The racist imagery, which emerged from 19th-century minstrel shows that mocked African Americans, has long been an issue in fashion. Just last week, Gucci pulled an $890 sweater amid outcry over the wool balaclava design, which placed what resembled bright red lips over a cutout black turtleneck. Prada faced similar backlash in December for a store display that recalled blackface figurines.
While some have defended Perry’s $129 shoes, the uproar is a particularly fraught moment for the pop star. The 34-year-old singer’s career, which took off in 2008 with the hit “I Kissed A Girl,” has been punctuated with accusations of cultural appropriation — even as Perry has sought to align herself with the Black Lives Matter movement and issues involving black women.
In a statement, Perry and brand management company Global Brands, which launched her footwear collection in spring 2017, said the styles in question “were part of a collection that was released last summer in nine different colorways (black, blue, gold, graphite, lead, nude, pink, red, silver) and envisioned as a nod to modern art and surrealism.”
“I was saddened when it was brought to my attention that it was being compared to painful images reminiscent of blackface,” the statement continued. “Our intention was never to inflict any pain. We have immediately removed them from Katy Perry Collections.”
Years before she began selling the controversial shoes — the slip-on Rue loafer and similarly designed Ora sandal are described as “quirky” on the Katy Perry Collections website — Perry was called out for dressing as a Geisha during her performance at the 2013 American Music Awards. In 2014, she portrayed a Cleopatra-esque character in the music video for “Dark Horse.” The video featured a frame in which a pendant depicting Allah, the Arabic word for God, was engulfed in flames. The imagery sparked outrage and was later removed from the video.
That was the same year Perry drew negative attention on her Prismatic World Tour, during which backup dancers were made to look like mummies with heavily padded bodies bearing accentuated breasts and cartoonishly large rear ends. Their faces, obscured by bandages, featured full red lips.
“It’s possible that this was meant to be a statement about plastic surgery — women bandaged up after getting implants and lip injections, etc. — that just reads very wrong,” Callie Beusman wrote in Jezebel. “Regardless of intent, though, these get-ups really do look like yet another attempt to commodify stereotyped black female sexuality.”
Later that year, Perry was criticized for wearing cornrows and slicked-down baby hair (dare we say attempted edges?) in the music video for her 2014 single “This Is How We Do.”
She was defiant in a Rolling Stone interview, published the following month, in which she addressed the outcry over the mummies and said they alluded to a culture obsessed with plastic surgery.
“People would just love to make it a thing so that I would have to put out a public apology so that they feel like ‘We’ve got control of her success,’" Perry told the magazine. “It came from an honest place. If there was any inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn’t be there, because I’m very sensitive to people.”
“I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it,” Perry added, noting (in cruder language) that the quote might come back to haunt her. “But can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know.”
She appeared more open to criticism in 2017 when she appeared on “Pod Save the People,” a podcast hosted by activist DeRay Mckesson, to discuss cultural appropriation and white privilege. The conversation was featured in a four-day live stream the singer did in promotion of her “Witness” album.
“I’ve made several mistakes,” Perry said, bringing up her hairstyle in the “This Is How We Do” video. Perry said she had “a hard conversation” with a friend, who told her about “the power in black women’s hair and how beautiful it is and the struggle.”
“I listened and I heard and I didn’t know,” Perry continued. “I won’t ever understand some of those things because of who I am. I will never understand, but I can educate myself, and that’s what I’m trying to do along the way.”