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Hide couture

By Russell Grenning - posted Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Princess Michael of Kent, the wife of the Queen's first cousin Prince Michael of Kent, has been forced to issue a grovelling apology for wearing allegedly racist jewellery to a recent lunch with Prince Harry and his new American fiancée Meghan Markle.

The brooch is what is referred to as Blackamoor art which features black people in historic costumes as everything from Sultans to slaves. Princess Michael's brooch featured the face and shoulders of a black man in a richly embroidered costume and wearing an elaborate jewelled turban.

The British press went wild.


The British public was reminded that her father Baron Gunther von Reibnitz, a German aristocrat who died in 1983, was a member of the feared and loathed Nazi SS although no mention was made of the fact that he was expelled from the Nazi Party and the SS where he was a cavalry officer in 1944. He had been in frequent trouble with the Nazi authorities being accused of denigrating the swastika to calling SS Chief Himmler "a chicken farmer" which, in fact, he had been but he didn't want people to be reminded of it. In 1948, he was cleared by a de-Nazification court as being equivalent to a "non-accused person". None of that mattered to the British press.

They also had a field day alleging that not only was the brooch intrinsically racist it would have been particularly offensive to Ms Markle whose mother is a descendant of black African slaves. Ms Markle made no comment and neither did any member of the Royal Family except Princess Michael.

In her apology statement issued via a spokesman, Princess Michael said the brooch had been a gift which she had previously worn many times without comment but the statement added, "Princess Michael is very sorry and distressed that it has caused offence." You can bet that it will never ever be seen again.

Perhaps Prince Harry would have had quiet sympathy for Princess Michael. In 2005, aged 20, the Prince was unwise enough to wear a crude replica of a German Afrika Corps uniform complete with a swastika armband to a fancy dress party. The torrent of criticism was tsunami-like. Senior Labour Party figures even demanded that he be refused entry to Sandhurst, the prestigious military academy. Happily he did and served in the front line in Afghanistan rising to the rank of Captain.

Until this incident I was unaware that jewellery could be racist but how woefully mistaken I was. Even the most cursory inquiry showed any number of previous similar offences.

In March 2017, students at California's Pitzer College were treated to a message on its "free wall", a location on campus where students can spray paint their comments on any issue. The message read, "White Girl, take off your hoops" followed by three exclamation marks.


The "white girls" on campus had no idea what that meant and one sent out a campus-wide email asking for an explanation. Hoops, incidentally, are large circular earrings.

The reply came back from a black female member of staff who said that she had written the message because white girls who wore these adornments were racists and "cultural appropriationists". The explanation continued,. "The art was created by myself and a few other WOC (women of colour) after being tired and annoyed with the reoccurring theme of white women appropriating styles that belong to the black and brown folks who created the culture."

It continued, "The culture actually comes from a historical background of oppression and exclusion" and, further, "...we wonder why should white girls be able to take part in this culture (wearing hoop earrings just one case of it) and be seen as cute/aesthetic/ethnic. White people have actually exploited the culture and made it into fashion."

This rant went on and on although it didn't actually say how white girls could be – as opposed to should be – stopped from wearing these earrings. Pitzer College which describes itself as a "liberal arts college" and is highly rated currently among the USA's top universities for "Best Ethnic Diversity" had no official comment.

Perhaps there really is a need for fashion police.

Back in 2015, New York University got itself into hot water when it was revealed that it had thirty-four Blackamoor sculptures in its possession, apparently the largest of any known public or private collection. The collection was in an Italian mansion bequeathed to the university by British author, poet and man of letters Sir Harold Acton who died in 1994. Responding to fierce criticism of their inherited collection, Awam Amkpa, Professor of Africana Studies, said, "We thought that instead of simply putting them in storage, we can train students in contextualisation and curation. We can use it to create a wider understanding of how we have seen the black body through the ages."

The university had flung in its corporate face its web page statement that it is "committed to building a culture that respects and embraces diversity, inclusion and equity." On the basis of owning an inherited collection of Blackamoor statues, the university was aggressively described as "racist", "white supremacist" and even "a friend of the Nazis". NYU is still apologising.

Their explanation was simply not good enough for those who think that this allegedly racist art should be destroyed or, at least, hidden away and never again be allowed to see the light of day.

In 2015, an Indian jewellery advertisement featuring the very beautiful and hugely popular Bollywood actress and former Miss World Rai Bachchan was pulled because it featured her reclining on a couch wearing a glamorous gown and some of the Kaylan Jewellers creations. What was deemed racist in the advertisement was that Ms Bachchan was being attended by a dark Indian boy with a huge fan.

There were many mutterings about the fact that Ms Bachchan is fair-skinned for an Indian while the boy was very dark skinned and there were even serious suggestions that she had been chosen for the advertisement not because of her popularity but because of her skin colour which made her look almost Caucasian while the boy portraying her servant was as black as any Indian could be. Another criticism was that the advertisement promoted child slavery.

Of course the jewellers apologised and the advertisement was pulped.

In 2014, necklaces featuring the heads of yellow faced Asian characters had to be speedily withdrawn from sale and banned when a social media storm which, predictably, described the necklaces as "racist". It was alleged that these offending bits of jewellery harked back to the days of early Hollywood films when Caucasian actors wearing makeup played characters such as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. That came as a big surprise to the designers and manufacturers but, of course, it is possible that they didn't see this connection because they were inherently anti-Asian and deeply racist.

In 2012 the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana was deluged with allegations that earrings featuring a caricatured black woman were "racist". Predictably, the earrings were withdrawn from sale.

And while contemplating all of this spare a thought for the current owners of the Hugo Boss clothing empire who still have to deal with the fact that the original Hugo Boss, the founder of the firm, was an ardent Nazi who helped to create many Nazi uniforms including the black and silver outfits worn by the SS and fashion and for the current owners of the perfume and fashion empire founded by Coco Chanel who more or less openly collaborated with the Nazis when they occupied Paris from 1940 to 1944.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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