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The uproar over Marc Jacobs and dreadlocks is ridiculous

Marc Jacobs collection. (Kate Warren for The Washington Post)

One in a series on the big moments on the runway at New York Fashion Week.

NEW YORK — There are a host of things that one could be upset with the fashion industry for doing. But it seems to me getting upset about a Marc Jacobs show on Thursday afternoon featuring models in cartoonish, punk dreadlocks is not anywhere near the top of the list.

And yet, Twitter roars: white models, cultural appropriation, outrage!

Jacobs’s spring 2017 collection closed fashion week here and it was an explosion of color and sparkle and over-the-top prints created by the artist Julie Verhoeven. The models, a pretty mixed group of them, teetered about on sky-high platforms and wore shorts that were cut so far up the derrière that they revealed the lower curve of it.

But what has set Twitter off was the way the models’ hair was styled: in dreadlocks. Understand, these were not dreadlocks that were meant to look real. They were pink and lavender and peach. And they looked more like something that had landed on the models’ heads from Mars than something that had been lovingly grown and tended to over the course of a decade.

But Twitter is on a rampage about cultural appropriation. Folks are angry because neither the hairstylist, Guido Palau, nor Jacobs, mentioned black culture or Rastafarians specifically as a source of inspiration. Instead, they mentioned street style, director Lana Wachowski, punk, Boy George and an enormous mishmash of cultural references.

All of those references are legitimate and real. And there was nothing about the clothes or the set — a stage filled with hundreds of dangling lightbulbs — that suggested the designer had disrespected black culture and its connection to black people, black politics, black struggle.

He took artistic license with a hairstyle that has seen multiple iterations and riffed on it yet again. Jacobs was riffing on a riff. He put it on a runway, shoved it into a fashion dialogue that, yes, because of his stature and success, he leads. But to argue that he has somehow been disrespectful or oblivious, suggests that certain pieces of culture should be untouchable … and that’s a dangerous argument.

Creative people regularly dive into treacherous cultural waters. And they should be prepared for backlash. They should know what they are doing and be able to explain their choices. They should be sensitive and respectful.

And observers should remember that not every cross-cultural moment is cause for outrage. Jacobs’s models were a mixed group of women: black, brown, white. Should all the models have been black? Why? How would that validate pink dreadlocks? The clothes were a punk, street, cyber, sparkle fest. Hate the clothes or love them. But the outrage just seems like an exhausting exercise in misdirection.


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