Fashion house Ralph Lauren’s 2014 holiday ad campaign caused an uproar due to disturbing use of assimilation era photographs. The pictures depict real men of the time dressed in the Western clothing forced upon them in an effort to “Americanize” Natives.
Ruth Hopkins criticized this “Assimilation Aesthetic” in an article for Last Real Indians. She writes, “Mr. Lauren, you can’t hide behind words like ‘vintage inspired’ and ‘rustic’ anymore. It’s plain to see that you’re right back in your comfort zone; the one where Natives are oppressed, voiceless, and extinct, to be used at your leisure to feed the beast that is pop culture consumerism and line your silken pockets.”
Lauren is no outsider to the business of Native exploitation. The brand has consistently produced clothing festooned with Native imagery such as war bonnets and totem poles. Patterned items are often named in reference to tribes. Ralph Lauren’s Colorado ranch, toured on an Oprah’s television special, is adorned with teepees and decorative photos of unnamed Native Americans.
While Lauren has continuously profited off of Native American culture, he has made no effort to give back to the struggling community. In her article, Hopkins mentions the possibility of collaborating with Native designers or donating to tribes. The company has done neither.
Protesters took to Twitter in order to #BoycottRalphLauren and directly contacted the designer via email to make their voices heard regarding the holiday campaign. After catching wind of apparent public disapproval, the company removed the advertisements from their website and released a meek apology along with this statement: “Ralph Lauren has a longstanding history in celebrating the rich history, importance and beauty of our country’s Native American heritage.”
Any so-called celebration of America’s cultural heritage surely would not market off of the blatant smothering of this diversity. 19th/20th century efforts to assimilate indigenous people through appearance, language, and culture continues to present major hurdles faced by Natives today. Revisiting the era as a fashion statement while such injustice survives is a reminder of the ignorance that persists in the United States.
Tell Ralph Lauren how you feel by contacting him on Twitter (@RalphLauren) or submitting a comment through the company website.