Fashion design is a global business that draws inspiration from cultures around the world, past and present. But when does ‘channelling’ become cultural and intellectual theft? As Glastonbury Festival bans the sale of Native American headdresses, we publish online an article from Pigeons & Peacocks Issue 7: New Horizons about the complex issue of cultural appropriation.
A contributor to the Black Voices section of The Huffington Post declared 2013 the year of ‘cultural appropriation’, listing all the things pop culture ‘stole’ from black culture in the preceding 12 months. From Miley Cyrus twerking at the MTV Awards to Caucasian artists winning in the hip-hop and R&B categories, taking inspiration from other cultures is all the rage in the mainstream music scene.
And in fashion too, high street giants have come under fire for selling Native American-inspired ‘festival fashion’. But is this just a natural and even desirable consequence of globalisation, now that idea sharing has been made easy by affordable travel and the internet, or is it actually harmful to minority cultures and arguably racist?
In their book Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, Bruce Ziff and Pratima V Rao define cultural appropriation as “the taking – from another culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge”. Examples are many and varied: George Clooney and Bill Murray recently demanded the return of the Parthenon or ‘Elgin’ Marbles, currently sitting in the British Museum, to Greece; Urban Outfitters was forced to rename a hip flask and patterned underwear it had advertised as ‘Navajo’ after the Navajo Nation sued it for ‘passing off’ the items as authentic; and American Cosmopolitan ran an article asking whether the geisha-inspired costume Katy Perry wore at the American Music Awards was racist.
Dr Djurdja Bartlett, a researcher at London College of Fashion, explains: “Fashion is a place of exchange and hybridity. These processes could not be stopped, especially in today’s global world where any image is just a click away.” Cultural appropriation is all around us and it isn’t going away, but for many it’s not immediately obvious when and why it is problematic. Wearing jeans, taking a yoga class and accessorising with a neon plastic rosary-style necklace all seem to be acceptable, but sporting a bindi – 1990s Gwen Stefani style – or feathered headdress at a festival may provoke the ire of Indian or Native American cultural commentators.
One of the most frequently given reasons for why we shouldn’t appropriate from other cultures is that it’s offensive. It is plain to see that acts of cultural appropriation can cause offence; to deny this – to claim that people aren’t really offended – is arrogant at best. But the issue is not whether people have been offended (they have) – it is whether this matters. It may sound insensitive, but there are plenty of examples where sensitivity to offence is misplaced. There are, sadly, still people who find same-sex relationships offensive, but we shouldn’t hide or ban these relationships to save homophobes from offence.
Sometimes, being ‘rude’ and challenging is a righteous aim for a fashion garment. Slogan t-shirts are a good example – like the legendary “58% don’t want Pershing” t-shirt Katharine Hamnett wore to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984 to protest against the stationing of American nuclear missiles in the UK.
Many acts of cultural appropriation cause offence, but the complex controversy is caused by the relative levels of power held by the culture that is the ‘borrower’ and the culture being ‘borrowed’ from. Dr Bartlett explains:
“‘borrowings’ such as H&M and Urban Outfitters using Native American prints are questionable because of the asymmetric relations of power. Commanding the global market, such big international players can use, and make fashionable, any cultural reference from any country and they will make profit on it, while simultaneously stereotyping their genuine sources.”
Western fashion, film and music giants have so much power and influence over public perception that they can, through misrepresentation, create caricatures of minority cultures, demonising, romanticising or even ‘Disney-fying’ them. This falsified but dominant narrative can cause actual harm to minority cultures, trivialising their existence and damaging their struggle against discrimination.
When mainstream western culture appropriates from a minority culture, it often casts that culture as an historic relic, an antiquated way of life that may be beautiful but is incompatible with the modern world and will inevitably die out. This frames cultural colonialism and ‘whitewashing’ as nothing more than the natural triumph of ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ western culture over ‘inferior’, ‘backward’ minority cultures. These racist assumptions conveniently ignore communities that are very much alive but are facing constant threats to their existence.
FBI statistics show that Native American women are far more likely to be raped than the average American woman. In this context, it is easy to understand why so many were horrified to see Karlie Kloss wearing the traditional warbonnet headdress during a Victoria’s Secret lingerie show, arguably fetishising Native American women as sex objects.
Writing for TheAerogram.com, a blog focused on South Asian culture, Jaya Sundaresh explains the problem of non-South Asian celebrities wearing the Hindu bindi:
“On [Selena Gomez], it’s a bold new look. On me, it’s a symbol of my failure to assimilate [into western culture]. On her, it’s unquestionably cool. On me, it’s yet another marker of my ‘otherness’, another thing that makes me different from other American girls.”
To randomly appropriate from other cultures as if it doesn’t matter is clumsily – if not intentionally – racist in many instances and just plain embarrassing in others. Literally wearing such a lack of social, cultural and self-awareness on your sleeve is surely the ultimate fashion faux pas.