‘’If you don’t understand cultural appropriation, imagine working on a project and getting an F and then somebody copies you and gets an A and credit for your work’’
Cultural appropriation is defined as the ignorant adoption of the styles, patterns or designs of a minority group or society, by a majority society, (e.g. the West). For hundreds of years multiple cultures have been exploited for their native designs and styling while the fashion and media industry have remained ignorant of the historical value and meanings of these designs etc precisely in order to gain monetary success.
One of the main issues in cultural appropriation is that such industries fail to credit these cultures. Cultural appreciation in the arts, e.g.in fashion or textiles, is essential for finding inspiration with our own work, however it is vital for us all to honour the origins of these concepts by both acknowledging the source and respecting their original values.
Throughout history, cultural appropriation is linked to colonization, imperialism and white supremacy. When the international slave trade started in the 15th century, Western colonial powers not only took natural resources but also acquired cultural trophies. These ‘cultural trophies’ would range from artefact designs, body painting and even the people themselves. The West took these trophies by force, whether it be from stealing or unfair trade and exchanges. Cultural trophies were, at first, studied then copied to be sold as new work. For example, the work of William De Morgan (see below) used the method and design of ceramics, which was taken from the Middle East. De Morgan proceeded to create a company, called ‘Morris’, to co-sell design tiles that had been influenced by the Middle East without crediting them.
Much more disturbing than William De Morgan’s tiles, is the example of Saartjie Baartman, also known as ‘The Hottest Venus’. This is an appalling example of cultural appropriation that illustrates how the colonial West viewed people from minority groups as objects to be studied for their own need or pleasure and not as equal human beings. Saartjie Baartman was born in 1789 in South Africa, she was stolen and sold as a slave. In 1810, she was brought to London where she was exhibited as a circus freak due to her curvy figure. Baartmaan was then forced to perform nude at private shows for a male audience. She was used as a cultural trophy to show the white West how far their colony has travelled and studied, as a means of exerting power and superiority. Saartjie Baartman’s body was further appropriated by wealthy women, whose husbands would go the private shows. The jealousy of these women influenced them to create corsets that would change their body shape to mimic Baartman’s curves and wider hips. This is one example of many which demonstrates how woman belonging to a minority group have been appropriated to fit Westernised standards of beauty. This has even extended to the present day, as women in Western societies are now able to undergo surgeries, such as bum and hip injections, in order to mirror the natural assets of an African woman. However, arguably unknown to Western consumers, the idea that the assets of an African woman are admired by the West is insulting due to the oppression and discrimination these cultures have suffered by the same people – this signifies the issue of white privilege. Saartjie Baartman’s body was only buried in 2002, 105 years after her death, as her body was still being used to make money, further signifying the issue.
The line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is a greatly discussed topic e.g. one question which neatly sums up the issue is: “Can cultural appreciation exist for cultural trophies that have faced centuries of oppression, just to produce a piece of fashion?” Susan Scafidi’s book ‘Who Owns Culture?’ examines this conflicted message at the beginning of her book; “I have found the questioning the ownership and authenticity of ‘cultural products’ – whether cuisines, dress, music, dance…who truly owns something ? is it the person who drew the first sketch or someone who makes the first sale? Or can someone take something and sell it on? is this promoting culture around the world showing cuisines, dress, music, dance from everywhere. ‘’ are you telling me I cannot borrow from other cultures’’ but the word ‘borrowing’ is very problematic as the term typically suggests whatever is being taken will be returned, however you cannot give something back in its purest form if the message or imagery is altered and filtered through a commercial, Western system. There is a huge grey area surrounding whether cultural appreciation counts as adopting these cultures and consuming replicas from secondary stores, such as mass retailers, whilst acknowledging one’s own white privilege or if you must go to the original making of the product in order to conduct full appreciation of its context.
Susan Scafidi refers to the government bringing in legal action to stop cultural appropriation occurring. She wrote, “…hold on! Why exactly doesn’t the legal system protect our community against cultural appropriation?” – Who Owns Culture? – Susan Scafidi’s – preface and acknowledgements page 1
It is important that international laws have been created in order to protect minority communities and the government have taken action to make cultural appropriation illegal. Additionally, the government aims to ensure that such groups are offered a legal team and legal advice in order to take on larger corporations that have wronged them. Urban Outfitters is a prolific example of a case where this has occurred. The company used traditional Navajo patterns, and their name, for underwear, socks and flasks. The Navajo nation sued Urban Outfitters for appropriating their culture for profit, in the end Urban Outfitters settled. The legal ban of appropriation allows for minority communities to be represented correctly in the media.
