Appreciation Or Appropriation?

Essay
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5 September 2017 By Josephine Sherwood

Appreciation or Appropriation?


Adopting elements of different cultures is a natural, human consequence of the interaction between different groups. It is indicative of a diverse and vibrant society.

However, at what point does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation, or racism? Designers have always cited the artwork, textiles and traditional attire of other cultures as sources of inspiration. But how do we gauge the line between respect for other cultures and the exploitation of cultural imagery?

To put it simply, cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one cultural group by a ‘dominant’ group. It’s the trivialisation of ideas, images and styles from other cultures, which debases their original significance in the name of vanity. With this in mind, the fashion industry has certainly had a part to play in the perpetuation of cultural and racial stereotypes.

Last year Dolce and Gabbana sparked controversy with their use of blackamoor and imperialist imagery in their Spring 2013 collection. Victoria’s Secret was another offender and was recently scrutinised for putting a scantily clad Karlie Kloss in a feathered headdress: a symbol of honour and respect in Native American culture.

An argument against the prevalence of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry is that wearing an item with cultural resonance is a sign of admiration for the culture in question. Unfortunately, the issue is far more complex than that. Those guilty of appropriating are, by and large, of white ethnicity and are representative of Western hegemony.

For the most part, people do not realise that wearing culturally significant garments inadvertently reinforces segregation and stereotypes. It’s exploiting the cultural markers of marginalised groups and, in turn, misrepresenting them. Those who use the excuse that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ fail to acknowledge their inherent privilege or recognise the history of oppression suffered by the cultural group in question.

So what are fashion designers supposed to do? I believe it is important to recognise the difference between ‘imitation’ and ‘inspiration’. A designer should be innovative and creative enough not to rely on cheap mimicry. Although Dolce and Gabbana have produced some stunning collections, there is no denying that their S/S13 runway show was banal and insulting. A legion of white models clad in garments depicting black slave women epitomises appropriation at its worst. A successful collection requires considered research and needs to be executed with sensitivity and respect.

Designers have a lot of freedom when creating collections. The ‘free culture’ of fashion means that they can pilfer ideas without the fear of copyright. Of course, this is crucial for the ever-changing, innovative nature of fashion; inspiration doesn’t materialise from the ether and nothing is ‘new’.

However, this becomes problematic when designers think this notion of ‘borrowing’ extends to appropriating traditional attire with symbolic significance from other cultures. There is a difference between being inspired by a sacred pattern used for ceremonial attire and exactly replicating that pattern for a clothing line. A good designer will pay homage to a culture by citing it as their source of inspiration and will be nuanced and tactful in their adoption of a particular clothing style or pattern.

Ultimately it’s a case of being well-informed and respectful about the culture in question. Inspiration should be honoured
and celebrated. There is no better way to do this than to undertake thorough research and to be educated about the social mores and historical background of the culture serving as a source of inspiration.

Emerging Milan designer Stella Jean perfectly demonstrated how to draw from other cultures without being slavish in her Spring/Summer 2014 collection. Speaking to Vogue, she stated ‘fashion can be used as a cultural translator and a tool against colonisation; it re-establishes the balance between symbols, stories and different worlds through style’.

Her most recent collection was inspired by her Haitian and Turin roots: ‘fashion gave me ample space to manoeuvre and find a place where both of these cultures could coexist’. Jean’s collection celebrates cultural diversity without resorting to offensive stereotypes or culturally significant symbols. It incorporates the richness and vibrancy of two cultures through inspiration and reinvention.

Ultimately, designers are perfectly entitled to draw inspiration from other cultures so long as it’s precisely that: inspiration. If we didn’t borrow and adapt aspects of art and fashion from around the world then there would be cultural stagnation. Without change and diversity, art becomes ossified. When done correctly, fashion is a powerful cultural integrator and can bring cultures together in beautiful and interesting ways. It is a way of inciting cross-cultural communication and learning more about each other.

Good art, however, is about creativity and reinvention: not mimicry. In a day and age where we have resources and information at our fingertips, there is no excuse for reducing cultures to a one-dimensional stereotype through lack of research.

Further Reading