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First Lady Melania Trump visits an ivory burn site with Nelly Palmeris, Nairobi National Park Game Warden on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, at the Nairobi National Park in Nairobi, Kenya (official White House photo by Andrea Hanks via Flickr).

From khakis to pith hats, certain items of clothing have become enduring emblems of British, French, and Dutch colonialism. Should their history as sartorial symbols of empire and oppression be considered when donned today? And what about those scholars who know their problematic histories and still choose to live, to recreate, and to engage in the aesthetics of colonialism in their everyday lives?

In her new book, Melania and Me, author Stephanie Winston Wolkoff remarks on the first lady’s controversial choice of headgear when visiting Kenya in 2018: “October took Melania to Kenya, where she wore a pith helmet reminiscent of colonialists from Europe … She said her sartorial choice offended the ‘liberal media.’” According to Winston Wolkoff, Mrs. Trump went on to explain how she’d landed on the helmet to begin with: “‘I googled ‘what to wear on safari,’ saw the outfit, and liked it. So I bought it,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t making a comment on colonialism.’”

Following Trump’s visit to Kenya, her fashion choices were widely critiqued as insensitive —even though supporters claim they were born from ignorance. But what about those that dress in this garb on purpose? Among the western archaeologists working in Egypt a least a few have a particular taste for early 20th century, colonial-style attires, both in and out of the field. You thought pith helmets — one of the most easily recognizable symbols of British colonial might — and Crocodile Dundee-esque outfits were a thing of the pre-Nasser past? Well, you’re wrong. Not only are such outfits still deemed unproblematic by many current archaeologists, but some of them also willingly advertise their “vintage” tastes on social media.

This is the case of the “Vintage Egyptologist” also known as Dr Colleen Manassa Darnell. According to her Academia page,

Dr Manassa Darnell taught at Yale University as the Marilyn M. and William K. Simpson Assistant Professor of Egyptology (2006–2010), and Associate Professor (2010–2015). She currently teaches art history at the University of Hartford and other colleges in Connecticut and is a curatorial affiliate at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Her work also includes a substantial volume of public-facing scholarship, which she performs under the name “Vintage Egyptologist” (VE). Over the past few years, VE has gathered an impressive following on Instagram and Youtube. The oldest picture on Dr Manassa Darnell’s Instagram account dates from January 2017. Her feed, which currently counts about 375 posts, has 153,000 followers. This is way more than all the Egyptologists we know. (By comparison, Zahi Hawass has 53,000 followers.) In February 2020, she was featured as a guest on YouTuber Rachel Maksy’s “Watching ‘The Mummy’ with an Actual Egyptologist” video. The clip has over two million views.

More recently, VE created a Youtube channel, which now counts 35,000 followers. While the instagram account appears to be Dr Manassa Darnell’s solo project, the Youtube page’s profile picture features her with her husband, Yale Egyptology Professor John Coleman Darnell, and the page’s “about” section reads: “We are Egyptologists with interests in archaeology, history, and vintage fashion”.

VE does provide high quality, accurate historical content, and the Darnells are doing so — through Instagram captions, Youtube videos, and cruise tours — very eloquently. What interests us here is that this Egyptological content is delivered using a so-called “vintage” packaging, which transports us to the realm of The Great Gatsby meets The English Patient. The numerous hashtags added to the Instagram captions include #archaeology, #history, #egyptology, #explorers, #explorersclub, and #indianajones. Less than a handful of Egyptian workers (three of whom are referred to as “our Egyptian family” in one instance) appear in the pictures. The few archaeological workers who do appear (in subaltern roles) are named. Apart from a couple of early 20th-century hotels (whose presence seems to be warranted because they are remnants of a “glamorous past”), no modern Egyptian settlement is represented.

