Katy Perry pulls shoes in latest ‘blackface’ fashion controversy

Pop star’s designs accused of racist caricature after Gucci and Prada backlash

Another day, another blackface controversy in the fashion industry. This time it’s Katy Perry in the firing line. The singer has been forced to pull two shoe designs from her fashion label amid accusations that they use racist caricatures.

The offending shoes, a black slip-on loafer and a black block-heel sandal, both of which cost $129, featured blue eyes, a nose and vivid red lips. The similarities to the blackface make-up once worn in vaudeville and now regarded as offensive were striking enough to prompt the singer to withdraw the shoes from sale and scrub all mention of them from her website. Wal-Mart and other online retailers did the same.

A representative for the singer said the shoes belonged to a collection released in nine colours and were “envisioned as a nod to modern art and surrealism”. The black versions were “never intended to be offensive”, but it’s surprising they made it on to the shelves without striking anyone as sailing a little too close to the wind, particularly when blackface has become such a live political issue.

In October NBC dropped its talkshow host Megyn Kelly after she seemed to mourn the days when it was fine to wear blackface for Halloween, and the Democratic governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, is fighting for his political life after a photograph from his college yearbook surfaced showing one person dressed in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. He denied being in the photograph but has since admitted to once blackening his face with shoe polish as part of dressing up to look like Michael Jackson.

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Katy Perry's misstep is at least the third time in recent months that a fashion house has come under fire for evoking blackface imagery. Prada was criticised in December for a window display in New York that featured monkey-like animals with big red lips. A civil-rights attorney, Chinyere Ezie, tweeted, "Thanks @Prada for making sure blackface remains live and well."

The fashion company said the display depicted "imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface", but it immediately took it down. "Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery," it said. (Last month the company's head designer, Miuccia Prada, commented on the controversy and freedom of speech. "I increasingly think anything one does today can cause offense," she said. "The Chinese protest, then the Sikh, then Mexicans, then Afro-Americans. But how can you know the details of each single culture so well when there can be 100 different cultures in every country?")

Then, last week, Gucci was forced to apologise for a balaclava jumper that included a mouth-shaped cutout with giant red lips. The label swiftly pulled the €800 top from its stores and pledged to turn the incident into a "powerful learning moment".

All of this no doubt convinced Katy Perry to act similarly quickly with her fashion line. “I was saddened when it was brought to my attention that it was being compared to painful images reminiscent of blackface,” the singer said. “Our intention was never to inflict any pain. We have immediately removed them.”

It is not the first time the singer has found herself at the centre of such a storm. In 2013 she faced criticism for dressing as a geisha during an American Music Awards performance, and soon afterwards she was accused of cultural appropriation for wearing cornrows in a music video. In 2017 she spoke about a conversation she had with her hairstylist about “why I can’t wear my hair that way”. “And I listened, and I heard and I didn’t know,” she said.

Sounds like it might be time for another powerful learning moment.