On a balmy spring day in 1997, Jean-Paul Gaultier presents an homage to women he long admired, including Miriam Makeba and Angela Davis, and to a medley of musical genres spanning rap, jazz and funk. These influences are distilled in a razor-sharp line-up of velvet coats, crisp trousers, roomy suits and pleated skirts.
Three years later, at the dawn of a new century, Alexander McQueen shows his Autumn/Winter 2000 collection, named Eshu after the Yorùbá deity that inspired it. Elaborate chokers derived from the neck rings traditionally used by the Ndebele people of southern Africa complement garments that integrate horsehair, skin and intricate beadwork with the precise tailoring and luxurious fabrics the designer was known for.
Fast-forward to 2003: at Christian Dior haute couture, John Galliano embarks on what would become a recurrent obsession with kimonos, meticulously morphing them into garments of immense complexity, paired with makeup lifted straight from a Kabuki theatre stage for one of his trademark runway spectacles.
None of these shows, considered fashion history milestones and widely praised by critics, could have taken place today. The reason? By taking elements from foreign, non-dominant cultures and unabashedly repurposing them for high fashion, all three collections are unequivocally guilty of what we now consider to be cultural appropriation.
Surely, the fact that such extravagant displays of cultural insensitivity would not pass muster today is a good thing, a hopeful sign of social progress — or is it? To be clear, it is an exceedingly good thing that the world is more culturally aware than it once was, that we make an effort to respect the Other, that major brands — regardless of their motives — are making efforts to do the right thing. And yet...
The debate around cultural appropriation — an individual or organisation from one culture taking something from another culture and using it in another context for purposes foreign to its original intention and narrative framework — has been raging for years, eliciting vehement opinions from two firmly divided camps: those who oppose it and those who defend it as a harmless or even positive practice.
Cultural appropriation as a concept has existed since the 1970s, originating in academic theory to explain and understand Western tendencies to perpetuate the uneven power structures of colonialism in artistic and decorative fields by objectifying, idealising, exoticising and otherwise misinterpreting non-European artifacts in ways that, to modern eyes, can feel offensive and exploitative.
In recent years the term trickled into mainstream fashion discourse, becoming a buzz-word signifying a powerful brand co-opting the work of a marginalised culture in ways that lack sensitivity to that culture and the power imbalance at play. Often, the problem lies not with the borrowed artifact or the act of borrowing per se, but with who is doing the borrowing and from who. The inherently non-egalitarian power dynamics of fashion, a sector built on exclusivity and the signalling of social status, complicate matters. Indeed, it’s hard to argue credibly that it is ok for a privileged party to take something from a historically disadvantaged group of people, often for its superficial traits, without proper justification and extreme care.
The inherently non-egalitarian power dynamics of fashion complicate matters.
The opposing argument posits that creativity has always depended on sampling and remixing existing influences; that, for thousands of years and across disciplines — from art and music to food and technology — humanity’s most revered creative minds have mined the work of peers and predecessors from every conceivable corner of the planet, without having to limit their influences to their own cultures. That, say proponents of free cultural exchange, is what makes our world so rich and exciting. From this standpoint, an outsider’s interpretation of something not native to the community they were born into can be fertile, fresh and eye-opening, rather than condescending or clichéd. Cultural innovation may even depend on it.
Of course, differing opinions isn’t the problem. Quite the contrary: informed dissent is one of society’s great catalysts for change. In fact, the cultural appropriation debate would be a worthy tug of ideas except for the megaphone of social media and a climate in which a culture of swift and shrill judgements, followed by public shaming, are the preferred mode of critique. Add to the mix righteous, self-appointed arbiters quick to call out the slightest perceived transgression before an eager chorus of passionate digital commenters, and what could have been a constructive dialogue quickly devolves into a toxic free-for-all that some have leveraged to their own advantage, stoking animosity to drive social media engagement.
The cost? When fashion is unfairly used as a digital referendum on political values concerning deeply entrenched, painfully unresolved societal ills and sins of history, it loses the purity of a discipline once judged in terms of beauty and inventiveness.
