The images above offer one more reason (as if one were needed) to love Carine Roitfeld. From the helm of French Vogue, from which she departed in 2010, Roitfeld was irreverent, original, one of a kind. Now she helms her own CR Fashion Book, where she’s in rare form yet again, working her beautiful, conceptual magic in ways that, frankly, boggle my mind.
Roitfeld is up to some seriously intriguing, philosophical stuff. She’s talking fashion, mind you, but somehow she manages to upend our cultural assumptions and cause us to see anew.
Roitfeld reminds me that fashion is cultural iconography. It’s uniform, armor, away of engaging with, and breaking through the barriers of the world. It’s something the disenfranchised have always known. It’s why African-American women of my mother and grandmother and great grandmother’s generations dressed to the nines, never forgoing their slip or gloves or pantyhose. Dressing to the nines, in the normal course of business if you were middle or upper middle class, and on special occasions if you were working class or poor, was a way to stake a claim on their right to dignity and respect in a world too often blind to the fact of their basic humanity. Sadly, the inability to “see” the non-white among us as human persists, a point Anna Holmes drove home in a piece in The New Yorker about the extreme displeasure expressed by a few too many Hunger Games fans to the discovery that Thrash and Rue were (gasp, wait for it) black.
It’s in this context that I consider the images above, which appeared in two different spreads in Roitfeld’s CR. The first, of New York Giants wide receiver Ramses Barden and New York City Ballet dancer Faye Arthur is soaked in the history and iconography of black masculinity and white femininity as it plays itself out in the White American consciousness and, by extension, in the Black American consciousness as well. This image contains the image of Emmett Till, the 14 year old African-American child who was lynched in 1955 Mississippi for looking at a white woman. And it turns it on its head, rendering the strong, black, male body what it has always been, an object of beauty, intentionality and grace. The second image, of designer Rick Owens dressing a model before his show, stands in stark opposition to the history and iconography of black female body as property and object of sexual degradation. Swathed in Owens’ armor-like coat, she is invincible, possessed by no one but herself.
So much hatred has been projected onto the black body that these images act as an incantation, undoing psychic harm. History cannot be unwritten, in the end, and scars cannot be undone, but old messages can be overwritten with new ones, which is what these images have done.
Of course, Roitfeld is not American, she may have had none of this in mind. But the magic of making art is that sometimes pieces of history, memory and grace move through us…, without our knowledge or our consent.
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PHOTOGRAPHY BY (top to bottom) PAUL MAFFI and DANIELLA RECH for CR Fashion Book
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.