Chicago Manual of Style—3/4/2011

Galliano scandal turns fashion towards politics

By Jessen O'Brien

The Oscars were last weekend, which is always exciting for fashion fanatics. Co-hostess Anne Hathaway wore not one, not two, but eight gorgeous outfits, and other Oscar attendees tried to look just as stunning in an array of elaborate designer gowns. But Natalie Portman’s purple Rodarte gown, although neither the most inventive nor the most beautiful, was the most intriguing look of the night. Portman holds a contract with Dior as the face of their Miss Dior Cherie fragrance, yet she unexpectedly wore another designer to the event instead.

What’s shocking is not the choice itself, but rather the probable reasons behind it. On February 25, Dior announced that they had suspended head designer John Galliano. The day before, he was arrested for a series of anti-Semitic remarks he made at a bar in Paris. Three people are pressing charges against the British designer, whose drunken abuse broke French law. Galliano released a statement both apologizing for and denying his actions on Wednesday and has apparently entered rehab. But it looks like it was too little too late—in addition to being fired, he must also prepare for a trial later this spring where he could face up to six months in jail as well as $31,000 in fines.

It’s possible that Portman’s decision to wear Rodarte did not stem from Galliano’s anti-Semitism. However, she released an official statement on the scandal, and she did not sound pleased. “In light of this video, and as an individual who is proud to be Jewish, I will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way,” she said. So it’s probably safe to say that her decision to wear Rodarte wasn’t simply coincidental.

The whole incident begs the question: What do personal views have to do with fashion? Clearly, Dior, Portman, and even Galliano himself desperately want to avoid the epithets of anti-Semite, racist, or any other variation. I can’t say whether or not Galliano’s personal viewpoints affect his design aesthetic or make the work he has done for Dior any less beautiful, and he has, undeniably, done some beautiful work. Dior will undoubtedly find it difficult to replace him.

However, fashion does not exist in isolation. Much of fashion is built on associations; like modern art, most of it is a commentary upon itself or other aspects of popular culture. Take a look at the menswear implications of the Lanvin Tuxedo Hathaway wore during the Oscars. In addition to looking great, the look played with gender.

Dior fired Galliano partly because of bad press and partly because fashion and the press go hand in hand. This might not have been true before the rise of celebrity-designer relationships like Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy, but it certainly is now. Designers are selling a specific image, an image they hire celebrities to shape. Galliano’s remarks have moved him from designer to celebrity in the most infamous of ways, establishing negative connotations Dior and Portman wish to detach from as quickly as possible. When you’re selling an image, you can’t allow it to be corrupted, even if it requires considerable change.