Back in 1997, Washington Post critic Robin Givhan deemed Gaultier’s collection “a forward-thinking exploration of the African diaspora,” singling out the French designer’s effort for being “deeply appreciative of the culture it reflected.” Gaultier, she added, had been motivated by contentious changes to his country‘s immigration law and France‘s long history of xenophobia and racism.
Givhan’s opinions — subjective, as all criticism is — could be considered outdated in 2019. But what they brought to the discussion and what still makes them striking is nuance, a willingness to see things from different angles, a realisation that no single view is uniquely right and that contrasting perspectives can be mutually enriching.
In this spirit of open-mindedness, it’s worth asking: are there instances where it’s ok for a designer to borrow from a foreign culture? The answer often depends not just on what is being borrowed, but on how and why. It’s a minefield, but a few parameters may provide useful guidelines for when it’s justifiable to borrow from another culture; when to tread cautiously; and when it may be best to leave a foreign reference alone.
“You shall not insult a community” could be the overriding litmus test for referencing foreign sources. If transplanting something from its context to a fashion setting could be perceived as mocking or exploitative by a member or heir of that culture, it’s better left alone. This is often the case when the borrowed artifact carries religious or otherwise heightened meaning within its culture of origin. Is such a signifier being used for commercial gain or mere styling impact? Drop it, it’s 2019. Victoria’s Secret’s use of Native American headdresses and Gucci’s sampling of Sikh turbans, both of which involved the superficial aesthetic plundering of sacred symbols, are perhaps the most obvious recent cases of cultural misappropriation.
More than ever, designers and the houses they work for have a responsibility to know and understand their sources beyond aesthetics alone. This includes familiarising yourself with histories of oppression and inequality. Designers must do their homework and investigate if a foreign element they would like to use may trigger sensitive associations. Here, authenticity also matters. Is your inspirational source a genuine representation of its culture or a caricature that distorts truth and reinforces hurtful stereotypes?
Designers and the houses they work for have a responsibility to know and understand their sources beyond aesthetics alone.
If you are going to borrow something, transparency is critical. Ask yourself: is the source of the borrowed element being clearly, honestly credited? Passing off someone else’s work as your own is simply copying. You also need to do something interesting with what you have borrowed. The best designers integrate outside elements into a collection by thoughtfully re-combining them with other, unexpected references. Are you interpreting or juxtaposing your sources in an innovative way? Having recognisable sources of inspiration doesn’t mean you can’t create something original. Few designers know how to appropriate in the best sense of the word, truly owning a variety of sources by blending them with skill and a singular, timely vision.
And rather than simply taking from an under-recognised, disadvantaged community, why not collaborate with the authors of the pattern, motif or technique you intend to use? This is the ideal scenario for a mindful cross-cultural exchange, especially if the playing field is historically uneven. A sincere attempt to use clout and resources to measurably benefit the community being referenced helps alleviate the sense of entitlement that often comes with borrowing, especially by a big luxury house.
Dior’s most recent cruise collection, masterminded by Maria Grazia Chiuri and shown amid considerable bombast in Marrakech last April, took a significant step in this direction. While the decision to rent a Saadi palace to photograph celebrities flown in from Los Angeles remains questionable, the gilded French brand’s flashy excursion to a former colony was largely saved from rebuke because Chiuri and her team had taken the time to locate, study and join forces with local talent behind the cultural products that inspired them, resulting in a potent pairing of African artisanship and European luxury.
If we are lucky, Dior’s Moroccan experiment hints at a post-appropriation reality in which the mining of foreign cultures is rooted in the transmission of knowledge, ingenuity, craft and labour, and not just surface aesthetics — all of it free from sensitive references and duly recognised, wherever it’s from and however it’s used.
Suleman Sheikh Anaya is a writer based between Paris and New York. Past and present collaborators include Jonathan Anderson, 2x4, 032c and T Magazine.
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