Ancient Practice Sparks a Rapper's Outrage

The "racist" blackamoor designs stoking Azealia Banks' ire at D&G have roots that predate slavery.

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Victor Virgile/Getty Images; Herbert Gehr/Getty Images

(The Root) -- Blackamoor heads dangling from the ears of high-fashion models? Decorative images of black faces emblazoned on haute couture dresses?

Dolce & Gabbana's prominently featured blackamoor jewelry and clothing designs were rolled out in its spring 2013 collection fashion show in Milan on Sept. 23. They were called racist by some and blindly insensitive by others. Just last week, rapper Azealia Banks tweeted that she is "definitely boycotting" the luxury-apparel designer for using " 'black mammie' [sic] imagery."

While Dolce & Gabbana is not technically featuring American mammy images, the blackamoor designs evoke a similar sense of racial insensitivity. The design house's fashions are part of a long and complex history of blacks being used as European decorative exotica, dating back centuries.

Dolce & Gabbana has stated that these motifs are drawn from traditional Sicilian majolica ceramic designs that often featured the head of a black man, or a "Moor." Based on Sicilian folklore surrounding the Moorish invasion of southern Italy more than a millennium ago, the particular sources for the fashion house's current designs are not necessarily grounded in slavery. However, blackamoor imagery in general reflects trends in decorative arts that recall the history of slaves in Europe and the disturbing manner in which the European luxury culture objectified black bodies as mere ornament.

In European courts, such as France's Versailles in the 17th century, black court slaves dressed in exotic garb were symbols of wealth and luxury. Portraits of fashionable, aristocratic women often featured black attendants. The proximity of dark servants made the women look whiter and, thus, more beautiful by local standards. Furniture with black bodies supporting tables or holding candelabra mimicked the kind of labor these slaves performed. They became increasingly popularized through the 19th century.

After the demise of traditional European courts, a British or American aristocrat could bring courtly fashion into the home with his very own blackamoor objects. Emerging from a culture that gained wealth on the backs of slaves, these artifacts both celebrated and diminished black labor as charmingly exotic, erasing the horrors of slavery.

By the early 20th century, the blackamoor resurfaced as a symbol of sumptuous living. Fashion icons Coco Chanel and Helena Rubinstein both collected blackamoor furniture. Blackamoor brooches made of gold and precious stones were designed by Cartier and Nardi. 1950s designer Selro made popular blackamoor costume jewelry. Grace Kelly was photographed wearing a blackamoor pin. Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland was known for her collection of blackamoor furniture and jewelry.

The racially charged connection between white beauty and the decorative blackamoor that was born in European portraiture resurfaced in 20th-century fashion. While this trend ostensibly evoked Old World charm, the links to the exploitation of blacks and the ultimate power of whiteness remain strong.

Blackamoor jewelry continues to be popular today. Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses frequently feature high-end blackamoor jewelry and furniture that sell for large sums. Blackamoors are a ubiquitous presence on eBay and vintage-jewelry websites. In antique shops worldwide, you can find blackamoor objects from candelabra to walking sticks. While it may seem shocking that the design house would present this politically incorrect fashion statement, Dolce & Gabbana is but the latest in a very long line of designers trading on the perceived "exoticism" of blacks in the name of tradition.  

Adrienne L. Childs is a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Her book Ornamental Blackness: The Black Body in European Decorative Arts is forthcoming.