Rihanna’s News Shouldn’t Change How We Feel About Dior

By Jenn Schleich / Published at

By now you’ve heard Rihanna has been named the new face of Dior’s Secret Garden campaign. She’s the first black woman to ever be named a campaign star by Dior. The appointment, which was announced on March 13, has been lauded in the media as a progressive move on Dior’s part.

It’s not all sunshine and roses though. While Rihanna is a talented performer with an impeccable sense of fashion, who no doubt earned the position with a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the course of her career, Dior hasn’t worked nearly so hard on its own self-image.

As a company, Dior’s lacklustre efforts to effect social change, internally within its own institution, nor externally within broader society, are pretty damning. Hop in my time machine; Yves Saint Laurent, who only studied under Christian Dior for three years before Dior’s early death, has long set itself apart from Dior. After breaking ties from Dior in 1960, following Yves Saint Laurent’s infamous lawsuit against the fashion house for wrongful dismissal during his stint in uniform, he proceeded to found his own fashion house (YSL), which espoused ideas in radical contradiction to Dior’s staunchly traditional Euro-Centric values. Moving forward without restriction and under his own name, he proceeded to make a two-fold influence on fashion over the proceeding decades. His contributions to women’s fashion are as important as those made by iconic names like Chanel; he applied the rational and practical elements of men’s clothing to women’s wear without sacrificing—dare we say it—sex. Take trousers, khaki and the pea coat as examples.

YSL’s fashions, inscribed with subversive text (in terms of both design and choice of models), frequently challenged convention and conformity. He prolificly worked with models of color during the turbulent civil rights era and beyond, and he’s even said to be the force behind the first black model (Naomi Campbell) appearing on a French Vogue cover. He famously held a deep appreciation for Somalian model Iman, who he oft-described as his fashion muse; he once described her as his “dream woman” and even devoted an entire collection (The African Queen) to her. All this poses an interesting question: why didn’t YSL use black models at Dior—was it because Dior, like most Haute Couture houses, holds a long-standing obsession with Euro-Centric ideals of beauty? More importantly, does Dior continue to espouse a concept of non-European beauty as inferior? YSL’s noteworthy career is proof that the fashion industry wields powers of social transformation; especially potent information, considering Dior’s long aversion to creating ripples in society.

If you remember, it took current creative director Raf Simons seven collections before he cast a single black model, and then he only did so after coming under public fire from casting director James Scully. We can’t forget previous creative director John Galliano, who was long rumored to possess anti-Semitic leanings and was eventually fired after making publicly racist remarks in a video. And, what about the Shanghai Dreamers campaign?

In the case of Dior, Rihanna’s representation isn’t simply a black face on a white company, it’s a black mask disguising decades of white-washed history. Historically speaking, this is nothing new. In fact, a black mask placed on white privilege is a concept we’ve seen repeated in art, literature and culture over the past several centuries. Arguably, the first notable appearance of a black mask in cultural media dates to the royal court of Queen Anne in the 1600s , who planned and participated in court masques (an elaborate form of theatrical dance), which saw women twirl around in impressive fashions paired with black masks. Though there is a subversive undercurrent to Queen Anne’s famous masques, scholars agree the intent is quite plain: the celebration of patriarchal power, the perfection of European beauty and the superiority of the court.

If you’re not sure how this is relevant: the English court, like a high-fashion house such as Dior, is the epitome of white privilege. The choice to utilize a black face as a method of perpetuating a chosen ideology is the intent, both then and now. We have to remember Dior has immense socio-cultural power. Consider Rihanna’s statement to Vogue about what it felt like to be acknowledged as a person of great worth by such a company.

It’s about time Dior got with it, but Rihanna’s new position is no guarantee we will continue to see women of color take a prominent role within Dior. For a fashion house with such a prolific public platform, it’s unfathomable it took 70 years for one black woman to be appointment the face of Dior. Some might argue we can’t expect haute couture fashion to be socially conscious, but they would be ignoring fashion’s long history as a space for the exchange of transformative ideas.

Brand representation comes down to one goal: perpetuating an image company executives want the public to believe. It’s about swaying favor and garnering positive attention. If Dior made valuable contributions to improving socio-economic equalities, if the fashion house worked to break down barriers in fashion, if the company was seeking to reflect its internal values, then Rihanna’s appointment as the first black representative in Dior’s 70 year history would be a socially progressive move on Dior’s part. But Dior is none of these things—except 70 years old (well, not quite).



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