As controversy heats up over the graphic violence and racial epithets in the spaghetti western Django Unchained, the film is having a surprising impact on an unexpected group – fashion-conscious hipsters.
Rather than join critics who decry the film’s violent portrayal of slavery in the 1850s United States, hipsters have started mimicking the “authentic” fashion styles of the slaves, creating a new craze they have dubbed with the faux-French moniker Nègre Chic.
Typical Nègre Chic attire includes torn pants, blood- and sweat-stained T-shirts and floppy hats for men; and head-wraps and simple dresses for women. The more patches and tears on the clothing, the better. And of course, chains worn around the ankles or wrists are a mandatory part of the ensemble.
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Hipsters, members of an urban bohemian subculture known to embrace self-consciously quirky clothes, have often popularized vintage fashions that might seem kitsch and retro, such as oversized plastic glasses, gaudy Christmas sweaters, scarves, plaid shirts, tweed jackets and anything deemed “ironic.”
Calla Lily Zephyr-Jones, a Portland, Ore.-based clothing designer, takes credit for helping bring the new slavery-based fashion trend to the forefront. She says she was inspired after attending a screening of Django with some friends in early January. While her friends were shielding their eyes from the bloody violence onscreen, Zephyr-Jones says she was “enthralled” and “awed” by the vintage look of the slaves’ clothing.
“At first, I was more focused on the formal attire of the plantation owners: the big hats, the white suits, the look of the Southern dandy,” Zephyr-Jones says. “But during that scene where the two slaves are fighting to the death, I realized that I had it all wrong. The slaves were the ultimate trend-setters.” Zephyr-Jones says she got back to her studio that night and started working on what was to become to Nègre Chic.
“By the next morning, I had drawn up several designs and sent them to a designer friend in New York,” she says. “He called me within an hour and asked for more.” Before she knew it, she was getting calls from designers and fashion critics from Portland to Los Angeles, Brooklyn, N.Y., and London’s East End – all centers of hipster culture. “Just like slaves ran to the North for freedom, this trend is running from coast to coast,” she says.
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In Williamsburg, N.Y., an enclave of hipster culture, Nègre Chic caught on almost overnight. Tobias Djuna Holmstrom, a co-owner of The Bonny Iver clothing store, says sales of slave clothing, chains and whips have far outpaced everything else. “Last week, nobody had ever heard of Nègre Chic, which was a major selling point,” Holmstrom says. “Now, everyone is dressing à la Nègre. It’s a great way to assert your individuality in a society where everyone looks the same.”
Nathan Barleywine-Abrams, a self-described Brooklyn hipster who operates the culture blog Ironic Mines, says American slaves are a natural inspiration to hipsters.
“When you think about it, slaves were the original hipsters of the United States,” Barleywine-Abrams says. “They heroically resisted the moneyed interests of the South, just like we hipsters resist the corporate-dominated culture of today.“
“Slaves were also a much-maligned, very misunderstood group of people with a very unique culture, much like hipsters are now. If slaves were still around, I’m sure they’d love to sip Chai tea and listen to Zoe Deschanel on vinyl with us.”
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Barleywine-Abrams says he’s surprised Nègre Chic did not catch on sooner. “Hipsters have reveled in the vintage fashions of the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s and the ‘80s,” Barleywine-Abrams says. “It’s all about being retro. But why stick to the 20th century? What is more retro right now than the 1850s, the Old South?”
Nègre Chic, however, is not without its critics. “You gotta be f**king kidding me,” says Eric Foner, a professor of American history at Columbia University, when asked about the new trend. “White people are dressing up like slaves in order to be ‘ironic’? Does anyone else find this outrageous?”
The NAACP and the Rev. Al Sharpton have called for boycotts and protests, with a protest march against The Woods – a hipster bar in Brooklyn – scheduled for this Friday night. Spike Lee has already announced his presence at the protest, and predicts a lively event.
“I’m gonna f**k somebody up,” Lee says,”I’m dead serious. Some big-sunglassed white boy’s going home black and blue. I’m done arguing. I’m gonna f**k somebody up.”
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained director and screenwriter, could not be reached for comment. However, Sharen Davis – the film’s costume designer says she’s appalled by the new fashion trend:
“Hipsters are the most selfish, solipsistic, inauthentic people on the face of the Earth. I’m disgusted by this misuse of my work, but I can’t say I’m surprised.”