Ralph Lauren's Native American Ads Reveal Sad Truth About The Fashion World

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The clothing company Ralph Lauren released an online advertisement for its RRL line last month that drew scathing criticism from Native Americans.

The ad's imagery harked back to the Old West, with henley jerseys and rustic jeans displayed in faded sepia tones. And while one page touted bandanas and “Western-style” shirts, the opposite page showed a Native American sporting a feathered headdress, holding a rifle across his lap.

Another page depicted a stoic Native American man with dark skin, braided hair and a Western shirt-and-vest combo.

Critics charged that the ads reduced people, and indeed entire cultures, to mere marketing props. Many called for a boycott. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a postdoctoral researcher and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, wrote in a post for Indian Country Today Media Network that Ralph Lauren had reached a "new low."

“Ralph Lauren has been doing this my whole life,” Ruth Hopkins, a writer in her 30s who lives on the Spirit Lake Tribe reservation in North Dakota, told The Huffington Post. “He is a repeat offender. Cultural appropriation is apparently his thing.”

Following the outcry, the company removed the images from its website and apologized.

The episode neatly summed up an issue in fashion and pop culture that has drawn heated debate in recent years. Many people seemingly remain tethered to the idea of a romanticized Old West -- a time of death and carnage for America’s indigenous population.

The “cowboys and Indians” movies of the 1950s did much to solidify these tropes in modern American culture, building on centuries of stereotypes. These films mashed up the traditions of countless tribes indiscriminately, often depicting Native Americans as primitive, even bloodthirsty brutes. At best, indigenous people were depicted as noble savages, piteous characters not yet corrupted by the "civilized" world. Meanwhile, the real-life meanings attached to certain items, customs and historical figures got distorted or lost, and white Americans, for the most part, neither knew nor cared.

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Model Karlie Kloss wearing a Native American headdress during the taping of the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in New York. (Photo credit: AP/Starpix, Amanda Schwab)

Take the war bonnet, a feathered headdress worn by the warriors or leaders of many Native American tribes. Each feather was earned through a sacrifice or an act of valor, making the bonnet a mark of great respect. But at the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, supermodel Karlie Kloss strode down the catwalk in panties, a skimpy bra and a massive war bonnet-like headdress. Chanel put headdresses on the runwayin 2013, and Pharrell Williams donned one on the cover of Elle UK in 2014. Each incident was met with swift backlash.

Such cliched images are what many Native Americans in the fashion industry want to transcend.

“Mass society thinks that way,” said Bethany Yellowtail, a 26-year-old fashion designer and member of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes. “They think of teepees and headdresses and feathers.”

Raised in Montana on the Crow Indian Reservation, Yellowtail wants to bring authenticity to indigenous fashion with her line B.Yellowtail, which will be released in spring. Her clothes are modern takes on the classic designs of her culture, adapting the work of her ancestors to the 21st century -- for example, designs based on the beadwork of her great-grandmother, who lived in the 19th century.

“Our original designs were purposeful,” she said. “The colors, the designs -- everything has a specific meaning and a spirit connected to it.”


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