There is arguably no group of people on earth more tone-deaf about their own privilege and wealth than the denizens of the high fashion world. They often can’t comprehend the disconnect of highly-paid models in impossibly expensive designer wear posing in slums, or runway shows featuring homeless chic, or poverty-stricken people in exotic locales serving as props or ambience in photo shoots. The cluelessness is painful to witness.
Enter 32-year-old German princess Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, Vogue’s style editor-at-large. TNT, as she is called, exposed herself as seriously out-of-touch with the commoners last weekend by posting an Instagram pic of a homeless woman surrounded by her bagged possessions, sitting under a dirty blanket on the street before a metal-shuttered storefront – and reading Vogue.
Von Thurn und Taxis, who was in the City of Lights for fashion week, blithely commented on the pic, “Paris is full of surprises. . . and @voguemagazine readers even in unexpected corners!” Needless to say, this failed to amuse some Instagram followers. “I think this comment was made in poor taste. Shame on you,” wrote one. “This photo is cruel,” added another.
Hard to imagine that TNT couldn’t see for herself how insensitive it was, especially once her followers began calling her out on it; nevertheless, her initial response to the criticism was to double down on her ugly snobbishness on Instagram: “OMG calm down. Even the homeless are allowed to have good taste.” Wow.
Fashionista.com, which has been critical of the princess’ “veritable treasure trove of absurdly elitist quotes” on social media, shared the (now-deleted) photo and observed, “The things she writes, both in Vogue and on social media, often straddle the line between entertaining/aspirational and disturbingly out of touch. On Saturday she crossed that line.” Indeed.
Finally the burgeoning bad press spurred the fox-hunting socialite to do some damage control. The following day she seemed to seek forgiveness on Instagram: “I wanted to extend my sincerest apologies for the offense my post has caused. Yours truly, Elisabeth.”
Now, I don’t subscribe to our politically correct cultural expectation that the rich and famous who have been caught shaming themselves automatically owe groveling mea culpae to strangers on the internet. Though their behavior may have been offensive, it wasn’t directed at us and we wouldn’t even know about it if it weren’t for our obsession with the inconsequential daily comings and goings of celebrities that we’ve never met.
But depending on the nature of their “offense,” public figures can serve as positive role models in terms of rectifying their public blunders and displaying qualities like humility, gratitude, and service to others. I have no problem with the fact that Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis enjoys a life of luxury, but sometimes people who are born into that, as she was, take their good fortune for granted and are in serious need of some perspective.
I don’t know what is in TNT’s heart. Perhaps her reputation as “disturbingly out of touch” is undeserved. Perhaps it is deserved, but the pushback she has received about her insensitivity prompted her to do some soul-searching. I am skeptical though; her brief and formal apology strikes me as more of a perfunctory attempt at a PR fix than a sincere request for forgiveness.
It is less important that the princess apologizes for “offending” her Instagram followers than that she acknowledges that her remark was demeaning to the poor, that it was thoughtless at best and mean-spirited at worst, and that it reflected badly on her, her employers at Vogue, and on the industry itself. If she really wanted to display some newfound compassion and set a dramatic example, she could try to locate the homeless woman in the photo and get her some assistance, or in some other way use her position and influence to draw attention to the issues of poverty and homelessness – addressing the problem of abusive sweatshops, for example.
That might be too much to expect, but she would be earning forgiveness and perhaps giving her cohorts in the fashion biz some much-needed perspective in the process.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/16/15)