Cultural Exchange

Circa 1928 evening dress from E.L.Mayer, Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum

Circa 1928 evening dress from E.L.Mayer, Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum

This past week has brought another example of how using “other” cultures in fashion can be a very slippery slope. Dior perfumes went so far as to consult with Native leaders, and they employed a Native dancer to try and stave off criticism. But no matter, as people did strongly object to Native imagery and narration by non-Native actor Johnny Depp. The problem was the name of the perfume, Sauvage.

I first wrote about cultural appropriation in 2011, and I’ve revisited the subject from time to time, usually after a big internet dustup. Even though Dior went to some lengths to head off the cries of cultural appropriation, what they missed is that the ad is simply racist. And I’ve come to believe that most cases of accused cultural appropriation are, in fact, something else.

Back in June the government of Mexico expressed their displeasure at American clothing company Carolina Herrera whose Resort 2020 collection included items inspired by Mexican handicraft. There were striped dresses made from fabrics that strongly resembled those used in making the serape. There were long, flowy “Mexican” wedding dresses (remember those from the 1970s?). But most problematic were embroidered blouses that were very near copies of the work of Native embroiderers in Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo, Mexico.  So near, in fact, that you might be tempted to say the designs were stolen.

Of course you need to ask yourself about the origins of the embroidered blouses. As indigenous cultures were exposed to European clothing, many garments were adapted to form new types of clothing. A good example of this is what is considered to be traditional Navajo dress for women, with deep velvets being made into tiered shirts with chemise-type blouses. This dress was adapted from the styles the White Victorian women of the nearby forts and trading posts were wearing. And the style comes full circle in the late 1940s when dress manufacturers in the American Southwest developed a similar style for tourists – the patio or “squaw” dress (Don’t yell at me over the word “squaw”. I know that some consider it to be a slur. I am simply using the historic name for the dress.)

So, when you start to look at all the historic exchanges between cultures, it becomes apparent that “cultural appropriation” is seldom a matter of black or white. That does not mean I’m excusing Wes Gordon, the designer at Carolina Herrera. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the company had gone to Tenango de Doria to have the embroiderers there execute the designs so they could profit from a collaboration.

I’ve had these issues on my mind over the past few weeks after seeing Kimono Refashioned at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Looking at all the stunningly beautiful garments it occurred to me that in today’s world there would be an internet mob out to get Paul Poiret and Liberty & Co. I was relieved that the curators took the approach of cultural exchange, rather than that of appropriation.

I think the most insightful words came from Akiko Fukai, curator at the Kyoto Costume Institute.

…the West had moved beyond its initial superficial interest in the kimono’s exoticism to appreciate it at a deeper level. Fashion adapted the kimono in steps and from several different angles. Furthermore, these responses demonstrate that, when borrowing ideas, modern fashion frequently turned to prototypes for inspiration.

So much of what is accused of being cultural appropriation is simply racism or classism. To me, this is a serious problem that clothing companies and consumers need to address.  But claiming “appropriation” for the use of Asian or Latin American textiles is just one more thing in today’s world that is pitting humans against one another. We already have an atmosphere of us against them. We don’t need that attitude when it comes to our clothing.

If a product or ad is racist, it’s time to protest. But the exchange of ideas between cultures can lead to greater understanding between groups. It might be time for us all to look at what we have in common.

26 Comments

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26 responses to “Cultural Exchange

  1. Christina

    What do you mean by “We already have an atmosphere of us against them.”

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  2. My son who is of indigenous heritage found the name Sauvage offensive. The respectful appreciation of a particular native heritage (as Africa is not a country, “Indians” are not one people) nor Johnny Depp bothered him. Just the name. As one style critic put it, “How unoriginal!”. Who’s the savage, anyway?

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  3. Then there’s Kim Kardashian’s use of the word “Kimono” for her fashion line. Really, it never occurred to her that that’s already in use? More likely: a faux faux pas now means more publicity later.

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    • Oh, the Kardashians! The word kimono has been used for more than Japanese kimono for many years. I often see it in ads from the 1920s and 30s referring to regular robes and such. My big problem with her is that she applied for trademark protection for the word, and was actually granted protection of the word in a particular font.

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  4. Jacq Staubs

    Eau Sauvage (as you probably know) made it’s debut in 1966/7 -i was going iwas freshman in college-wearing it. I do not remember a “fuss” over the name then – even during the “cradle” of the political correctness / human rights movement? As for the “insensitivity ” displayed by Gordon – exposure / cultural knowledge being born in 1986 does not surprise me! I loved the Mexican “wedding dresses” / embroidered blouses -beautiful. All of my girlfriends wore them! Dealing diplomatically with Mexico can be tricky! I found out the hard way. Trying to start a “philanthropic” design firm proved fatal! Even working thru the Ambassadors.I totally agree with you-“knocking them off” is a disgrace. I think this may not have been ill intended? Just ignorance? I am surprised Mrs. Herrera did not give this more forthought!!! PLEASe send me your email – i have things to send you asap finally! I know you will want to have these!