An online article on ‘Tyle’ quotes, “We as humans have been around for a while at this point. So long in fact, that almost everything has some root in ‘ancient times’ ; it would be very tough to think of even one modern “original” idea that cannot be traced back to inspiration from another culture. Should we really be placing blanket criminal restrictions on innovation?” This question is very important; how can you measure a culture or judge what is too far and what is acceptable to a grown and everchanging society. Many are against this argument saying inspiration is all around you and you take in what you find beautiful. You copy can image and place it on a good to sell an exact copy is very different to using colours, shapes or tones to create your own ideas. There is clearly a fine line between the two, but when that line is crossed is debatable amongst many, and the reliability of a legal system may not be one that is promised as others argue that cultural appropriation or appreciation is personal appoint and judgment.
Multiple case studies undoubtedly highlight the ways in which designers have culturally appropriated in the past. The brand KTZ demonstrated cultural appropriation in their show at London Fashion Week during Autumn/Winter of 2015. KTZ showed a jumper that was a complete copy of the knitted jumper, that was originally designed by Canadian Inuit Shaman. His great granddaughter saw this design and accused the brand of stealing, with no exposure of the history of the design. She said; ‘’My great-grandfather was a very powerful and respected man and he has been used and violated. It was disgusting to see a sacred design used as a sweater… We are a proud people and our ancestors and traditions are very important to us. The way they have taken and degraded this design is unacceptable’’ – Awa / Stansfield – 30 November 2015 – ‘’KTZ Responses’’ – dazed – 13/ 04/20
The brand claimed that indigenous culture has always been a part of the brand wanting to respect all traditions cultures, religions and ethnicities. Despite the KTZ’s attempt to clarify their intentions, it by no means excuses how the identical copy of a sacred indigenous design to sell for profits, with no mention of the origin, is an example of cultural appropriation that you cannot ignore.
Not only is this an example of cultural appropriation, but it is exploiting a group of people who will gain no benefit from the process. These groups cannot even buy back the product that the companies profited from due to years of oppression towards any minority groups by the wealthy. As a result, they have been incapable of attaining the same financial stability and cannot afford what the company have ‘’created’’. This strips away apart of these groups’ identity, with many people around the world now wearing something that defines them as a group with little or no understanding of what the history behind it.
As the fast fashion environment moves at an incredible rate, that of mass consumer buying is increasing too. This environment influences most young people to buy from consumerist websites where they are ignorant towards where something has come from or why it was made and are more interested in how quickly and cheap, they can get something they want. Due to the fact these young people have never known any different, cultural appropriation has only recently become acknowledged and open spoken about within society. Most products bought by consumers are bought for aesthetic reasons rather than appreciation and respect towards the context of that item, it is materialistic factors such as this that contribute to cultural appropriation.
Pham’s work on racial Plagiarism helped me understand this more, the quote ‘’Not shared with the source community, they are denied to them. Extraction and exploitation – Not Exchange’’ – Pham 2017 Racial Plagiarism and Fashion (vol 4, no.3)
Fashion textiles and art can be plagiarised in the same way as the written world. An idea taken from someone else in fashion, with no reference to where it came from and used as your own, is just as severe as that of a more literary context. It has occurred in the fashion and textiles community for centuries, the largest being racial plagiarism; taking and using something from another race, group or community and claiming it as your own.
Marc Jacobs’ Spring / Summer 2017 show raised a lot of controversy over the hairstyles (displayed below) which were inspired by the 1980s Boy George. These hand-dyed wool dreadlocks sparked much debate as they coincided with a decision by the US Circuit Court of Appeals, announced on Thursday, of the same week, which stated that banning dreadlocks as a hairstyle from the workplace was legal. Even though the Civil Rights Act 1964 banned companies from not employing someone over race colour, religion, sex, or national origin, this did not extend to grooming choices – regardless of the fact this hairstyle has been used on Afro hair for centuries. This is a classic case study of double standards excusing the existence of cultural appropriation. A fashion show is equally a workplace, yet the representative of the company, ironically a white male, can show white models in these hair styles to sell a product that is mostly marketed at the white consumerist demographic in the West. It is not just that a Western court can legally ban a woman with naturally Afro hair from wearing a hairstyle, native to their culture, in the workplace; yet it can be used by a white, Western brand to sell a product that would benefit only their demographic.
