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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.

Rachel Shukert
March 04, 2011
Coco Chanel; Christian Dior; John Galliano.(Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Coco Chanel; Christian Dior; John Galliano.(Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

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.

Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.