07 October 2016

Where to draw the line in fashion – appreciation or appropriation?

Valentino S/S 2016 Campaign via valentino.com
Celebrities, fashion designers and even people in your neighbourhood take on the codes of cultures – but how does one objectively define the boundary between cultural appreciation and appropriation when the answer is so grey and big names in the industry are dismissing it?

The very concept of creativity is to be inspired, to sample and then to refine into something new – artists from all walks of life start their humble beginnings by using pre-existing objects and nothings around them to be inspired, and with fashion designers, there’s absolutely no doubt that one must be inspired by everything and nothing to come up with a collection of eye-catching clothes. Culture is one of the many inspirations that designers come too when they need new ideas, and of course it can be done well – but the industry itself is known for being conversational and outrageous, so the fact that fashion has blurred the boundaries of cultural appreciation and appropriation is no newsflash. The industry is well known for its elitist and exploitative nature, from workers to the individuals outside of the industry who feel that their heritage and culture have been used for capitalism in an inappropriate manner. From magazine editorials to runways to even phrases of an ‘African-inspired collection’, many are slamming several designers, and the industry itself for being uneducated and too narrow-minded about the complications of appropriation.

Valentino S/S 2016 via vogue.com
Valentino is one of the many names in the industry who have received backlash for their appropriation of their African-inspired collection from their Spring/Summer 2016 collection - this isn't the first time either. The clothing, which was inspired, respectively of course, by the traditional African dress, was not so much the issue – rather it was the use of the cornrow braids styled into the hair of models who – wait for it, were predominantly white. Not one model of colour on the runway. To add fuel to the fire, Valentino continued to anger the online social media by putting forth a campaign for that very collection that again, using white models, had them in cornrows, posing in Africa surrounded by local villagers. There was debate that the campaign itself surpassed appropriation into clear racism of white superiority.

Designers like London-based KTZ, have also been blasted with backlash for using sacred symbolism from Inuit culture in their Winter/Fall 2016 collection – where a number of garments had patterns based on the traditional designs without consent. Salome Awa, a Nunavut native, had gone ahead with a complaint letter addressing the issue of appropriation to the brand and after apologising, the collection was pulled off retailers. Some names in the industry have argued that fashion is about bringing individuals together with a sense of style, and that by ‘mixing’ together cultures with traditional attire, hairstyles, music and even mannerism, that the industry and society will become better adjusted to cultural diversity. After all, the industry with its mass diversity from insiders to consumers outside (with Asia leading the way for consumerism in the luxury area), isn’t it best as for a melting pot of cultures?

KTZ F/W 2016 via vogue.com / Inuit symbolism via Kerian Oudshoorn
The damage of cultural appropriation is rather hard to comprehend when one doesn’t have an understanding of white supremacy – historical black hairstyles (cornrows, twists, locs) have always, and admittedly still are stigmatised and deemed unprofessional by many businesses with many individuals losing jobs because of their hair. It becomes an eye-twitching moment to then see a white celebrity figure (See: Lena Dunham) wearing cornrows, suddenly turn the once-dismissed hairstyle into a trend that pulls away at centuries of black history. 

There’s more to it too – from bindis to the 'watered down Chinese-kimino' (which has been purposely worded wrong to bring a sense of the uncomfortable) to even the native headdress piece, all of which hold significant value to their respective cultures, it becomes unsettling and even upsetting to see white supremacy at it’s worst to adopt parts of oppressed and minority cultures while actual individuals of said cultures are being demonised. Beyond the industry, the annual holiday of Halloween brings to more fuel of cultural appropriation, where professor Belk (1990) states that 'halloween is seen as a holiday was focuses on the power of inversion - it's about turning the social norm into something that is not the norm.' It's fine, of course to dress up as celebrities or public figures because it's the social norm to see the humour in it, but when you're trying to dismantle a culture for the sake of this holiday - especially a culture that is presently (or in the past) experiencing oppression on one way or another, there is no inversion, it's simply reinforcing current power structures.  One of the most infamous 'costumes' (I use this term with as much respect as possible because it is not a costume, it is a culture) would be the Native American headdress. One too many times has capitalism seen the purchase and wear of the sacred headdress - built from individualised eagle feathers and even using colours and Navajo-inspied prints on the clothing. There is no knowledge, no rights and no meaning, as every piece of sacred clothing is a sense of an important culture and tradition - and interestingly enough, it's actually illegal within the United States 'to offer or display, or even sell any goods in a manner that falsely suggests that it is Indian produced, or inspired by (a tribe).' (If you're interested, Urban Outfitters were sued by a Navajo nation.) While the halloween pieces may not go as far as claiming truth from a tribe, it does peel away at centuries of traditions and culture, which additionally adds onto the discrimination that so many Native-American individuals and communities experience and turning it into a costume that holds no value.

Blackfeet and Blackfoot couple via traditionalnativehealing.com / Native American Headpiece via globerove.com

The issue of cultural appropriation will never come to a conclusion because it’s an issue that will always have answers floating in the grey zone – perhaps the best way to see it is that cultural appreciation comes down to the simple recognition of and respect for culture that inspires said acts of the arts. At the end of the day though, it comes down to one’s social privilege to prioritise the respect of a culture – cultural appreciation is more than just a fashion accessory for a music festival, and it definitely brings more to light in the industry motto of ‘expressing yourself through clothes.’