In Balenciaga-gate, Is Silence Complicity?

In Balenciaga-gate, Is Silence Complicity?

by Evan Ross Katz

Keke Palmer is pregnant! Theo James admits he wore a prosthetic for that scene on The White Lotus! Matt Rogers successfully made the yuletide gay! Okay, that’s everything for this week, right? We can go home? Not so. Lots to unpack without any further delay.

In Balenciaga-gate, Is Silence Complicity? 

Balenciaga-gate is like a tornado that just keeps picking up more cars, cows and trees along its path. Where toward? That’s the question right now. Apologies on top of apologies on top of more apologies and other apologies have still left us with little sense of where this tale ends. But there is one aspect of all of this that I think deserves further exploration, and it’s really less about Balenciaga and more about tour expectations of celebrities when they have ties to someone (or, in this instance, something) that’s deemed (temporarily) problematic.

The wife of country singer Jason Aldean and noted transphobe Brittany Aldean posted a photo on her Instagram of her Balenciaga clothing in garbage bags with the caption: “It’s trash day.” Keeping with the theme of Z-listers inserting themselves in the narrative, The Bachelor stars Arie Luyendyk Jr. and Lauren Burnham posted a video of themselves literally burning their Balenciaga sneakers. Meanwhile, AnnaLynne McCord of viral “Dear Putin, I’m so sorry I was not your mother...” fame protested outside of the brand’s Rodeo Drive store holding up a sign that read “JUST WHY?” (which was, coincidentally, my reaction to her Putin video earlier this year). Of course, Bethenny Frankel had to weigh in. As did Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who wrote on Twitter: “Please make yourself aware of the attack against our young ones by @balenciaga.”

And then, of course, there’s Kim Kardashian’s statement. And though she voiced the expected — "as a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images..." — it’s the opening that I think is most revealing: “I have been quiet for the past few days, not because I haven’t been disgusted and outraged by the recent Balenciaga campaigns, but because I wanted an opportunity to speak to their team to understand for myself how this could have happened.” That opening positions her as someone that, due to affiliation, is expected to speak on this matter. It’s an expectation being foisted in the most bizarre of places. Case in point made by this semi-viral tweet from a random Bravo fan account that reads: “The cast of #RHOBH has 20 kids combined, but not a single one spoke out on the importance of protecting children in fashion during #BalenciagaGate. Really?”

Hours later, Lisa Rinna offered a now-deleted statement seemingly in response to that tweet (or just coincidentally timed if you’re less cynical than I am). “People want me to speak out on Balenciaga yes, those ads were wrong,” she wrote. “I think we all agree on that. I want to speak out on antisemitism and hate and racism and homophobia and Alex Jones and Kanye West, Trump and Elon Musk, and the danger of that because to me that’s what’s really fucking dangerous. Silence is complicity.” The outstanding irony is that it’s Rinna who’s been accused of remaining silent by many fans of her reality television career.

So what obligation, if any, do celebs have to respond in situations like this? It’s arguably quite unprecedented in the world of fashion. The only thing I can think of at this level of public interest is John Galliano, whose racist and antisemitic rant cost him his job at Christian Dior in 2011. But even that instance felt very black-and-white. This story is lingering, with many divided on the proper level of outrage to display in an incident that is being perceived in so many different ways. You get the sense that the pressure being mounted on celebrities forces them to make statements that might not be true to their actual feelings but are instead more in service of their demanding fandoms. Are more celebrities going to speak out at the pressure of their fandoms? Does this right any wrongs? As Madonna shakily sings in the film adaptation of Evita: “Where do we go from here?

Relitigating the Offensiveness of the Red Carpet Question "Who Are You Wearing?"

In 2017, actress Blake Lively was honored at Variety‘s New York Power of Women Luncheon for her work advocating against child pornography. On the red carpet for the event, a reporter asked the actress, a noted style icon, who she was wearing. Lively was not amused. "Really? At this event, you're asking me about my outfit?" Lively responded. Cate Blanchett posed a similar question three years earlier on another red carpet: "Seriously... would you ask a man that?"

Lively’s comments came two years after the launch of #AskHerMore, a campaign started by The Representation Project that seeks to “inspire people to call out sexist reporting and suggest ways to re-focus on women's achievements.” That movement was pushed by high-profile ambassadors like Reese Witherspoon over the frustration that their work was being devalued in favor of the dresses they wore, which actress Lupita Nyong’o called “extracurricular.” Despite a groundswell of support for the sentiment in the ensuing awards season, asking actresses who they are wearing has remained a red carpet staple in the years since. (Laverne Cox asks a shrewd variant: “What story are you telling?”).

Now the discussion has come around again. On a recent episode of Watch What Happens Live, guests Idina Menzel and Sally Field played a game called “Norma Ray or No Way!?”, during which host Andy Cohen posed the following agree-or-disagree sentiment: “The red carpet question ‘who are you wearing?’ is offensive.” Both actresses answered in the affirmative. I was immediately reminded of a 2015 piece from The Cut titled “It’s Not Sexist to Ask About Clothes on the Red Carpet,” in which writer Maureen O’Conner argued, well, just that. “The key to enjoying the Oscars red carpet is accepting that it isn’t actually about filmmaking. The Oscars are the Oscars of movies. The Oscars red carpet is the Oscars of gowns,” she wrote. I agree.

The opinion that the question is sexist in itself doesn’t hold much water. It could be sexist, yes, with context. But there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s mostly just a necessity. Many celebrities and their stylists are paid up to seven figures to not only wear but also to promote a brand. Getting asked this question can simply allow them an easy opportunity to do that promotion, albeit less explicitly. As for the gendered nature of the conversation, this too has radically shifted, thanks to style stars like Timothée Chalamet and Nucti Gatwa generating enough public interest in their wares to necessitate conversations about them on the red carpet. Do we really want to hear Brad Pitt talking about yet another Brioni suit? I’d rather drown in a pool of his overpriced skincare products, to be quite honest.

One could easily argue that the reason women are more often asked than men is that men are traditionally underwhelming in their attire. And another thing: The question is one that requires a simple answer. It’s not as though the celebrity is being asked what the dress means to them. This is not to negate certain actresses’ distaste or disdain for the question — that’s another matter altogether. But is it offensive? Especially when the red carpet is its own cottage industry unto itself? That, to me, feels like a reach.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a deep dive into celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Image via Getty/ Mike Coppola