In a 2018 interview with Egypt Today, Dr Manassa Darnell explained that her “love for vintage fashion and the ‘20s began when she realized how liberating the era was for women”:

As the First World War raged across Europe, women found themselves filling the roles of men. They began working, playing sports, taking part in excavations and finally they were given their right to vote. Jazz music came out of the shadows of New Orleans and started to become popular all around the world, and Hollywood’s influence on the public was at its starting point. The Prohibition had forced communities into underground clubs as nightlife and crime were embraced by all classes. Everyone was dancing the Charleston, while the prevailing flapper lifestyle became the new cool with its own slang.

The “liberated women” Dr Manassa Darnell has in mind are European, American, and white of a particular socio-economic background. Elsewhere, she claims that it makes her feel “powerful to be able to channel the past”. She then goes on to describe her approach to wearing vintage clothing in archaeological contexts:

Onsite during an excavation, I wear practical and more recent vintage, such as 1970s and 1980s khaki skirts, sometimes paired with a ‘40s or ‘50s jacket. For visits to tombs and temples, I often wear flapper dresses or jodhpur pants with boots. I hope that by combining Egyptology and vintage fashion — from a time when Egyptology and Egyptian designs, both ancient and modern, were popular throughout the world — I can encourage more people to be interested in all things Egyptian, and to travel to Egypt. By wearing the clothing of the early modern period and attempting to understand how it feels to wear and work in the clothes of 100 or so years ago, I also gain some feeling for understanding the different clothing and the lives of the ancient Egyptians.

Behind closed doors, many Egyptologists have been making fun of VE on the ground that its branding is narcissistic and ridiculously colonial. Yet public critiques by fellow academics, including Egyptologists, remain few, and those who have spoken up have generally been met with dismissive arguments from inside the field. Many academics suggest that what matters is the content, not the container; so criticism of this type amounts to nothing more than uncollegial gossiping.

We beg to differ. To us, Egyptologists and scholars in antiquity-related fields, the “vintage” part of VE is as meaningful as the “Egyptologist” part. Indeed, the highly curated, and professional, pictures and videos produced by VE are the result of conscientious, deliberate choices. These testify to a vision of Egyptology that is intimately tied to the reproduction of colonial imageries. In most cases the (white, American) body of Dr Manassa Darnell, who features at times with her (white, American) husband, is shown in Egypt, either in a monument, on a site, or aboard a “vintage” cruise boat.

The “Darnells,” as the couple also call themselves, have also led “vintage cruises” aboard the SS Sudan steamboat. The tour is organized by the travel company Goodspeed & Bach inc. A 2020 advertising pamphlet describes the boat in those terms:

Built in the 1910’s, she is the last authentic Belle Epoque paddle steamer in Africa. Her broad teak decks, brassware, and wood paneling are the stuff of romantic stories. The gangways exude a sweet aroma of beeswax; the woven rattan furniture on the deck provides the perfect place to daydream as you sip tea and watch the desert palms glide past.

An Instagram post commemorating the gala night of their 2018 tour at the Grand Cataract Hotel in Aswan gives us an idea of their audience. In addition to the Darnells, all the vintage dressed people featuring in the photographs are white.

Shortly after the cruise tour was over, the couple shot a video of themselves, dressed in jodhpur pants and Pith helmets, dancing in the Grand Tea Room at the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor.

As we observed above, apart from its Pharaonic ruins, landscapes and, on rare occasions, galabeya-dressed men pictured in subaltern roles, today’s Egypt is conspicuously absent. The focus is more particularly on the fashion in vogue in the 1920s. In a clip posted on Facebook, Dr Manassa Darnell explains her particular love for clothing of that period: “There’s just something special about putting on clothing that’s rooted in a particular time and, often, place.”

What, then, was that particular time like in the “particular” places the Darnells work and live in?

