More Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

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Several years ago I wrote some thoughts about cultural appropriation in fashion.  It has been the most visited post on the site.  The topic continues to be of interest even after three years, partly because new examples keep cropping up and at the same time, old ones remained unresolved.

To review, cultural appropriation is when a culture adopts or uses specific things from another culture group.  It can be music, art, food, religion, celebrations, or fashion.  That does not sound so bad, but the term cultural appropriation tends to have a negative connotation, with elements of racism and imperialism implied in the term.   Also implied is the fact that the appropriator does not acknowledge nor understand the original meaning of the item being appropriated.

As I stated in my previous post, the feathered headdress is probably the best example that most people will understand.  Some Native cultures use the headdress in certain religious ceremonies.  The wearing of the headdress is not an arbitrary thing, but is instead reserved for certain members of the tribe.  It is small wonder that the appropriation of a religious object causes outrage in Native communities, but that did not stop Karl Lagerfeld from using them in the Dallas  Metiers d’art collection, nor did it stop Pharrell Williams from wearing one on an Elle UK cover.

When called out for cultural appropriation offenses, the common justification is that the wearer is honoring the culture.  I’m quite sure that no Native American felt honored when model Karlie Kloss wore a full headdress in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

To me, that the wearing of a religious object that has nothing to do with your culture should not be done is a no-brainer.  Unfortunately the issue keeps reappearing, as if some people did not get the memo that it is just not the thing to do.

Other examples are a bit trickier, as the example in my original post, the “appropriation” of Pendleton blankets by “hipsters.”  Even though the blankets themselves are not Native objects, being loosely designed from Native motifs, many Native communities use the blankets as gifts to mark milestones in a person’s life.  It’s an interesting case of possible reverse-appropriation, where Pendleton took Native motifs and modified them for a product that some Native communities ended up embracing.

So is this an example of cultural appropriation?  Should Natives who use Pendleton blankets in their ceremonies be mad over the hipster use of the fabrics?

I decided a long time ago that it was not up to me to decide what other people should be upset about.  However, in the grand scheme of things, I think indignation would be better placed in fighting the obvious appropriation of the headdress, and the blatant racism of certain sports logos and team names.

Last week journalist Robin Givhan wrote an excellent piece in the Washington Post about how fashion and sports intersect when it comes to this issue.  She mentions the fact that fashion has always borrowed from other cultures and other time periods.  And that is not always a bad thing.  Givhan gives an example of what she calls “cultural authentication.”

Cultural authentication is a far more complex process. It’s taking someone else’s cultural artifact and so deeply transforming it that it becomes intrinsic to its new surroundings. The original continues to exist and retains its meaning.  Robin Givhan, Washington Post, November 2, 2014

Givhan cites the example of how hip hop kids in the 1990s “appropriated” the trappings of the preppy set: Tommy Hilfiger  and Ralph Lauren clothing, Timberland hiking boots and sailing windbreakers.  But their styling transformed the look into something entirely different, so much so that some of the items of clothing are now associated as much with hip hop as they are with preppy.  But no one would confuse the two styles, would they?

Givhan’s mentioning of the hip hop look was not a randomly chosen example.  In early October there was a style feature on the Elle magazine site saying that Timberline boots were the next big thing.  They had been spotted on various celebrities, such as Rhianna, Gwen Stefani, and little North West.

Immediately there was a huge brouhaha on twitter about how hip hop had been left out of the narrative.  After all weren’t Timberlands “theirs” first? One of the protesters was given space on Elle to write a piece explaining the uproar.  In it she alluded to this as cultural appropriation, and that it seemed like people were being left out of the narrative because they were not rich, famous and white. (No matter that many of the women and girls pictured were Black.)

I’ll say it again; it is not up to me to decide what makes another person mad.  Perhaps if I had been a Timberland wearing hip hop girl in the 90s, I’d feel the very same way.  I do tend to think that we need to take a more realistic view of how trends reference the past.  Should every article about the Breton striped tee reference everyone from Pablo Picasso to me?  (I WAS wearing them in 1995.) Should an article about the Little Black Dress reference the Goths, who were wearing black when the rest of the fashion world was into jewel tones?  Should the author of the article have referenced hip hop?  How are fashion writers to know all the fashion trends of the past?  Is it their responsibility to research and document every precedent of a current trend?

The final point is that battles ought to be chosen very carefully.  Even when one has a legitimate beef, it might be better to let it slide in difference to more pressing issues.  Otherwise it just begins to look very us against them, and at that point people stop listening.

