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What John Galliano Tells Us about the Dark Side of Status

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Earlier this week, a Paris court set a June 22 date for the trial of ex-Dior designer John Galliano. He’ll face six months in prison and a maximum fine of 22,500 euros for his now-notorious anti-Semitic and otherwise racist tirade at a posh café in Paris’s fashionable Marais district.

Coverage of Galliano’s diatribe has focused on its ethnic dimension. This isn’t surprising. Galliano’s ethnically charged vitriol shocks the conscience and serves as the basis of his impending criminal case. France outlaws hate speech that targets race or ethnicity, as well as sex, sexual orientation, religion, and physical disability.

Galliano has apologized for his rant on this account. He added that “I have fought my entire life against prejudice, intolerance and discrimination having been subjected to it myself.” His apologists have emphasized this in his defense. One commentator further observed that “[n]obody is claiming that Galliano’s drunken outburst reflects a seam of Nazi sympathy in his work: on the contrary, anything less likely to strike a chord with the Nazis than the richly cosmopolitan, gypsy-influenced anarchy of his designs is hard to imagine.” Be that as it may, Galliano’s apparent racism isn’t the only troubling aspect of what occurred, even if it’s the only aspect that concerns French law.

The threatening undercurrent to racism is what sociologists call “in-group/out-group bias.” In-group/out-group bias is just a more formal way of thinking about something we all understand intuitively. We like people with whom we identify better than people with whom we don’t. In group settings, we treat those people with whom we identify better, while treating others worse, even when we wouldn’t do so on an individual basis. The bias can be powerful, as the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated in 1971. The Stanford Prison Experiment so successfully and disturbingly transformed ordinary undergraduate students into prison guards who tortured their classmates as inmates that researchers abandoned the project before they had even half-finished.

This is why race, ethnicity, and other similar “immutable characteristics” receive protection against discrimination in western society. These sorts of characteristics can’t be changed—they’re immutable—so the in-group/out-group dynamic threatens to become intractable and spiral out of control. In history’s worst cases, the results have been brutally violent, as happened in Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, and Europe during the Second World War. The results are still troubling even in less severe cases, as was the case in apartheid societies like South Africa, or the southern United States.

Galliano’s tirade went beyond race and ethnicity, however, and is disturbing across its entire spectrum. According to one version, Galliano not only erroneously attacked at least one woman for being Jewish and professed his love for Hitler, but also ranted that

You’re so ugly I can’t bear looking at you. You’re wearing cheap boots, cheap thigh boots. You’ve got no hair, your eyebrows are ugly, you’re ugly, you’re nothing but a whore.

So, Galliano reasoned in his stupor, “people like [her]” should be gassed, as Hitler did to European Jews. Certainly, Galliano revealed an anti-Semitism of his own in this reasoning. But he also seems to have been drawing a chilling and self-aggrandizing parallel between Hitler and himself, one autocrat to another. Hitler, atop his actual empire, murdered his out-groups. Galliano, atop his cultural empire, apparently wished that he could do the same. Hitler mainly cordoned his out-groups along lines of ethnicity—but also of religion and, ironically for Galliano, sexual orientation. In drawing his lines, Galliano seems to have employed his own haute couture sense of beauty—a sense that evidently conflates wealth with ethnic heritage and genetic good fortune. Ugly people with cheap boots are Galliano’s Jews, and Jews are ugly to Galliano.

Ethnicity is obviously both immutable and widely protected against discrimination by law. Physical beauty is to a large extent also immutable, but not protected. As for wealth, it is arguably mutable, especially from a plucky American point of view, and not at all protected. But when it comes to haute couture, the sum of these attributes is greater than its parts. The real currency is exclusivity, which is woven from heritage, genetic good fortune, unattainable expense, and, oddly enough, French law. It must by definition remain so far out of reach as to be statistically nonexistent. The whole idea is that you can’t have it. You can’t be it. You and everyone else belongs to the out-group, along with everything that entails.

Fashion is a potent vehicle for human self-expression. It’s also a basic building block of human society. What we do with fashion as individuals influences in the aggregate how we interact at the societal level. The social norms that govern fashion in turn govern access to opportunity. Meanwhile, fashion designed around status will, as it intends to, always generate out-groups. Even if we stretch credulity in accepting Galliano’s repudiation of ethnic prejudice, we’re still left with an out-group and a clear picture of what it means to belong to it. That picture might be a little less dark. But the scene is still grim.

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