In the 1920s, Egypt was ruled by the British. During that time, there was an acceleration of European archaeological missions in the country, and also a rise of international (essentially European and North American) tourism. (See for instance Malcolm Reid’s Whose Pharaohs? and Contesting Antiquity in Egypt as well as Rachel Mairs’s and Maya Muratov’s Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters). More generally, as Timothy Mitchell and Jennifer Derr have shown, the period of British rule over Egypt, which VE celebrates as the “Golden Age” of fashion, Egyptology, and travel, was also a period of pervasive colonial violence. Back in the USA, the aftermaths of WWI had led to the “Great Migration,” and ongoing racial segregation and violence towards Black Americans fueled the “New Negro Movement’.” Unsurprisingly, VE does not engage with this type of “vintage,” but promotes instead a sugar-coated, romantic, and Orientalist image of that time period.

The elitist, whitewashed version of vintage living promoted by VE appears to be an all-encompassing passion for the Darnells. This notably shows in their September 4 “Egyptomania House Tour” video, which offers a tour of their “Greek revival” home.

To be clear, we don’t think that “vintage” fashion is an issue per se. In many ways, “vintage” objects and sartorial items can become creative, ecologically responsible ways to express oneself. And yes, vintage fashion is beautiful. Yet what happens when 1920s (European-inspired) hairdos, clothes, and accessories are purposefully featured on a white body in a way that celebrates colonial-era archaeology and travel? And what does it mean for two white, affluent American scholars to continue to produce such content now, in the age of Trump, Black Lives Matter, and Indigenous fights for decolonization? We argue that VE is very successful because it occludes: the colonial violence that, under British rule, made possible the ideas of Egypt and Egyptology they are celebrating; the complexity, multifaceted identity, and shifting nature of Egypt’s land, peoples, and histories; and many (Egyptian, American) pasts, and presents. By doing so, it stages and celebrates a white-supremacist type of vintage Egyptology.

Take this passage from the 2020 Vintage Cruise pamphlet, which concerns “Day 14: Kom Ombo and Aswan”:

This morning, SUDAN steams toward Aswan at the frontier of traditional Egypt, where ancient Nubia begins. The mighty desert slowly replaces cultivated land as we proceed up the Nile. It is easy to see that this is where pharaonic civilization once ended. The lands above the great cataracts nourished the Nile Valley with mineral-rich silt during the floods. Nubia also provided Egypt with gold, precious woods and ivory, as well as soldiers for its military machine.” (our italics)

To whoever is acquainted with the deep, entangled histories of Egypt and Nubia — and this includes the audiences of the recent virtual talks by Stuart Tyson Smith and Solange Ashby — the simplistic, racially charged, and anti-Black subtext of this passage is striking.

For Dr Manassa Darnell and her husband, vintage living serves as a portal through which they — equipped with the intellectual capital brought about by their association with Yale University — can disseminate knowledge about Pharaonic Egypt to wider, non-academic audiences. What does the success of this strategy mean, about the broader reception of ancient Egypt, about Egyptology’s ongoing colonial entanglements, and about the relationship of most of the members of our fields with public-facing scholarship?

VE’s curatorial anchoring resides in the realm of the Orientalist fantasy, far, far away from anything written since Edward Said, and in disjunction with the historical experience and sensibilities of most inhabitants of modern and contemporary Egypt. The “Egypt” it portrays is reminiscent of the frontispiece of the 19th century French multivolume series Description de l’Égypte published after Napoleon’s conquest. This fictive, deserted landscape was cut through by the Nile river and dotted with impressive pharaonic monuments covered in hieroglyphics, ready to be “explored” by white “experts,” whose lavish and civilized lifestyle matches the long-gone sophistication of ancient Egypt’s mystical grandeur. In this regard, the Classical-style frieze (which shows an Apollo-looking, Muses-leading Napoléon driving the Mamluks out) surrounding the Description’s frontispiece’s rendition of Egypt serves as a powerful statement of the power relationship at stake: Egypt is defined by and for the male, European conqueror’s ability to penetrate, occupy, and, to paraphrase a now famous political slogan, “make her great again”.

