House of DVF and the power of white neutrality

Anyone who knows me well is aware of my love for high fashion. Even though I’ve come to accept that the “high” in high fashion stands for “the price is too high for my budget,” that hasn’t lessened my enthusiasm for experiencing the fashion world as best I can. 

More than a few of my friends have had to endure hours of window shopping with me at my favorite high-end retailers (which simultaneously doubles as an interesting social experiment on racial profiling). I devour magazines like Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar with the same intensity that I read all seven Harry Potter novels. And while none of this is evident in my own wardrobe, I track the latest trends as if it’s my new Asos order package. I’m not sure what it is about things I can’t afford, but couture clothing (and gaudy boutique hotels) will always have a special place in my heart. What is a feminist like myself doing ogling over clothing only accessible to the 1 percent and tracking an industry known for its unrealistic, exclusive, and harmful illustrations of women’s bodies? Call it a guilty pleasure.

But for those of us who believe that feminist acts (or people who identify as feminists) can exist in industries and genres that foster problematic gender dynamics (like trap music), Diane Von Furstenberg’s work and legacy in the fashion industry can certainly be considered a gain. The designer’s insistence on being independent and creating a career of her own rivals the boldness of CoCo Chanel, perhaps even more so considering that she is a former Princess. Her revival and transformation of the wrap dress, a fashion staple that has remained relevant for over 40 years since, has made her a fashion icon. She currently serves as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America — other executive board members include Michael Kors and Vera Wang — and is recognized by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in the world. And at 68 years old, Von Furstenberg still walks better in heels than I do. Recognized by the appellation DVF, she is certainly one of the great women of our time.

So imagine the way my eyes lit up with giddy delight when I saw the promotions for House of DVF, a new reality show on E! starring Diane Von Furstenberg — the woman and the brand.  To be clear, I’m not a huge fan of reality television (with the exception of Love & Hip Hop and every show on HGTV). And aside from another presented angle to view the fashion industry, I was mostly excited about the prospect of a reality show that was not driven by the false assertion that women inherently hate each other. Although — spoiler alert — catty drama is awkwardly sprinkled throughout the show in small doses — after all, it’s still E!, home of the Kardashians, and it’s still reality television. But, above all, House of DVF is about business. DVF is looking for a global brand ambassador to represent her personal brand and, in the process, mentors eight young women looking to take their career in fashion to the next level. All while dropping jewels like this one: “We sleep, we eat, we make love — we all do the same thing. What makes us different is how we do it.” This was enough girl power to make me miss the Spice Girls.*

But perhaps I’ve watched too much Game of Thrones because somehow I knew that nothing comes without a price, and this show would prove to be no different. As a Black girl feminist I am constantly haunted by the great compromise. If I love anything for its racial dialogue, I am most likely going to cringe every time gender is addressed. And if I like anything for its gender dynamics, race seems to altogether disappear. I expected House of DVF to fall into the latter category and unfortunately, I was right. And if House of DVF is a reflection of the broader fashion industry, it was a given. Known for under-representing people of color and running racist campaigns, the industry is far from diverse. Add this to the subtle ways that racism often intercepts “women’s empowerment” agendas, and House of DVF offered a spot-on demonstration of white privilege.

Out of the eight women who entered the contest, five of them were white. There were two Black/brown women, Brittany and Abigail. Perceptions and interactions with these two women throughout the season told a story about one of the very specific ways in which white privilege works: the entitlement to neutrality. Abigail, a Florida resident of Haitian descent, had the most eclectic style of the group. Well-versed in the various ways to wear a head wrap, she incorporated rich, textured colors and fabrics into her wardrobe. With deep red hair as bold as her personality, Abigail’s unique sense of style was undeniable. Yet while all of the women were encouraged to be themselves, Abigail was constantly criticized by Von Furstenberg’s team (primarily Jessica and Stefani, who are responsible for administering and overseeing many of the contestants tasks and reporting back to Von Furstenberg) for being over-the-top, self-consumed, and inappropriate. Meanwhile, Tiffani, a white contestant with an edgy style and tattoos to match, was only critiqued on the basis of her performance on the job and experience. It seemed as though being unique and unconventional was only acceptable under the cover of white neutrality. In other words, for women of color, our race is a distinct marker of excess and flamboyance that can be problematic when operating in an industry that requires some homogeneity.

And then there was Brittany, a seasoned stylist who was no stranger to the fashion industry or work ethic. Her poker face intimidated other contestants, and especially Jessica. While other women engaged in petty arguments and struggled through their tasks, Brittany was intentionally indifferent, committed to producing results, and clear about her intentions throughout most of the season. But a little more than halfway through the season, other contestants expressed that they thought she was mean, unapproachable, and cold. Jessica described her as disingenuous and sassy — in one episode she made it clear that if the decision were up to her, Brittany would be fired immediately because of her bad attitude. But her attitude was mild in comparison to Kier’s, a blonde-haired bombshell who, early on, had to be reprimanded by Von Furstenberg herself for being…well… “a bitch.” Not only was Kier publicly arrogant, entitled, and demeaning to other people, she would throw crying fits when she felt she slighted. But in addition to Brittany, she made it to the top three. Kier and her unpleasant demeanor was allowed to advance further into the competition than almost everyone else, while Brittany’s demeanor was considered a liability almost immediately. Different facets of blackness, including our dialect and social practices, are not standardized. Rarely are we able to bring our whole selves into a space and must constantly engage in the “code switching” that forces us to find a balance between being withdrawn and genuine. This meant that Brittany’s professionalism (something many of the other women lacked) was read as frigid and shady.

Of the final three contestants, Kier was the first to be eliminated. One could argue that Kier’s over-the-top personality brought drama to House of DVF, which is why she was kept on board until the very last episode. Honestly, had Kier been selected as the global Brand ambassador, House of DVF would have lost the right to call itself a ‘reality show.’ So who was Brittany’s competition for the spot? A blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named Amanda. Young, with some experience as an intern with several major fashion designers, Amanda was one of those classic reality show characters that gets overlooked until the competition around her starts to disappear. She didn’t get much air time until about midway through the season, at least none that sticks out for me. She garnered no notable achievements. She certainly wasn’t read as a mean girl, despite feeling comfortable enough to call Brittany two-faced, but she didn’t share anything to suggest that she was of great character either. She was mediocre in personality and performance. The only coaching that anyone felt she needed was to be bold enough to stand up to Brittany when it was obvious that Brittany was her competition. (Because obviously Brittany’s predisposed nature was a threat.) But the neutrality of her whiteness allowed her to coast by to the end.

In a shocking decision that intensified my love for the show and Diane Von Furstenberg, she picked Brittany for the job, much to Jessica’s dismay. Despite Brittany’s obvious qualifications, I had prepared myself for white privilege to prevail in the end, as it often does. Brittany’s journey to becoming the global brand ambassador for DVF was a testament to the struggles that Black women face in white-dominated spaces. When our careers, education, and dreams are on the line, we are not assumed to be qualified or worthy until we somehow tip the scales. Our work becomes as much about performance as it is about production. Perhaps that is why the pleasure I receive from fashion is laced with guilt — because at every turn I am able to recognize how Black and brown bodies are cast aside, read as detrimentally immutable. White privilege’s neutrality coupon is one that Black and brown people have to pay for. I appreciate that Diane Von Furstenberg did not accept said coupons for positions in her company.

*You caught me, I always miss the Spice Girls.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

Read more about Sesali

Join the Conversation