Cultural appropriation is a crime in the fashion industry that many fashion designers can be considered guilty of. It is defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing an understanding or respect the culture” by the Cambridge dictionary. One of the perpetrators of this act being Valentino through his Spring 2016 collection; inspired by tribal African motifs from which the collection derives its name – ‘Wild Africa’. Another being Jacobs through the use of pastel coloured dreads to model his garments. The list is infinite. I would like to explore how easily the line between fashion and cultural appropriation can be crossed whilst placing a main focus on Valentino’s collection in order to ultimately come to a conclusion to this matter. What is cultural appropriation?
The use of culture to influence fashion can go one of two ways. At one end of the spectrum is appreciation for one’s culture and tradition whilst at the other end lies cultural appropriation. Though being a very subjective topic, cultural appropriation can be seen as one of the biggest offences in fashion. The models of Marc Jacobs cyber goth inspired show wearing candy-coloured dreadlocks. This was described by critics as ‘problematic’ as the majority of the models were white. Jacobs responded to this saying “All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race of skin colour wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of colour for straightening their hair.”. Being a person of colour myself I found this very ignorant and insensitive as no respect was shown for the various cultures from which dreads originated from. Open further research I found that dreadlocks originated in Africa and was first worn by the Masai tribesmen of Kenya where many warriors would wear them in battle often dyeing their roots red.
Valentino’s 2016 ad-campaign is no different, featuring a line-up of predominantly white models wearing cornrows and dreadlocks wrapped into buns to showcase pieces inspired by ‘Wild Africa’[footnoteRef:1]. These pieces captivate the quality of the African prints and materials created by the locals, yet these locals can only be seen as a background for the western models. This sets an uncomfortable dynamic throughout the campaign as the models take to the front leaving the natives as a backdrop. It seems like the sampling of culture in this case only goes one way as it is mainly the models profiting in this scenario. The collection fearlessly takes African motifs and combines them with Grecian components, exhibiting the belief that parts of rich cultures can be borrowed and made into luxury goods without any consequences. This campaign was closely followed with an African-themed spring runway show in 2016, again showing a mainly white line-up of models[footnoteRef:2] clutching designer handbags whilst modelling bone necklaces, Masai beading, Kikuyu textiles, feathers and fringed jackets hand-painted with geometric designs made to look ‘primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal’. [1: According to creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli] [2: Only 8 of 87 being black according to the ‘Daily Life’ magazine]
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There is an obvious African influence behind the collection but I feel like it is not properly reflected by Valentino. It has always been a good thing to embrace different cultures, as it inspires open-mindness to the way we dress. But personally, it comes across improper when designers use these cultures to make money by taking certain clothing styles and hairdos and using privileged models to showcase them. I disagree with this as I feel that it tends to make the original owners of these styles anonymous; I feel that they need be included in order to create a well-rounded product. There is no question that the flowing nature of the fishnet inspired dress and the vibrant colours of the Masai beads are beautiful, but more credit needs to be given to the creators so that they too can benefit from what they made. Same with the intricate geometric patterns of the bag, it represents the African culture which many people (including me) are proud of. In this sense the people of Africa should also be represented in order for this collection to be considered as appreciation rather than cultural appropriation. [3: A Kenyan fabric originally made from animal skin]
The power of mobile phones has had a big impact on how cultural appropriation is now addressed. In the past, incidents such as cultural appropriation may have been overlooked and buried deep under to never be talked about again. But now, social media has given people a voice to speak up and voice their opinions about matters like this. A spectator, frustrated by the lack of black representation of the collection said “How are you going to use African culture as your ‘inspiration’ yet not even attempt to have African women represented on your runway?”[footnoteRef:4]. It is easy to understand where she is coming from, but I feel like that with a topic as subjective as cultural appropriation, not everyone can be pleased. Stella McCartney responded to this saying “the pieces were about celebrating a unique textile craftsmanship, its culture and highlighting its heritage,”. It is difficult to decide on who is right or wrong in this scenario which brings about the question. Is it cultural appropriation? Well, everyone has their own opinion so a conclusion will never be drawn to this matter. But something that is certain is the fact that social media has been a catalyst in helping this matter come to the surface. [4: Said by Amarachi Nwosu (@AmaraWorldWide) October 2, 2017]
This collection was created by Celine for her Autumn/Winter collection. It takes inspiration from the popular ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags commonly used in both Nigeria and Ghana. The term “Ghana Must Go” has a negative connotation by Ghanaians who moved to Nigeria during its Oil Boom. This is because during the 1980s they where kicked out with no warning and so were forced to pack their belongings in those bags instead of the usual suitcases as a result of the time constraint. This rose tensions between Ghanaians and Nigerians. Nowadays ‘Ghana must Go’ bags are used widely by both Nigerian and Ghanaians. The use of this item to inspire Celine’s collection is very creative, creating chequered patterns that can be used in garments.
From the various sources that I accessed I was able to see different instances in which a country’s culture has inspired a garment. I believe that there is no harm in this and it is therefore not cultural appropriation from that perspective. However, in many cases owners of the culture are disregarded as they watch western designers take their culture and make money from it. Valentino’s collection where white models took to the front of the ‘Wild Africa’ collection whilst locals were only visible in the background. Now this, in my opinion is cultural appropriation. Why couldn’t the owners of the neat cornrows, intricate African designs and beautiful beading be the main focus of the campaign? The Cambridge dictionary described cultural appropriation as. “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing an understanding or respect the culture”. But, I feel it goes a lot more deeper than this ; especially with social media as I previously described. I have concluded that cultural appropriation is different for many scenarios and that sometimes people can exaggerate their views on this matter which makes it very subjective to each individual.
- Brown Kopano. Soul Thieves
- The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture. City: Alabama, 2014.
- Young James. The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation. City: Blackwell Publishing ltd, 2012
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-46297329 ,BBC news, 24/04/2019
- http://checkoutafrica.com/cultural-appropriation-african-style-compliment-insult/ , Mariam Tijani, 24/04/2019
- http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/37002/1/marc-jacobs-admits-ss17-dreadlocks-were-insensitive-cultural-appropriation, Dominic Canogan, 01/05/2019
- https://jamaicans.com/dreadlocks/ Rastafari, 01/05/2019
- https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/stella-mccartney-cultural-appropriation , Jamie Fieldman, 08/05/2019
- http://www.dailylife.com.au/dl-fashion/fashion-coverage/whats-with-valentinos-africa-inspired-ad-campaign-20160111-gm3qkd.html ,Kathleen Lee Joe, 08/05/2019
- https://acclaimmag.com/style/cultural-appropriation-in-fashion-is-nothing-new/#1, Kish Lal, 08/05/2019
- https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/stella-mccartney-cultural-appropriation_ ,Jamie Feldman, 16/05/2019
- http://www.dailylife.com.au/dl-fashion/fashion-coverage/whats-with-valentinos-africa-inspired-ad-campaign-20160111-gm3qkd.html ,22/05/2019
- http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/26895/1/valentino-show-inspired-by-wild-africa-sparks-controversy ,22/05/2019