Frontispiece of the Description de l’Egypte (image courtesy the New York Public Library’s Digital Library via Wikipedia)

The erasure of post-642 AD Egypt and of the Egyptians themselves from the frontispiece of the Description de l’Égypte is a stunning Freudian slip, a powerful window into the enduring (sub)conscious relationship that links a large proportion of scholars, students, and non-academic crowds to Egypt. Such a zoomed-in, myopic image of Egypt belongs to a Eurocentric fantasy that is, as the public success of VE shows, still very much alive, both within and outside of academia.

While VE’s audience seems to be mostly white and based in Europe or settler colonies, it is also important to acknowledge that the interiorization, performance, marketization, and consumption of colonial aesthetics is a more global phenomenon that is often introjected by colonial subjects. The recent petition for the return of a French mandate over Lebanon offers a striking example of how the civilizational discourses that accompanied European colonial rules remain alive in “postcolonial” countries.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that VE counts many Egyptians amongst its followers. The recent feature in Egypt Today quoted above attests to this phenomenon. We also ought to mention another, more artful example: For years, Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has been carefully subverting a colonial-inspired dress code to foreign and local audiences. His appropriation of Indiana Jones’s looks offers a compelling example of a colonizer’s outfit being recuperated by a member of a historically colonized community for self-assertive purposes. More broadly, social media publications celebrating the “European fashion” and ways of living of pre-1952 Egypt (and notably Alexandria) abound, and the same trend is found in association with other western Asian countries: from Iran to Afghanistan to Syria and Iraq. For many locals and members of diasporic communities, such cultivated nostalgia for a lost “cosmopolitan” past is often rooted in personal experiences of loss, socio-economic hardship, suffering, and exile.  Yet this romanticization of “lost golden ages” can also be, concomitantly or not, layered with (un)conscious subtexts that testify to modes of internalized coloniality.

It is too easy to mock the examples provided so far without questioning the mechanisms that allowed such public personae to fully manifest themselves in the first place. The large, expanding following of VE testifies to the ongoing popularity of and nostalgia for colonial imageries among large segments of western (especially North American) populations. As such, and whether it wants it or not, VE is eminently political. Indeed, the project is not disconnected from more open forms of apology of colonialism and imperialism, and this is where the problem lies. The public success of VE shows how the image of Egyptology remains largely Orientalist. While scholars are very prone to laugh at the many clichés and stereotypes that shape the way ancient civilizations are portrayed in mass media, we should not forget that these very stereotypes have been, for most of us, the starting point, the spark that ignited our passions, fueled our initial interest for Antiquity. They are also an important gateway to private funding, something which many archaeologists, including the Darnells, understand perfectly.

The past years have seen an increase in the use of ancient history by ideologically minded individuals and groups. One can think of the selective and tendentious recuperation of Greek and Roman imagery by extreme conservative, white supremacist groups; of the apology for western-style looting (including the defense of the British right to own the Elgin Marbles); of the Museum of the Bible debacle. In this context, it is as irresponsible from scholars working on the ancient world to deflect the question of the “decolonization” of the field by appealing to a white-washed, elitist nostalgia for the “good old days” as it is to contemptuously ridicule or ignore the proponents of such tropes. In the era of  a resurgence of white supremacy and neo-fascism, and the onset of COVID-19, in an age, in other words, where the humanities are at the most relevant yet most threatening crossroad they’ve faced in decades, we, intersectionally minded antiquity scholars, cannot afford to look the other way anymore. It is time for us to occupy the arena of public discourse equipped with our scholarly insights more creatively and more loudly.

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Katherine Blouin

Dr Katherine Blouin is Associate Professor in Roman History and Classics at the University of Toronto and the co-editor of the blog Everyday Orientalism. Her work focuses on the history of Hellenistic...

Monica Hanna

Dr Monica Hanna is an Egyptologist and an international figure in the world of archaeology. She is currently the acting Dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for...

Sarah E. Bond

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade...

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19 Comments

  1. I’m as liberal and progressive (by the American definition) as it comes and the only thing I find problematic about this article is your ham-handed and obvious attempt to discredit a woman who has devoted her life to educating about Egypt and its culture. You do all realize hit pieces like this could have very real consequences for someone’s reputation and career? Of course you do. You were all well aware of this when you wrote it.

