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Fashion’s Fascists

The fashion world claims to be shocked over John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outbursts. But it’s an industry based on exclusion, and plenty of iconic European fashion figures don’t hold up to scrutiny.

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Coco Chanel; Christian Dior; John Galliano. (Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
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John Galliano is the latest in a disturbingly expanding field of public figures to be exposed as an ASWD, or an Anti-Semite While Drunk (and to be fair, probably when sober). The flamboyant fashion designer whose theatrically louche maximalism has been synonymous with the House of Dior for nearly a decade and a half was arrested last Thursday in Paris’ Le Marais district for allegedly verbally assaulting a couple in a café with anti-Semitic slurs (a criminally prosecutable offense in France). Just days later, a video surfaced online of an intoxicated Galliano in the same café, presumably a few months before the initial complaint, proclaiming, “I love Hitler” and “People like you would be dead today; your mothers, your forefathers would be fucking dead and fucking gassed.” Cue “Blue Steel” look from Zoolander.

The condemnation has been swift and for the most part unequivocal, with a few notable exceptions. (I’m sure Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani had only the most noble of Enlightenment principles in mind when she accused the maker of the video of cashing in for their “30 pieces of silver.”) Christian Dior swiftly suspended and ultimately fired Galliano from his position as head designer; CEO Sidney Toledano called Galliano’s remarks “odious” and proclaimed the company’s “zero-tolerance towards any anti-Semitic or racist words or behavior.” And Natalie Portman, the face of Dior Cherie perfume, denounced Galliano, saying she was “deeply shocked and disgusted.”

Much as it pains me, I must beg to differ with my divinely anointed sovereign, the Holy Empress of All Jewesses. I’m disgusted, sure, but I’m not deeply shocked. I’m not even a little shocked. In fact, I’ve realized that I’ve been subconsciously expecting something like this to come out of the fashion world for some time.

I love fashion. I’ve always loved fashion. I was reading Vogue and W before I finished grade school. My happiest childhood memories involve standing in front of three-way mirrors in dressing rooms with my grandmother, analyzing the line, fit, and fabrication of whatever egregiously overpriced ribbon-festooned ’80s monstrosity I had set my heart on. Even today, if it wasn’t for the Barneys website I would have—well, let’s just say I would have finished this piece before I’d already spent all the money I earned writing it.

This is all harmless enough (except to my bank account, which isn’t your problem), but the fashion world has its dark side. I’m not talking about its well-documented failings—the rampant drug use and eating disorders, the abuse (or at least neglect) of bewildered underage models—but the fact that its integral philosophy is based on a principle of exclusivity. Fashionistas may indeed have a keen eye for beauty, but for many (and I shamefully include myself in this number) the true frisson comes less from an appreciation for innovative design or admiration for glorious craftsmanship than from the mean, malignant, but deeply satisfying sense of superiority in having a handbag that costs as much as an emergency appendectomy or being able to wriggle neatly into a sleek size 2 (or, more elusively, an Italian 38, since everyone knows how American designers are bullied into cutting generously for their vain customers). You are rich (or look like you are, which is almost as good); you are thin, and those are the two things that legendary fashion icon and notorious Nazi-sympathizer Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, said you can never be too much of, and therefore you are better, fancier, more deserving than the lumpen undesirables relegated to the downstairs cosmetics counter in the metaphorical department store of life.

Walk into a Chanel boutique and ask to try something on. Unless you look like a billionaire or Blake Lively or a member of the harem of the Sultan of Brunei, you’ll feel like a character from Schindler’s List desperately trying to convince an impassive Gestapo clerk of your worth as an essential worker. “Please, I beg you! I’m not a violinist, I’m a steel welder! And a French size 36! I swear!”

Obviously, a sane, rational human being with a secure sense of self wouldn’t buy into any of this nonsense, but if millennia of religious war, oppression, totalitarianism, and genocide have taught us anything, it’s that sane, rational human beings have historically been pretty thin on the ground.