23 Comments

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23 responses to “More Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

  1. YES! Fashion “writers” should do their research- and- all other “writers” and so called “editors” as well…Ms. Givhan needs to decide if she IS a Fashion Editor – or-a wanna be historian…or… way to often just a thought provoking journalist!?!What is this really about? It would seem Fashion has very little to do with it!?….NO value judgement here what-so-ever…after reading it – just a thought!

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  2. By its nature, fashion can’t have a memory or there would never be a new fashion and today’s fast fashion trending s especially prone to appropriation because of the need for novelty. It’s amusing to watch today’s designers ‘create’ something that is ‘new’ and you have to wonder if they are lying to us or themselves because I can’t think of a single fashion from the last fifty years that wasn’t borrowed from another era, culture, or designer. I truly doubt any designer bothers with academic research to understand the meaning of the styles they are appropriating. The Indian headdress in the Victoria Secret underwear show was more likely inspired by Cher singing Half Breed in her 1973 video on Youtube than any Sioux ceremonial dance. http://youtu.be/Z6E98ZRaU1s

    As for Timberland boots, I bet the Hip Hop girls didn’t realize they were stealing their look from the 1970s Gay community where Timberlands were part of an urban masculine lumberman chic worn with tight white T-shirts, buffalo check shirts, jeans with turned up cuffs and trim moustaches.

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    • I did not realize there was a gay lumberjack look in the 70s, no more than I knew that the hip hop girls loved Timberland boots. And all this time I thought that the hipsters were the only ones besides hikers and actual lumberjacks that wore them!

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  3. And before Timberland boots were a badge of the gay community, weren’t they just a very good, tough work boot? At least, that’s what I saw when I opened this post – but that might just be a display of my own woeful fashion naivety. PS I was wearing Breton tops in the eighties, so I think I trump you, Lizzie! But wasn’t Coco Chanel wearing them even before Picasso…? 😉

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  4. This is such an interesting discussion, Lizzie. As a former academic historian, (my specialty–culture in the early Soviet Union) I had the advantage of being able to define the parameters of my research. I could say that I was looking at one problem during one specific period. (Of course, only the people interested in that problem/period ever read what I wrote.) Fashion history is more expansive because the references can go very far back and the objects have different meanings in different subcultures. This reverberating discussion is what makes fashion history fascinating to me.

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    • “This reverberating discussion is what makes fashion history fascinating to me.” I so completely agree. Jonathan’s example about Cher’s video and its influence was one I’d never thought of. Fashion is influenced in so many ways, and it changes and evolves and then comes around again. It’s a miracle we are not all dizzy!

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  5. I, too, learned a lot about my ignorance from this post: around 1991 I bought a pair of Timberland hiking boots because I was going to spend the summer hiking in England. I had no idea they were fashionable in the music business. English hikers I met on the trail sometimes asked me about them — but if they knew I was a middle aged woman wearing a hip-hop fashion, they were too polite to say so. They just asked me about things like fit, arch support, and price.

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  6. Wow, most comments on the Givhan article are extremely depressing. I’ve never seen anyone challenging the term “Native American” before. What the ….?

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    • I’m afraid I never read the comments in response to articles any more as they are just too upsetting. In the past two weeks I’ve read several articles written by newspaper columnists about the way the negative and belligerent comments made in response to their work has affected the job they do. Scary business.

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  7. What a great post! And something that I have given thought to myself. It’s an interesting thing to consider for sure. The corset is one such piece, that has been used by many as an undergarment, but in today’s culture has transitioned from being as necessary, unseen and serving a structural purpose to being an outright fashion statement to be worn on the outside, while providing no true shape alteration like the original garment. It has also moved from an item that nearly every woman, no matter her class, wore, to being associated with goths, the SM crowd and other sub-cultures.

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  8. I did a post on this recently, too, and I think it’s an issue that will keep coming up as the world continues to globalize. I do find it interesting that people don’t even realize the level of cultural appropriation that goes on every day, and most of it is never noticed and isn’t negative! Non-Italians making spaghetti for dinner, governments borrowing elements of democracy from ancient Greece, and the use of silk all over the world. We culturally appropriate all the time!

    Here was my post on it (there was some great conversation in the comments section!): http://www.flashbacksummer.com/2014/10/controversial-post-cultural.html

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  9. It’s such a murky business fashion as there are no copyright rules (although I think the Native American population has successfully fought for copyright on some products thankfully) and everyone copies from everyone- competitors, past designers’ work, images from books, clothes in museums… But when you are adopting ceremonial or religious dress from other cultures you should be aware you are treading on sacred ground. However Timberland boots are up for grabs by anyone as far as I’m concerned! 🙂

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