    It’s patently ridiculous that you’d try to cast her as condoning or celebrating atrocities because of her aesthetic choices. If we were to completely disregard all past influences regarding aesthetics simply because of human rights abuses during that time period, we wouldn’t be influenced by anything from the past at all. There’s a huge difference between wearing a pith hat and khakis, versions of which have permeated cultures across the world from civilian wear to military and police attire, and wearing a KKK hood. One is functional attire adapted from an original well-performing design, one is symbolic.

    By your reasoning, we should also tear down all of our Roman-influenced (and by extension, Greek) architecture. Their culture was brutal and built on slavery. We should also disavow our current medical practices – they’re practical, yes, but they’re based in ancient Greek medical tradition. The Greeks were profoundly misogynistic and also engaged in socially acceptable pederasty. Let’s also remove all imagery and reference to the Victorian era, considering their treatment of women and gays and the oppressive nature of Victorian culture in general. And I mean, the Egyptians considered all other cultures to be barbaric, so that’s racism, isn’t it? Why do we allow ourselves to be influenced by them?

    My point being, we could look to every single culture in history and find some kind of human rights abuse that we find horrific today, but we don’t, because that is ridiculous. You can celebrate the fashion, style, architecture and aesthetic of an era without endorsing every aspect of it. To my knowledge, she has not denied the horrors of colonialism – it seems you’re the only one trying to make this an issue.

    To Katherine, Monica and Sarah – shame on you. You are a disgrace both to the practice of journalism (I use that word loosely for this article) and to those who are truly fighting for social justice. You don’t accomplish that by tearing down a woman who wears a hat you don’t like or rides in a boat from a certain historical period. You’re disgusting.

    1. Thank you for your succinct comment. My thoughts exactly–they are utterly pretentious and revolting.

  2. Colonialism (or rather neocolonialism) is still a problem and this issue must be addressed. It’s good that this problem was raised here.

    We must remember that Egyptology is a child of colonialism. Uncomfortable thought, but the big discoveries and many research projects would not have been possible if not the colonial empires, their institutions, which were making and supporting their scholars, and sending them to Egypt. They would not do it without a prospect of acquiring artefacts. Well… One cannot learn or make a progress without mistakes. In 100 years future generations will be criticising our approaches.

    Anyway, the problem is not fancy 1920’s dresses, khakis and pith helmets. The whole discussion about Vintage Egyptologist and such style among archaeologists seems to be an scapegoat. Egyp-tology still carry the burden of colonialism and the colonialism doesn’t wear any clothes. VE does not promote colonialism. She is promoting ancient Egypt.

    We can also brand the Winter Palace hotel, Carter’s House museum, the Cairo Museum as “colonial” (and they are in some way) and close them. It is not facing the past and problems but pretending that it didn’t happened by banning the relicts of colonialism for the view. It’s just dealing with sur-face symptoms, not the problem itself. Out of sight, out of heart.

    I would like to remind that not only British, American or French Egyptologists were wearing such clothes. Polish and other archaeologists did it as well. These were not colonial countries, their schol-ars did not wear colonial outfits. This was the style of that period.

    From other perspective, ancient Romans were killing and exploiting members of many nations and slavery was an important part of the economy of the Roman empire. Should we thus ban toga par-ties because such style of dressing can be related to homicides and slavery? Does the people doing re-enactments of Roman legionnaires promote Roman imperialism? Should we ban the 18th century fancy-dress parties as well, because aristocrats in many western European countries owned slaves and could afford such dresses thanks to this? Which clothing styles are politically correct then?

