In February this year, fashion magazine Vogue got roundly slapped by cultural pundits for their decision to portray aspects of Japanese culture using the famous white model, Karlie Kloss. Kloss came under fire too for the fashion shoot, which ironically was a feature in the magazine’s special Diversity issue. Terms like “cultural appropriation” and “yellowface” got thrown up and around quite a bit, to describe what many saw as a culturally insensitive and wrongful move. The backlash prompted Kloss to apologise, with promises to be more mindful when choosing future projects.
I was super-intrigued and reacted very nerdily when the Vogue yellowface controversy happened, seeing it as evidence of rising consciousness of and pushback against white supremacy, which is prevalent in every aspect of culture and has always been, now that we are aware of it. Now we have the means to speak up and question the decisions and decision-makers that revere and privilege white people and whiteness. Now more and more people, especially non-Whites, are sharing and building upon postcolonial and counter-imperialist sentiment and vocabulary, and by so doing are able to contest and challenge such practices. “But that’s our culture, why should you be the ones to represent it? Why should your faces and your bodies in our cultural artifacts elevate them, make them more desirable than when we wear the materials that symbolise our beliefs, our traditions, our ways of life?”
The Vogue-yellowface episode led to me delivering a lecture on Third World feminism for a class on World Regional Geography, where unsuspecting students were held captive for an hour or so as I introduced them to what I regarded as the follies of white liberal feminism and their skewed and narrow perception of women outside their privileged world. I was trying then to articulate and to share my own experiences and understanding of this world where white people and white culture are deemed superior, more special and beautiful and intelligent and just… better, than other colours and races. It is an unjust perception that is sadly too prevalent and often perpetuated, even unsuspectingly, whenever we value white goods and services more than we do our own.
What I didn’t get to share in that lecture, and what I am now keenly trying to find the right framework and words to explain, is the way that non-White organisations and individuals too subscribe to this white ideology and resort to using white embodiment of their cultural artifacts. A prime example that I’d like to highlight here is the Malaysian online store Poplook, which specialises in modest fashion. Launched in 2009, the company ships its merchandise worldwide, but primarily serves the Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
Now that the Islamic celebration Aidilfitri is fast approaching to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, online stores are ramping up their Raya promotion, churning out collection after collection of festive baju Melayu, the Malay traditional dress. Poplook posts multiple posts per day on Instagram, many of them promotional material for their Raya collection. What is striking about their marketing is the way they represent their modest, Islamic and Malay fashion line. The photo below, for instance, shows a decidedly non-Malay family in full baju Melayu. The only discrepancy is perhaps the lack of headscarf on the woman…
Source: Screenshot from poplook.com Instagram account.
…but don’t worry, they got that covered too.
According to the premier repository for the world’s knowledge, Wikipedia, modest fashion is fashion that is “in line with Islamic principles”. Poplook is a Malaysian company. It sells modest fashion to its Muslim customers, many of them from the Southeast Asian region. Most Muslims in Southeast Asia are Malay. Baju Melayu literally translated means Malay dress. The latest promotional photos are for the Poplook Raya collection, Raya being the Malay shorthand for the Islamic Eid celebrations. And yet, and yet, most of the photoshoots by the company feature white models. Why?
Poplook is hardly the only offender. Another online retail giant, Fashionvalet, regularly uses white models as well. It is especially jarring when they use white faces to showcase headscarves (just look under the Duck brand on the website to see what I mean), but I feel the most cheated when they use white models for modest dresses and baju kurung (women’s baju melayu). See, models already have very unique body proportions relative to the rest of the population. But white models, compared to the average Southeast Asian woman? Will this dress that looks great on a tall and willowy white woman look great on my shorter-than-average, not quite apple-shaped, maybe peanut-shaped body? is a question I often ask myself as I scroll through Fashionvalet’s pages. (The answer is always No, and sometimes that is followed up with But I’ll buy it anyway and alter the length).
I spoke to a local fashion blogger recently whose husband is a freelance fashion photographer. They’ve worked with Malaysian retailers on photoshoots, so I asked her what she thought about whitewashing of Malay fashion. One of the reasons she gave was that many of the white models working in the region have been groomed for years for this rarified profession, and the skill they’ve acquired to pose and preen for photos make them very appealing to fashion photographers and editors. Which is fair enough – people want quality and value for money. But it doesn’t really address why only white models are in demand. The very fact of this demand creates the supply, so that there will always be jobs for white models, who can find opportunities even in the Malay world, modelling Malay fashion. That supply creates competition so that Malay models, already few in number compared to their Caucasian counterparts, have to fight for the same jobs. They get fewer opportunities to shine, therefore they are seen as less available, less skilled, less appealing. Why train Malay models, then, if they are not going to get jobs?
As you can see this post generated a lot of questions without any definite and immediate answers. I’ve got more concerns, and addressing them is something I’m currently working on in my professional capacity as a researcher. Hopefully others too will be interested and will want to join me in finding answers to the same questions, like: Is it still cultural appropriation when it’s non-White agents who are actively seeking white representation for non-White culture? If not, what concept(s) can we use to describe this practice? Why is this practice so widespread? What do consumers, especially and specifically the Malay community who are the main target base for the fashion retailers, think about it? How does seeing white faces in baju Melayu shape their perception of that aspect of their culture? Does it affect them at all? Do they just regard white models as the default in promotional materials? At the risk of sounding insensitive, are white models the blank canvas, the mannequins onto which aspects of any other culture can be imposed and be highlighted? If so, what does that mean, that we need to rely on white bodies in such a way to be able to sell, buy and enjoy our own cultural goods?