I’m not saying that fashion people are all fascists-in-waiting. Fashion, like many other creative professions, has long been a haven for all varietals of misfits and non-conformists in need of a place to turn their eccentricities into strengths, and how can I ignore the enormous contribution of my co-religionists Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Zac Posen, Isaac Mizrahi, and Sonia Rykiel to the schmatte business (although it’s interesting that their clothes are often lauded with adjectives like “wearable,” “form-flattering,” and “democratic”—go figure)?

But plenty of iconic European fashion figures don’t hold up so well under scrutiny. Louis Vuitton collaborated enthusiastically with the Vichy government. Christian Dior himself was able to bounce back so quickly with his postwar “New Look” in large part because of the nice little nest egg he’d amassed enthusiastically dressing the wives of Nazi officers. Coco Chanel passed diplomatic secrets to the Germans, attempted to use the Aryan laws to unfairly wrest control of her perfume business from the Jewish Wertheimer family, and narrowly escaped having her head publicly shaved as une collaboratrice horizontale after living openly with her Nazi lover at the Ritz in Occupied Paris.

The ignominious wartime history of such members of the fashion world might be less a question of immorality than amorality. When questioned about sleeping with the enemy, Chanel responded reasonably: “Really, sir, a woman at my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance for a lover.” (Aesthetics, or rather vanity, above all.) And even if Galliano’s expressed love for Hitler (in what I’m still not sure isn’t an outtake from Bruno) is less a function of a shared murderous ideology than admiration for a fellow uncompromising stylist who would never allow so much as a sprig of freesia in his hotel room, it’s easy to understand how they, or he, got there.

Exclusionary prejudice begets exclusionary prejudice. It’s not hard to see how someone like John Galliano, who has staked his entire career, his entire empire, if you will, on the deep-seated belief that some people (rich, thin, fabulous) are inherently superior could spill over into murkier, scarier, more atavistic realms. Taken to its logical extreme, there’s no telling to what kind of depths that psychological darkness can wander. Once you start dehumanizing others for being poor, fat, ugly, tacky, whatever, all bets are off.

Or maybe he just hates us because we won’t buy retail.

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I think your second to last sentence really sums up the issue. Thank you for your analysis.

Isn’t Galliano gay? The irony of an openly gay person saying “I love Hitler” is so great as to be dumbfounding.

Is freesia un-chic?

Rachel says:

“Do I smell freesia?…If I see freesias, I will be VERY disappointed.” –Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

To compare the pathetic plight of someone coping with snobbery in a Chanel boutigue with the profounc tragedy of Jewish prisoners of the Nazis is odious.

David Cohen says:

John Galliano. Is he not the ugliest looking (or funniest looking) creep on the Paris side of the pond? I have a tough time giving a you know what about this guy. He’s lucky he didn’t mouth off to me that way. He’d be looking even skankier.;). Yuck.
dc

Berta Calechman says:

Is it too harsh to hope that if Galliano has to go to prison, the guards are Jewish??? NAH.

Tamar: a lot of the early Nazis were gay, specifically Ernst Rohm and the SA. Hitler himself had no problem with Rohm’s homosexuality, but eventually purged him when the Nazis were making their bid for “respectability.” Lest we forget, the Nazis were in large part an aesthetic (which is not to say fashion, but fashion played a part) movement.

Bernard Baum says:

Empress of All Jewishness? Aren’t we being a wee bit catty ,here? If Natalie Portman is in the position of being able to publicize this issue and her reasoned , responsible response,GOOD FOR HER !!! It’s beyond nachas for her her family and a tribute to all of us, including you who, as a writer ,would ascribe to being widely read too. she is using her well earned fame in a very productive result. she can state her feelings as they relate indeed to her being a spokesperson for Dior . It is not like those know-it-alls,who, by virtue of being entertainers (ie., Sean Penn and Bono)are “serious experts”.

By-the-bye , Galliano calling those two people (not Jewish but still reported the incident …good for them ,too) or ANYONE UGLY is really beyond farce. He has at lease five levels upwards to climb before he even reaches the ugly stage

Bryna Weiss says:

I’m not sure why the previous commenter dissed Sean Penna and Bono, who famously give of their time and money all over the world where crises occur. Is there something else about them in relation to Jewishness, that I don’t know? Though I do agree with his taking umbrage at the writer’s offensive comment about the beautiful, talented, and wonderfully outspoken, Natalie. But there even more ridiculous and rather insulting comments by the writer- “Or maybe he just hates us because we won’t buy retail”. Is there anyone in the world, Jew ,Gentile, Muslim, Atheist, who doesn’t purchase “on sale” when possible and pays “retail” most of the time! That’s not cute Ms. Shukert.