    What about people who just like and feel well in such dresses and are not relating styles to ideolo-gies? Let’s take a look at this lady: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qC_ZiczdKw0 On can ac-cuse her of promoting social injustices that were an important aspect of the times when people were wearing such dresses. Some people like some styles and periods. Why to ideologize and villainise fans of 1920’s or other periods? Maybe in 100 years from now people wearing our suits and dresses will be accuse of promoting international corporations which produce cheap t-shirts and jeans by employing under-payed people in developing countries. Everyone in Egypt (including archaeolo-gists) are wearing such during excavations. Imagine… the controversy in 100 years from now about some future vintage Egyptologist going for an excavation in a t-shirt!

    This paper seem to be not about the problem of colonialism but about VE. In my opinion the Darnells are not promoting colonialism but the glamorous style and period of great discoveries. This is very alluring for general public and is bringing interest to our field of studies. Many of my friends and colleagues like their aesthetics.

    From time to time people are wearing historical military uniforms, e.g. for parades or some other celebrations, this same kinds of uniforms which were used to conquer, kill, and exploit many ethnic groups. I haven’t seen criticism of this here. It’s about VE. I would like to remind everyone that pith helmets were also worn by ethnographers and geographers who made great discoveries.

    This paper does not focus on the real problems caused by colonialism. Just a few examples. Prices of academic books, journals, access to such online resources are ridiculously high, not only for Egyptians but also for researchers from other countries, even European ones. There is no discounte for Egyptians. This create inequality. Also, another burthens of colonialism are the languages in which academic discussions are conducted: English, French, and German. It’s much easier to become good academic if one of these is your mother tong. For non-native speakers this is a serious problem. And yet, reviewers of academic papers love to point out grammar and spelling mistakes and judge scholars on the basis of their command of the language they publish in. In the effect, many brilliant scholars have problems to break through with the results of their studies to publishers and the number of very good Egyptian researchers are underrepresented in scholarly debate. Especially when it comes to publishing for broader audience. Take a look at publications like “A Companion to Ancient Egypt” (2010) or “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” (2000). One need to be invited to contribute to such volumes. No Egyptian contributors. Theses are the real problems of post-colonialism/neocolonialism. Not the 1920’s vintage look.

    This article also exhibits some colonial approach. It’s all about what Western Egyptologists thinks. There is no mention about Egyptian point of view. I’m interested in what’s their opinion. Also, it generalise. Not all Egyptologists, maybe even not a half of us, don’t like the Darnells style. Was there any survey made or the authors spoke with their like-minded friends?

    Honestly, my ass look bad in jeans and I look better in the 1920’s military vintage trousers.

    1. While you make some good points about the impact of colonialism on modern Egyptian scholars, you’ve somehow missed that the second author, Monica Hanna, is Egyptian and works in Egypt.

  3. I see you deleted my comment. So, you’re against colonial representations in Egyptology but also against free speech, apparently. How modern yet regressive of you. You chose a topic about the systemic use of colonial imagery in the Egyptological community for profit and otherwise, yet you didn’t focus on the wider Egyptological community. You spent a shocking amount of time and effort tearing down a single woman. You don’t use other examples, real or hypothetical. You are attacking a single person’s career and reputation because you don’t like her social media posts. I think that is disgusting, anti-feminist and not just disappointing but overtly vindictive. Is this a personal vendetta, or are you just jealous at her success? I’ll repost another version of my comment below, since you removed it:

    If we were to completely disregard all past influences regarding aesthetics because of human rights abuses during that time period, we wouldn’t be influenced by anything from the past at all. That isn’t to say we should disregard or not be sensitive to them, but there’s a huge difference between wearing a pith hat and khakis, versions of which have permeated cultures across the world from civilian wear to military and police attire, and wearing a KKK hood. One is functional attire adapted from an original well-performing design, one is symbolic.

    There’s also a big difference between what she’s doing – celebrating a popular aesthetic, much of it from America in the 1910’s and 1920’s – and what Antebellum re-enactments in the South do. VE’s style is all over the place: pith hats, flapper dresses, polo shirts. She takes elements from various times and cultures to form her style. Racist re-enactments in America celebrating the “heyday” of slavery and white supremacy is much more narrow, targeted, pointed and has a very clear intent compared to what VE is doing, and there is a clear difference there. But you are trying to equate them, essentially.