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  5. From personal experience, I usually only seem to realize something is racist after it has been pointed out to me. I realize my insensitivity is due to an educational system that made many ethnicities and religious groups intentionally invisible. I now play a game called “What is “off”’ when confronted by advertising. For example, when I hear the word “savage”, what is the first thing that pops into my mind? And is this thought truthful or a biased view taught to me? Is the model’s clothes more like a costume than expected personal attire? Why are some clothes even considered “costumes”? Can I truthfully accept any person who is trying to sell a product if he makes his living as an actor/social influencer?

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  6. themissrayne

    I have to say that when I first saw the Depp/Sauvage advert I didn’t see it as racist but as possibly the worst advert ever made in the history of everything. It was pretentious and the script was hilarious (in a cringing way). Even when they changed the script it wasn’t much better.
    Perfume ads are notoriously affected at the best of times (I’m thinking of you, Julia Roberts).

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  7. There are two discussions here. Dior’s use of the term “Sauvage” (most commonly translated as wild though it can be translated as “savage”) and the marketing thereof was stupid and in horribly poor taste. Issue #2: I’m not going to get into a dust-up over this, but artists/designers can find inspiration in a blade of grass, a cloud, a display of emotion, a historic or current event—or even a dress style rooted in another culture. I see that as honoring the other culture, not appropriating or being racist. We have worn kimonos, kaftans, harem pants, even palazzos over the decades. None of these was ever meant as insult. If I dress in a sari (which I have always wanted to do), it means that I appreciate and honor the style and beauty of the dress, not that I dishonor or demean the Indian people or culture. What about little children in Mulan costumes? Let’s not get ridiculous over this.

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    • I think a child in Mulan costume is merely wanting to pretend to be the character. I would think that most small children picture her world as a fantasy.

      The problem with costumes is when adults dress in a manner to ridicule or stereotype,a culture such as dressing as a Charlie Chan type character, or in black-face, or as a redneck hillbilly wearing ragged clothes, toting a shotgun, and holding a jug of moonshine. This is racist or classist.

      But wearing an item of clothing inspired from another culture because one finds it beautiful is not, in my opinion. You are right; many times the outrage crosses over into the ridiculous.

      I learned a long time ago not to judge the feelings of others when it comes to this subject. It is always easier to see bias when it is taken against one’s own culture. That’s why I used the hillbilly example above. Being from the Southern Appalachians I’m hypersensitive to Deliverance jokes and Elly May Clampitt depictions.

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      • Questions: If a child wears a costume to pretend to be a specific person from another culture, is this an unthinking racist act? Doesn’t cultural insensitivity depend on the source material, rather than the age of the costume wearer? Am I being racist if I dress as Elizabeth Taylor dressed as Cleopatra? In other words, if I am specifically pretending to be Liz the actress portraying Cleo rather than the actual Cleo? I seriously want to be enlightened on this matter.

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        • If the age of the wearer is 4 or 5, I say give them a pass! As for the Cleopatra/liz costume, I’m not sure, but at first thought I don’t have a problem with it. But then again, what if you wanted to dress as Johnny Depp in his Tonto costume? Considering that his original portrayal was highly criticized by many Natives, I wouldn’t go there. But see how complicated it all is!

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          • I guess I will have to research if any modern Egyptians are offended by her portrayal.🤔 One is never too old (or young!) to learn. Regarding giving young children a pass on racist depictions, I would choose to view it instead as an excellent teaching opportunity for a parent to discuss racism and the importance of respecting people who are different from ourselves. Thank you, Vintage Traveler, for offering such an open and non judgmental forum in which to discuss an often emotionally charged issue.❤️

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  8. Excellent post, Lizzie! Without the influence of the kimono, think of all that we would have to eliminate from “Western” dress. There has to be a way to honor other cultures while also being able to be inspired by the designs and textiles they produce.

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    • So true. There were some of the garments in this exhibition in which the Japanese influence was so subtle that I would have missed it had it not been pointed out. I’m to the point where I believe that recognizing the beauty of something is honoring it.

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  9. I enjoyed the IG post by the young woman who was in the ad, discussing the trip to the shoot with the dancer, his costume, fancy dancing and the history of the “Indian” in the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows. I would love to find it again and link to it. Similarly, I appreciate the POC who see Mulan as their princess, who finally see themselves represented. I don’t need to have everything for my own consumption. It’s a big world, and all are needed.

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