This fashion show really initiated the conversation of blatant cultural appropriation being demonstrated through cheapening the history of a hairstyle. The fact it is seen as a mere accessory, that can just be bought on Etsy, reduces the meaning and severity of the impact its’ history has had on its’ people. The hairstyle represents the centuries of oppression many black men and women faced because of the hair they were born with and had been taught to maintain. This illustrates how a culture and race can be exploited for financial benefit of the white West.
The appropriation of afro-hairstyles, such as cornrows and dreadlocks, is evident across all social media platforms, as well as fashion shows. These hairstyles are modelled by social media influencers, like the Kardashian family, who typically adhere to their Eurocentric beauty ideals but fail to praise the origins of their inspirations. Although it is becoming more apparent that Western figures are ignorant to their flaws, discrimination against individuals of a black background, who have the same hairstyles, still exists. In 2015, singer and actress, Zendaya, faced backlash for wearing dreadlocks on the red carpet. On national television, fashion critic, Giuliana Rancic, claimed that Zendaya’s hair looked as if it ‘smells like patchouli oil. Or, weed” to which Zendaya responded: “There is already harsh criticism of African-American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locks on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of colour that our hair is good enough.’
This is the type double standards cultural appropriation creates.
A very recent infamous case study that ignited the debate of cultural appropriation and appreciation concerned a white, Western girl who wore a traditional Chinese dress to her prom in the USA in April 2019. The event sparked conflicting views across the world on platforms, such as Twitter, where the white girl was condemned for her dress choice by those of Chinese culture; one tweet stated, “my culture is not your god***prom dress,” which clearly demonstrates the disrespect and humiliation felt by many. However, when the hysteria over social media reached mainland China, their response differed to what was expected – one media commentator said; “very elegant and beautiful! Really don’t understand the people who are against her, they are wrong!” This contrasting opinion allows room to question the validity of how offended cultures can get over appropriation.
Large companies within fashion have a responsibility in the modern day to represent the cultures they are using to design these garments, cultures that are mainly of less economically developed countries. This responsibility is very important to demonstrate to their consumers that representation is an extremely large part of a modern brand. Nowadays, being able to sell to an international market is very important as wealth is increasingly spread throughout the world, equally allowing people to relate to a collection to spend money is very important. Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, changed the agenda of Dior to create a more culturally appreciative ethos within the Dior fashion house that benefits all necessary cultures. For example, using the reputation as a fashion brand through their Instagram to promote positive cultural appreciation, is a method used by Dior in May 2019. The brand posted videos of the process of dyeing their fabrics in Morocco, with the women who created this being promoted all around the world with 1.3 million views and Dior having a beautiful fabric for the runway, all credit is given to the women in Morocco who created this process.
Another way to reverse centuries of cultural appropriations to give the communities effected opportunities to make money and be part of a business. The modern brand ‘Aspiga’, based in London, is a prime example of this. After only being established 12 years ago, the founder Lucy used the designs of the sandals found in the markets of Kenya. Everything made for the sandal is produced and made in Kenya, but local people whose ancestors made these beaded textile samples in the same way. They are sold at a fair price of £60 for a pair of beaded sandals. The dyers, leather cutters, beaders and every step of the process gets paid a fair price for the work their ancestors gave them. Morden’s approach could be the way forward for the fashion and textiles industry not only stop the need for fast fashion, with good quality products that last, but also help give the people in the community a chance to make money while being authentic to their culture and allow people to appreciate the authentic design.
Overall, as a white female growing up in the Western world, the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciating a culture is evident to me. It is not that multiple cultures cannot come together to create a product in celebration of its heritage, however it is unfair that minority cultures cannot economically grow with that of the more economically successful West, due to their lack of power. Women in Morocco have the talent of the textiles, but the Dior fashion house can take it and make it better to sell to a western market. It is now more apparent to me that it was not only the designs of a culture, it was also people’s bodies that have been exploited and abused in the past. Despite all efforts to prevent cultural appropriation from existing across a variety of outlets, the social hierarchy between the women who dye fabrics and the head of Dior, Maria Grazia Chiur, will continue to reflect the centuries of Western colonisation. The impacts of oppression throughout history will be engrained in many cultures for many more years to come, unless these groups are allowed to heal from the damage caused to them, without the experiences and creations of their ancestors being taken advantage of.