    By your reasoning, we should also tear down all of our Roman-influenced (and by extension, Greek) architecture. And Rome should stop making money from tourism – they are profiting from a brutal culture built on endless wars and slavery. No more centurion cosplay. We should also disavow our current medical practices – they’re practical, yes, but they’re based in ancient Greek medical tradition. The Greeks were profoundly misogynistic and also engaged in socially acceptable pederasty. By extension, let’s just throw away democracy altogether.

    Let’s also remove all imagery and reference to the Victorian era, considering their treatment of women and gays and the oppressive nature of Victorian culture in general. And I mean, the Egyptians considered all other cultures to be barbaric, so that’s racism, isn’t it? Why do we allow ourselves to be influenced by them? And why are you studying Egyptology at all as a white person? By your reasoning, you should leave it to someone with a less sensitive, less colonial past.

    My point being, we could look to every single culture in history and find some kind of human rights abuse that we find horrific today and use that as a reason to cancel something or someone, but we generally don’t, because that is ridiculous. You can celebrate the fashion, style, architecture and aesthetic of an era without endorsing every aspect of it. To my knowledge, she has not denied the horrors of colonialism, though perhaps it would be prudent for her to address them.

    Katherine, Monica and Sarah – shame on you. You don’t accomplish anything by tearing down a woman who wears a hat you don’t like or rides in a boat from a certain historical period. I find your obsession with VE rather pathetic, personally, and the way you’ve shaped your message invalidates the parts of your messaging that do have value. Yes, we need to be cognizant and respectful of the past and how European culture has affected native populations, but you overextend yourself here and come off as petty.

    1. Well said D.M.H. I was going to comment myself but you have said everything I wanted to say and much more eloquently than I ever could. The most ridiculous article I’ve read in a long time.

    2. One of the key points here is that Darnell is using particular styles to sell herself – both socially and financially – without ever addressing any of the negative aspects of the eras. It’s not just about her personal style, she’s literally selling a whole package of ‘art deco Egypt’ by leaving out anything that her audience might find uncomfortable. I wouldn’t expect her to cover every aspect of complex issues in every Instagram post she makes, but she seems to have been refusing to address it over a period of years.

      In contrast, nobody imagines that the Roman empire was morally virtuous, or a pleasant place to live for the majority – in fact, most pop history depictions in the last century have tended to focus on the gritty parts and aspects we now find morally repellent. There’s no element of nostalgia in a toga party. (This isn’t to say that ignorant politicians don’t sometimes glamorise that or any other era when it suits them.)

      What most anti-colonial campaigners are asking for is that celebration of the achievements of past eras is combined with an understanding of what the price of them was, and who was paying it. Darnell seems to be just picking out the aesthetic elements she likes, with no appreciation of context – much as she uses ancient Egypt as a photo backdrop, with no recognition of modern Egypt in her images. It must be much easier to justify having ancient Egyptian treasures in European and American museums if you don’t understand anything about modern Egypt, and think that Egyptology is still white folks digging stuff up with Egyptians as labourers (note that where she does include and name Egyptians, she doesn’t give them any professional title – we don’t know whether they’re day labourers or professors). This isn’t normal for an academic – whether in art history or archaeology, we’re supposed to have an appreciation of the social context of our work and its public impact.

  4. Celebrating a historical aesthetic doesn’t signal endorsement of the related political zeitgeist. And following arguments against cultural appropriation to a logical conclusion means that any artistic cross-pollination of arts and styles is verboten.

  5. Attacking a single academic individual, as this article does, is not cool. As others have said, it simply reeks of jealousy. It seems that certain academics – like the three authors – have built a career out of criticizing people. What have they actually contributed to the field as a whole though? Just look at their publications.

