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Artist and fashion designer Peggy Noland’s four dresses of Oprah’s face Photoshopped onto variously sized black female bodies perpetuate American pop culture’s rampant racism. Modeled by a white woman, the dresses suggest that anyone can go ahead and “try on” a black woman’s body in sizes “petite, average, or obese,” all categories defined by white beauty standards. This harkens back to histories of black bodies of all genders being put on display, often at public slave auctions, as objects of ridicule and scrutiny, to be bought and sold under white American supremacy. But it doesn’t stop there — Noland chooses an unidentified headless black female body that’s essentially decapitated, its head replaced with Oprah’s.
Noland banks on a white hipster aesthetic that gives anyone who questions it both an ironic shrug of the shoulders and an eye-roll, suggesting that everyone needs to “calm the fuck down already” because we live in a post-racial world. This is how hipster racism subtly and insidiously begins, eventually becoming full-on pop culture racism. The artist profits, and the black woman’s body is once again visually, sexually, and emotionally degraded. One wonder what Noland’s recent client Rihanna would say.
The woman on Noland’s dresses could very well be Renisha McBride, 19, a black woman who was shot in the head when she asked for help late on a Saturday night in a white suburb outside of Detroit. Or Rekia Boyd, 22, a black woman who was shot and killed for no reason by a Chicago off-duty police officer. The women on Noland’s dresses could be the black women who haunt the 9-mile bridge in Auxvasse, Missouri, where legend has it they were hung, and their slave children were drowned in the nearby creek. Auxvasse is a three-hour drive from Noland’s hometown of Independence, Missouri.
The racism and sexism of these dresses screams from the mouth of an appropriated Oprah, the most powerful black woman in entertainment today, who mostly white daytime-TV-watching ladies love to identify with even though her experience couldn’t be more different from their own. Oprah’s pasted-on face goes from calm and smiling when uber-skinny and average-sized to horrified and screaming with the final increase in weight. By using these sizes, Noland reinforces a culture of body shaming by white women toward women of color. Oprah has been publicly judged and mocked for her struggles with weight, and that judgment comes from a white Eurocentric fashion industry that decides which bodies are acceptable and which bodies are policed.
With these dresses, Noland creates a kind of wearable, allover blackface, a racist phenomenon that became ubiquitous again this year. Just one example came from actress Julianne Hough, who showed up to a party in Beverly Hills donning blackface for her costume of the character Crazy Eyes (played by Uzo Aduba) in the TV show Orange Is the New Black. Hough even attempted to “blacken” her blonde hair by tying it into a few loose buns, attempting to emulate Crazy Eyes’ natural hairstyle of tiny bantu-knots. Hough later issued an apology via her Twitter account, which read:
I am a huge fan of the show Orange is the New black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.
In her apology, Hough uses an excuse that should by now be unacceptable — that she “did not intend to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone,” and for that reason she should not be held responsible. At this point in American cultural history, it’s time to stop intending and start knowing better from the start.
The same applies to Peggy Noland, whose style is clearly influenced by growing up in Independence, Missouri, where slavery was once legal. Missouri, a former border state, was admitted to the Union as a slave-holding state in 1821. This is where the notorious Dred Scott decision went down. Nowadays, there’s a place called Slave Plantation in Independence that people can conveniently check into on Foursquare. It’s a wonder that, considering the history of her hometown, Noland is ignorant of the racial implications in her work, as evidenced in an interview with New York Magazine.
Noland has made a name for herself designing for popular bands, including CSS, The Gossip, Peaches, and SSION. Shimmery, sparkling, and dazzling to look at for a time, her outfits play with excessive use of color, texture, and material in a way that’s light, fun, glossy, and hipster silly. In New York, Noland calls her style “trash meets high class.” Her cheeky recent dress Google Me is a custom-made occasion: find out what happens when you Google your name and the search engine autocompletes for you with suggestions that are equal parts profound and absurd. Then get it on a dress!
The trouble with the Oprah project is its uncritical — some might say careless — use of imagery for the sake of fashion, which, while it is on the surface, speaks to what’s inside. When reflected back as part of Noland’s ongoing “trash aesthetic,” these dresses consider female bodies — specifically black ones — as objects that are commodified and ultimately meant for the garbage. It’s unacceptable for any woman’s body to be thought of this way, no matter who’s looking.