Jesus says:

Jews only WISH they were Semitic. They aren’t. Jewish is a religion not a race. Get over your boring JEWRY. 20 million people died in the Holocaust, many more non Jews than Jews. If you can’t trace your origin to the Levant get off your poseur Semitic rant. This applies to the oinker Natalie Portman and her meaningless, trite movies. Her parent’s are of European descent.

Simon says:

You know, I’m not sure that that’s the real Jesus.

Andy MAluche says:

Let’s not forget Hugo Boss, who designed all those iconic Nazi uniforms.

Susie says:

Christian Dior and other French couturiers dressing the wives of Nazi officers allowed their businesses to stay open, helping the economy of France and keeping their people employed.

Relating your own insecurities about fashion to anti-semitic ranting seems like a stretch to me.

symon says:

geez all i did was reply to your ?
is galliano a gino name ?

Spic …
fr. Gibraltar
British colony btwn espana e morocco
with an Arab name !
Jabl-Al-Tariq (Tariq’s Mtn)

didnt think the answer was that complicatd
unless she does not understand the meaning of “spic”

fr. da jewkraut 2 da jewspic !

GERALDO RIVERA is a true jewspic, 1/2jew 1/2puertorican !

Shar says:

How about a a positive perspective concentrating on all of those Jewish designers that keep/kept the world looking beautiful? Elber Albaz, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, Yigal Azrouel, Max Azria, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi, Judith Lieber, Zac Posen, Anne Klein, Sonya Rykiel, Henri Bendel and Kenneth Cole to name a few.

sara says:

I have read in a few places that Elber Albaz, who is a genius, could potentially replace Galliano. Now wouldn’t THAT be a fun little twist?

Perry N. says:

Tamar says:
Mar 4, 2011 at 10:08 AM
Isn’t Galliano gay? The irony of an openly gay person saying “I love Hitler” is so great as to be dumbfounding.

In addition to being gay; like Portman and most of Hollywood, he’s quite liberal. Talk about being a hypocrite! It appears to me that Ms. Shukert knows more about the names of the Schmatte World than she does about being Jewish. LOL.

Erica says:

Ralph Lauren and democracy in the same sentence? His ads celebrate some false idyll of the rich WASP lifestyle.

boobeh says:

“Exclusionary prejudice begets exclusionary prejudice.” Good grief… The attempt to make this column into a profound analysis of why snobbishness in the fashion industry begets (ahem!) ant-Semitism is pathetic. An American Roman Catholic priest whose name I unfortunately do not remember wrote a book in which he said that anti-Semitism is the longest, most irrational hatred in human history. The people who beat my mother as a child in Romania did so because she was a dirty Jew. Period.

hana blume says:

The topic deserves a better discussion than this bratty, not-as-smart-as-she-thinks-she-is one: Natalie Portman is a “Jewess?” Is Oprah Winfrey a “Negress?” Both words are pejorative. Rachel Shukert should have known that before she jumped into print. She might also have checked and found out that Wallis Simpson is only one of many women – and one of the more unlikely ones – assumed to have coined the “can’t be too rich or too thin” aphorism. Running a piece like this undermines any aspirations TABLET may harbor towards being taken seriously as a literate, much less serious, forum.

Israeli Professor Shlomo Sand’s Book,”The Invention of the Jewish People” Dr Sand’s arguments are supported by Genetics:

I think Galliano has done worse things with his mouth besides putting his foot in it.

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john says:

Maybe some day “le Tout New York” will be running for their lives in stilletos (fashion) and shaved heads (wind resistance)

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Fashion’s Fascists

The fashion world claims to be shocked over John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outbursts. But it’s an industry based on exclusion, and plenty of iconic European fashion figures don’t hold up to scrutiny.

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