A story to remember: In 2014, the online holiday catalogue for Ralph Lauren's RRL line of menswear featured vintage photos of American Indians wearing European-style clothing—jackets, vests, neckties, hats with brims. The pictures were real, and vividly documented the painful transition and assimilation of a brutalized people.
The company has taken the catalogue off its website saying in a statement, "We recognize that some of the images depicted in the RRL look book may have caused offense and we have removed them from our website."
We can't pretend to know what the people in pictures taken 130 years ago were thinking. We don't know whether they "wanted" to wear these clothes or were "forced"—both are relative terms anyway. These are the survivors of a decimated population who are wearing the oppressor's clothing—was it their choice to wear these clothes? What did they know of "choice" at all, given what many of them had witnessed and endured?
How you look at these photos has something to do with who you are. Many in fashion would see the juxtaposition, the clash of styles, the diverse threads entwining in the crazy, mixed-up cultural and aesthetic tapestry of America. Yadda yadda yadda.
Many Natives looking at these photos see the genocide of their ancestors.
Dr. Adrienne Keene writes that the people in the photos "didn’t fight and survive so they would end up on the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalog."
"They didn’t want to wear itchy woolen vests and tight narrow shoes made for white [people]," Ruth Hopkins writes. "They had no choice. The fashion Ralph Lauren glorifies arose from oppression."
They are important images, of beautiful people—but they don't belong in a catalog for $300 blue jeans and $1000 jackets.
These photos were collected by Paul Ratner, director of Moses on the Mesa, and posted to his film's Facebook page. Ratner's acclaimed movie tells the story of Solomon Bebo, a German Jewish immigrant who became governor of Acoma Pueblo—to read an interview, see our earlier post "25 Portraits of American Indians You Might Not Have Seen (No Curtis!)"
This story was originally published on December 19, 2014.