Tag Archives: Cultural Appropriation

Pinboard #6: Victoria’s Secret

During a November 2012 fashion show, Victoria’s Secret sent model Karlie Kloss down the runway wearing a leopard-print bikini, a wealth of turquoise jewelry, and a replica of a Native American headdress. In an image from the runway show (left), a reedy white woman with light brown hair and blue eyes strikes a pose. Her stance is strong, although she is half-naked and perched atop several inches of suede-fringed platform heels. Along with the heels, she wears cheetah-print bikini underwear; a belt of turquoise, silver, and more suede fringe; a suede bra; and hefty turquoise necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Atop her head is a voluminous feathered headdress made of red, black, and white feathers. Her left hand rests on her cocked hip, elbow thrust out to the side. Her half-smile suggests amusement and charm.

The headdress worn by Kloss was a replica of a war bonnet, an object of great magical and spiritual significance for Plains Indian men. The men of these tribes historically wore the bonnet into battle and now wear it for ceremonial purposes. Victoria’s Secret’s use of the war bonnet provoked ire for several reasons, primarily because it was treated as an object with no history or purpose beyond its decorative function. War bonnets are not merely dress items; each feather has significance, and the right to wear the bonnet must be earned through service to the community. Native American war bonnets are frequently used to denote “generic Indian” by sports fans, musicians, trick-or-treaters, and retailers, with no regard for their specific origins and uses.

After pictures from the runway were released to the media prior to a planned broadcast of the event, Native American activists, feminist blogs, lawyers, and journalists immediately and forcefully criticized the lingerie retailer (and, in some cases, the model).

Victoria’s Secret edited the outfit out of the televised lineup and issued a (non) apology for “offend[ing] individuals.”  Critics of the outfit charged racism, cultural appropriation, commercialization of a sacred object, and the “hypersexualization of Native American women.” [1]

Yet, it is a strange sexualization. This image – unlike the “Prairie Pinups” investigated by Aleta M. Ringlero – is not titillating. [2] It carries no hint of the dangerously foreign, no thrill of the forbidden. The erotic appeal of Kloss’ costume is nulled by its cheap parody. The headdress, when worn with animal print panties, recalls any “savage,” not a specific sexual desire. Sported by a white woman with a coy smile, it devolves into something merely cartoonish  – something safe.

[1] Ruth Hopkins, “Victoria’s Secret is Asking to be Boycotted,” Indian Country Today Media Network

[2] See Aleta M. Ringlero, “Prairie Pinups: Reconsidering Historic Portraits of American Indian Women,” in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003)