Last week, “Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood, “Midnight’s Children” writer Salman Rushdie, literary figure Noam Chomsky and feminist Gloria Steinem were amongst 150 public figures to have signed a letter published in Harper’s Magazine condemning the practice of public shaming, or –as popularly known-‘cancel culture’.The letter openly denouncing ” a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” and “a blinding moral certainty”.This was one of the few public attempts to define what cancel culture really is and does.
‘Cancel culture’ is a true product on our social media playground and our new found freedom of expression that goes with it. Described as the desire to cancel out a person or community from social media platforms.it refers to the -by now popular -practice of un-supporting or ‘canceling’ public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable. Performed in the form of mobbing or group shaming via Instagram, Twitter or Reddit, cancel culture is also present in the fashion world in the form of “call-out culture”.
It is this very emergence of online ‘call-out culture’ a cultural phenomenon that gave a ‘platform’ to many independent voices allowing them to penetrate the rather exclusive fashion industry -and hold fashion designers marketers and editors accountable for copycat fashion products, cultural appropriations and lack of diversity and representation. Instagram watchdog account Diet Prada was the first account to call out designers copying fellow brands’ designs followed closely by Estée Laundry, a similar account that keeps a close eye on the boosting beauty industry.
Their influence-and impact-should not be underestimated. Diet Prada’s criticism over Dolce & Gabbana’s offensive 2018 China campaign resulted in an army of followers angrily shaming the brand –and was so impactful that the label shut down its Shanghai show altogether. In other words, it was ‘canceled’. Since then, the account has called out failings: lack of model diversity, toleration of abuse, and exploitation in the industry.
Canceling culture is present and powerful. A new breed of consumer watchdogs along with their millions of followers are currently forcing global fashion and beauty brands into action. Infallible? Not quite so. Emerging British designer Richard Quinn was publicly accused of knocking off Demna Gvasalia and its distinctive aesthetics when in fact, Quinn had been experimenting with similar designs since his graduate collection.
For Carolin Mair, Behavioural Psychologist and Business Consultant and author of The Psychology of Fashion, this a positive sign of the times.“Social media accounts such as Diet Prada broadcast to millions of their followers. Fashion creatives who ignore their messages, do so at their peril. As a result of these channels, current political and economic turmoil, fashion is now recognized as more than adornment, it is how we express and navigate identity. ” For the creatives themselves. this might be a new and tricky territory they can’t afford to ignore.
“Fashion creatives need to be part of the zeitgeist in their words and actions as well as their creations. adds Mair. Authenticity, social responsibility, community, respect, and inclusion have always mattered, but these characteristics have often been ignored or sidelined by many in the industry, until recently. It is no longer enough to say and not do.”
This is a new type of discussion, one that takes into account values and ethics and dismisses aesthetics as irrelevant, or at best, of secondary importance. This practice may well work for the business aspect of the industry but excludes something vital-that high fashion can, and should be a form of art, a result of innovation, talent, and creative inspiration. One cannot help by bringing to mind prominent art names such as Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and Picasso that operated in the often blurred intersection of copying, interpreting, and innovating. What happens when fashion creatives cross the line?
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible.” writes Mark Twain, in his autobiography. “We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
“The desire to experiment is risky, tantamount to censorship. At the risk of sounding a little like a right-wing, middle-aged internet commenter incensed about the preservation of ‘freedom of speech,’ art does not truly thrive without the oxygen of scandal, or the occasional opportunity to be perverse.” notes Philippa Snow in a 2019 article for Indie magazine.
Basia Szkutnicka is a Professor of Practice & Programme Leader of the MA in Fashion & Textile Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. For her, it’s a difficult time for creatives-and an uncertain one for all. “Fashion is changing drastically, whether that will be for the better, we don’t know right now, everything is in flux and changes daily. Now everyone is obsessed with encouraging, promoting, and celebrating diversity…we laugh at brands who unashamedly copy others, thinking no one noticed. With a need to generate income (because ultimately, fashion is a business), we may see insecurity in sales manifest as more copyists…or the opposite – a desire for the unique. Who knows right now.
Is this cultural phenomenon of excessive policing of expression killing inspiration? Are artists completely free to innovate by following their very personal inspiration, creating new images and fresh silhouettes? How can artistic inspiration flourish over excessive attention to be politically correct, unoffending? Many designers already privately comment they are so frightened of being caught out that they are completely rethinking their approach. For Mair, the answer depends on several factors that include the actual definitions of political correctness, fashion, and art. “If the wearer/observer cares more about what is politically correct, then they may consider fashion outside of art. It depends on the perception (worldview, mindset, attitudes, experience, etc.) of the viewer. In fact, that is probably the same for other forms of art.” she notes.
There is criticism, though. “Politically correct’ for me, sounds boring. Fashion and art have been a place to voice an opinion and encourage dialogue…and let’s hope it stays that way. Without discourse, there is no progress’ comments Szkutnicka
Perhaps the last word in this discussion should come from the fashion creatives themselves. They are the ones to figure out their own answers-and to define their inspiration path. For Patrick van Ommeslaghe, art director, fashion designer, and part of the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp graduates’ circle, the authenticity of ideas is crucial for the fashion designer. “I was trained at The Royal Academy at a time when copying was still considered as the worst crime “ he points out. “And I still keep having in mind the Godard quote: It’s not where you take things from, its where to take things to”. Or in the words of T.S. Eliot in ‘The Sacred Wood’: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”