Finally, after a long winter, it is almost T-shirt season in Ottawa.
Spring fashions are typically known for bright patterns, sweeter hues and light-hearted messages.
Edgy designs are also often popular among young people, but international fashion retailer H&M was forced to pull a T-shirt off its racks in stores worldwide last month after customers complained that the dark design was anti-Semitic.
The offending item, a sleeveless white T-shirt, depicted a skull superimposed on two triangles that strongly resembled a Star of David. The design was reported to have sold globally, including in Israel where H&M has 14 locations.
Eylon Aslan-Levy, a post-graduate student at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, first publicly exposed the design in an op-ed article for the Times of Israel.
“At first I was taken aback; then I was slightly amused, because this design was obviously a horrible mistake,” wrote Aslan-Levy, who also serves as the National Council chair for the Union of Jewish Students.
“Then I began to wonder whether I was simply being paranoid – perhaps only Jews immediately think of a Jewish symbol when they see two overlapping triangles, and perhaps worrying about a symbol of death emblazoned above the iconic Jewish hexagram was simply my Jewish anxiety in overdrive.”
It has also been widely reported that Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, called the design “thoughtless and insensitive,” and approved of the clothing company’s decision to take it off its racks, which it originally refused to do, as H&M’s customer service initially told Aslan-Levy that the print was not intended to represent a religious symbol.
H&M was quick to issue a public apology after management learned of the issue: “We are sincerely sorry if the T-shirt print has offended anyone, it was not our intention to provoke such a reaction,” the Swedish company said in a statement.
Provocative, thought-provoking, or offensive fashion statements have become commonplace in an industry that is always seeking to push limits, creativity and social norms.
Dark imagery like skulls and religious symbols have become a common sight in fashion, particularly involving the Christian cross, a symbol that, in and of itself, has been a strong fashion trend in the past year.
True faith will always transcend the materialism of fashion and capitalism, and it will also continue to inspire contemporary trends.
While religion and clothing have been strongly intertwined for centuries, companies who push the limits of fashion should know their customers and how their clothing could be interpreted.
“It is at minimum an extremely unfortunate oversight in the H&M department, which has displayed an egregious failure of cultural awareness and sensitivity,” Aslan-Levy wrote. “There is a long history of associating Jewish symbols with satanic imagery, and this product inadvertently falls within this tradition.”
This is not the first time H&M has had to apologize for one of their designs. The company removed a headdress from its shelves last summer, after First Nations groups deemed the headpiece to be insensitive cultural appropriation.
Many minority groups have had to contend with accusations of oversensitivity when an issue arises that falls within a grey area where arguments could be made for and against each side. Even Aslan-Levy said via email that he considers it surprising how much attention this “non-story” has received globally.
“Jewish history has been so replete with tragedy, that we have developed a fine radar for picking up anti-Semitism, and I wonder whether we have become primed to see threats where none exist,” wrote Aslan-Levy in the email from the UK.
“I think we should be extremely cautious about making such accusations, because in most cases no offence is intended, and we are probably the only ones who make these connections,” he added.
In this case, Aslan-Levy’s sobering self-reflection helps to put the situation in perspective, considering the context and response of the company.
A measured response to a perceived threat ultimately can be the best method to address an issue and stimulate dialogue.
And that way of thinking should always be in fashion.