‘… but words will never hurt me’? Fashion and the Normalisation of Slights and Slurs

I came across an interesting article about a new campaign by Diesel called ‘Haute Couture’. The idea behind ‘Hate Couture’ seems to be that if we wear clothes that display and constantly confront us with hateful phrases or slurs we shall become less sensitive to, or upset by, this hate speech. As Diesel states IT, ‘the more hate you wear, the less you care’.

The apparel Diesel tries to push this way is in fact rather banal. There are shirts and sweaters with large Diesel labels, partly covered with stickers that proclaim that the brand it ‘IS DEAD’ or ‘NOT COOL ANYMORE’ (I agreed with that some 20 years ago). Other stickers proclaim ‘INFAME’ (I had to wiki that; apparently, it’s an archaic version of ‘defame’). For the more daring, a ‘FUCK YOU IMPOSTER’ label is available, and for those seeking inspiration from Nicki Minaj, a jeans jacket with ‘THE BAD GUY’ is available, and Barbie Ferreira, a ‘curvy model’ and representative of the Body Positivity movement endorses a black top with ‘FAT’ printed repeatedly over it.

Now, the fight against racial, gendered, homophobic and other language is of course to be commended. The idea of normalising slurs by making them part of everyday fashion and thereby ‘taking the sting’ out of them is on the face of it at least an interesting idea. It seems to resonate with the idea of revalorising and re-appropriating denigrating and insulting terms of such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ to turn them into positive affirmations of a previously discriminated identity. There is some resonance here with the ‘slut walks’ of 2011 when women in different cities all over the world took to the streets wearing bras, panties, stockings and other items of sexualised undergarments, attempting to re-claiming the term ‘slut’ from men for whom this term was a central element in their chauvinistic vocabulary. Whether the participants and supporters of these walks succeeded in this is perhaps still a matter of discussion, but it was certainly a valiant effort.

Does the Diesel campaign fit in here? Firstly, of course we should be sceptical that a million-dollar fashion company endorses a social cause in order to boost its own sales. Secondly, slapping some stickers or labels onto sweaters, tops, t-shirts or jackets itself does not make for the most compelling fashion. Frankly, I find the clothes on offer rather banal and its attempted ‘vulgarity’ trite. But that’s just me…

More crucially, what does this campaign really do? What does it actually normalise? What do the claims that that Diesel ‘is dead’ or that it ‘is no longer cool’ do for our social conscience? That Nicki Minaj shills a ‘BAD BOY’ jacket does not seem to expand the space for articulations of still continuously discriminated identities. And I am still not sure what ‘Infame’ is supposed to tell me.

There is one remarkable and quite disturbing item, though, that sticks out, and that in a sense demonstrates the deeply problematic nature of this campaign. That is a £350 satin bomber jacket (also displayed in the YouTube video above) with ‘all over print’, as the Diesel Internet shop explains. That print is ‘FAGGOT’. Can we really claim that displaying this term, all to commonly used by homophobes, can be ‘defused’ by putting it on a ‘fashionable’ jacket? Can we really expect that this campaign makes us care less about this slur, or that it can be re-appropriated by gay men and turned into an affirmative expression of their identity? When Nicki Minaj plays with the expression ‘BAD BOY’, or Barbie Ferreira mocks ‘FAT” as a truly idiotic label for her appearance, that is all well and good. I just suspect that ‘FAGGOT’ is truly in a different category of words, and displaying it prominently on garments will do little to lessen its demeaning connotations.

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