In November 2020, the fashion world woke up to a row between the Mexican government and Parisian fashion designer Isabel Marant. The Mexican Cultural Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero had written an open letter to Marant regarding her new collection accusing her of using traditional design motifs from the cultural heritage of native Mexicans without permission and profiting from their work. The designer faced so much backlash on Twitter and the fashion world that she eventually apologized. Her crime was cultural appropriation and unfortunately, her peculiar situation is nothing new.
Cultural appropriation can be loosely defined as any process through which the elements of a given minority culture, such as symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies, are used by members of a different culture outside the original cultural context. It cuts across many industries and walks of life and represents the act of ‘stealing’ stories and values from cultures and people’s heritage, and leaving the people out of the story entirely. This phenomenon now mainly refers to the exploitation of marginalized cultures by more dominant, mainstream cultures. In the fashion industry, cultural appropriation has gradually become one of the most contentious topics, jockeying for higher ranks right up there with racism and body inclusivity.
Now at some point in the growth of the global fashion industry, drawing on and borrowing values from minority cultures for fashion inspiration was more commonplace and less contested. The situation today though is vastly different because every few days, notable fashion houses, brands and designers seem to be publicly chastised for their missteps around cultural appropriation. The reason for the backlash these brands face is simple: too many of them continue to draw from other cultures for their own profit and gain, while giving next to nothing back to the communities they have ‘sourced’ (stolen) inspiration from. What’s more, despite the vigilant approach to cultural appropriation within the fashion industry, instances of this phenomenon remain too numerous to count.
For instance, African fashion has been applauded as a major source of inspiration for designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Donna Karan and Dolce & Gabbana. But while their collections have received worldwide attention, African designers rarely receive the same spotlight. Innovators like Paul Poiret, Mario Fortuny and Madeline Vionnet may have done much to revive neoclassical silhouettes highlighting the influence of Africa, Japan, India and the Americas, but the source cultures and local artisans who laboured on their designs received zero credits.
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It seems to me that one of the reasons why fashion and design houses today still shamelessly appropriate values from minority cultures across the globe is the former’s hopes of financial gains. For more context, when Gucci released it’s Sikh turbans, their prices were slated at US$790 each. It was convenient for the brand to ignore the harassment or mistreatment that people who wear sikh turbans for religious reasons face while wearing them because as a fashion piece, Gucci’s turban was set to profit in the face of that. In the aftermath of the backlash the brand received, Nordstrom apologized and relayed that it would no longer sell the turban pieces. This apology seems insincere at best when you consider that the Sikh turban collection came just months after Gucci’s Blackface sweater debacle.
Similar concern has arisen in the face of workplace dress codes that prohibit or discourage Black people from wearing natural hairstyles. When Marc Jacobs had the Hadid sisters walk his runway show with wigs of dreadlocks, the unspoken aspect of the backlash he faced was in relation to the world’s imbalances highlighted by the ‘creative move’. Jacobs replied that the hairstyle was inspired by American film director and producer Lana Wachowski, but there was still no acknowledgement of the style’s origins or spiritual significance to Rastafarianism. Go figure.
Apart from the financial gains here, there is also the fact that in practical terms, what constitutes appropriation is often not clear until the public labels the act as such. For this reason, a lot of people have tried to dismiss the concept of cultural appropriation arguing that fashion as a form of art is often based on inspiration. Like most forms of inspiration, their reasoning is that creative fashion derives from the unfamiliar and unrelated. Put differently, for a designer, inspiration for clothing often comes from distant lands, cultures and people. All of which means, they say, that ultimately everyone wears everyone else.
There is a thin line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation and the test here is whether or not the minority culture from which the values or ideas are ‘borrowed’ are excluded from the narrative. The harsh reality is that these minority subcultures are often shut out from the fashion industry at the outset, and even when a style or trend they display is ultimately ‘borrowed’ by a bigger brand, the subculture’s contribution is still often disregarded. To use a part of someone’s culture as inspiration and exclude people of that culture as well is a form of theft and dancing around the issue will help no one.
The real reason why more and more people from these minority cultures continue to speak out against the appropriation of their cultural values lies in history. Racial injustices and discrimination in the broader landscape play a role in the anger felt toward brands accused of cultural appropriation. Many of us within the BIPOC community – black, indigenous, people of colour – truly are still experiencing the legacies of the long history of colonization and we know that historically, whatever the West has “appreciated”, they often end up taking by force. From land to art to cuisines to other practices, this scenario has played out repeatedly over the years. So, when people scream about cultural appropriation, it is not just about a hairstyle or dress or head gear. It is about decades of precedence.
Cultural appropriation is dreadful not just because some person or brand benefits from the years of cultural use of other people but also for its subtle message– ‘your culture is not acceptable, until we say it is’. So, like all other areas, there has to be a lot of unlearning and relearning accompanied by vigilance and backlash directed at tone deaf brands. We need to provide guidelines on how not to appropriate the cultures of a people and when we do this, it is imperative that we do not turn it into a “checklist on how to avoid being called out”. Otherwise, we will end up with fashion companies doing the barest minimum and claiming compliance, something they are very good at.
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Defining concepts is fine but we also need to figure out how best to translate our definitions into action steps in the real world. What are the elements of a culture? When is it fine for someone to adopt cultural values different from his/hers? Going through this step matters because ultimately, when it is time to make a decision on what cultural appropriation is, we will have to lean on our political ideologies and the prevailing, politically correct trends of the times.
An unfortunate byproduct of this though is that the meaning of cultural appropriation will keep expanding. Thus, even if we manage to get the fashion brands to be more culturally aware, we would still find other hitherto appropriations to be outraged over. Case in point: the backlash Adele faced a few months ago over accusations of cultural appropriation. Pictures had surfaced of the singer wearing Bantu knots and a bikini of the Jamaican flag. The occasion was the virtual celebration of the Notting Hill Carnival. The Carnival is dedicated towards celebrating Caribbean culture and heritage and Adele was very clearly celebrating, not appropriating.
The point here is simple, fashion has always stemmed from culture, drawing from it, embracing global exploration, tapping into music and art to set the tone for visual design. The celebration of diverse cultural values in the fashion industry can be done respectfully and tastefully. We can show our admiration for other people and places by being inspired by them, dressing like them; by adopting elements of that other culture and integrating it into theirs. Properly crediting the sources of our inspiration though is crucial if we are to honor and exhibit an understanding of our original sources of inspiration.
If this is not done, then our celebrations might very quickly turn into appropriations and whatever you say, it is unfair and discriminatory to diminish a peoples’ cultural heritage in this way.
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Cover image of Carolina Herrera’s Resort 2020 collection in which the designer paid a “tribute to the richness of Mexican culture” and which the Mexican government cited as cultural appropriation. Photo: Carolina Herrera.