    1. A very quick internet search will tell you that the first author has had a string of publications in very prestigious journals, and the second has been recognised internationally for her work preserving Egyptian cultural heritage (I don’t know enough about Sarah E. Bond’s field to judge the quality of the places she’s published). So I think it’s you who’s making the groundless personal criticism here.

      1. Having a string of academic publications, even if peer reviewed and in top journals, does not necessarily make one exceptional. Lots of academics simply put papers together by parroting the ideas of earlier academics and stringing a bunch of footnotes together in order to seem informed. Do these publications advance the field though? What new theory or method have these three authors presented apart from tearing down the work of other academics? And by the way, I say this as a Classicist who has also published in top journals, but I have not built a career for myself by tearing down other people’s work.

        1. This is the most outrageous line of argument. So no one is allowed to perform any cultural criticism unless they’ve passed some arbitrary line of influence (a line drawn by whom? By you?). Clearly you do not understand how cultural criticism works and your entire argument reeks of exactly the kind of gatekeeping that sustains the white, colonialist gaze: you cannot criticize me because you have not performed according to my own institutional standards. Never mind that these authors are indeed published academics. But even if they weren’t, their criticism of the VE stands and it’s something many people in the field have been thinking but have failed, until now, to say.

          1. “their criticism of the VE stands and it’s something many people in the field have been thinking but have failed, until now, to say.”

            Perhaps because many of these people have better things to write about than picking on a single individual who has not caused them any personal harm? I do not know her or her husband and I am well-aware of their reputation at Yale but attacking a single individual’s aesthetic in the name of “colonialism” says more about the authors than Colleen Darnell.

          2. So what exactly is your problem with this article? That the authors aren’t well published enough to warrant a platform? That Colleen Darnell should be above criticism because…why exactly? Darnell styles herself as a public intellectual. Surely as an art historian you can recognize that aesthetics do indeed matter. I haven’t seen you actually address a single point in their argument so I wonder why it’s so important to you to defend the VE. I wonder if perhaps you over identify with her? Anyway, I’m sorry you feel she was unfairly singled out, but as an Egyptologist with a huge public following I have to strongly disagree that she should be above criticism for some unspecified reason.

  6. I think this article is brillant. Colonial/problematic narratives have been used to sell fashion for decades, like the 1970s Little House on the Prairie that caused prairie skirts and dresses (like those produced by Jessica McClintock in SE Asian sweatshops) to become wildly popular. Or the ethnic/Marrakech look that was pushed so hard by Yves St. Laurent primarily because he wanted to take advantage of the abundance of boy sex slaves in Morocco.

  7. I think the critics of this article are missing something pertinent. The authors write: “We argue that VE is very successful because it occludes.” The vintage fashion is not a problem in and of itself. It is a problem, first because of the totality of the personae that Darnell and her husband project, and second because these personae are unreflexive and uncritical of the era they celebrate.

    1. Clearly what I and many other colleagues in my field find problematic with this article is the fact that the three authors have not distinguishing themselves in their work thus far. It is easy to criticize other academics but much more difficult to actually make a groundbreaking contribution in one’s field. Look at their publication records and read their work carefully. Are they contributing anything of substance?

  8. VE are such an open goal for postcolonial analysis that I assume 99% of Hyperallergic readers already knew the moves that would be made by this laborious exegesis the moment we saw the first illustrations. The central assertion of the piece, that historians trade in idealised and incomplete pasts and may indeed be have been drawn into historical disciplines because of formative encounters with such representations, is undeniable. My own lifetime engagement with the history of art is rooted in exactly such a libidinous encounter with an old National Geographic account of the relocation of the temples at Abu Simbel.

    However, in its rush to shame one outstandingly gauche practice in the field of online popular archeology, the article notably fails to reflect on its authors’ own ideations of history. It is not difficult to imagine a future audience for whom the main takeaway from this piece will be the evocation of an equally reductive version of colonial power structures, offered by academics wholly unreflective of their own libidinous relationships to revisionist (and deeply binary) fantasies of violence.

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