‘sensitivity’ and – in a case like the Schiffer/Lagerfeld photos – a bit of playfulness.