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.