Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

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.

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.


Filed under Viewpoint

Currently Reading: High Style, by Jan Glier Reeder

This book is the companion to the exhibition of the same name which featured highlights from the Brooklyn Museum’s incredible clothing collection.  This exhibition was planned to show off the collection after it was transferred from Brooklyn to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the late 1990s, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the costume collection at the Brooklyn Museum was in trouble.  Clothing and textiles are hard and expensive to maintain.  A lot of skill is necessary for preservation and conservation.  The museum had cut back on costume displays because they feared it was too damaging to the textiles. The solution was to transfer the collection to the Met where the financial situation was much better.

This transfer was not universally popular (but what is these days?), especially when it became known that many of the pieces never made their way from Brooklyn to the Met.  The entire collection had been recataloged, photographed, and assessed.  Many items, presumably those of which there were better examples already in the Costume Institute, were sent to auction.  Included was a large portion of a donation to the Brooklyn Museum by designer Elizabeth Hawes and several of her clients.

The costume collection at the Brooklyn Museum has an interesting history.  It was started in the early days of the twentieth century, not as an historical or artistic collection, but for design inspiration.  The earliest pieces collected were examples from other cultures, and one curator made yearly buying trips to Europe in order to collect traditional costumes and textiles.

The textile above was the type of object being collected in the early twentieth century.  It is a Russian wedding veil, and was added to the Brooklyn’s growing collection of textiles in 1931.  Textiles were shown in the Textile Study Room, which had opened in 1918.  After the outbreak of World War II, the museum sought out designers and textile manufacturers and offered their services in the field of design inspiration.  It was during this time that American designers such as  Bonnie Cashin and Carolyn Schnurer began their association with the museum. This ultimately led to contributions to the collection by these designers.

After the war ended, many American designers continued to look to the world for inspiration. Starting in 1946, Carolyn Schnurer traveled the world in search of inspiration and textiles.  Each year’s resort collection was based on her trip to a different country.  The photos above show part of 1950’s “Flight to India” collection, in which Schnurer had the fabrics she found in Europe adapted to her needs.  You can see how she took the idea of a sari and fit it into the current fashion.

Of course, today we’d be hearing all sorts of cries of cultural appropriation.  In reading this book, it struck me just how much of twentieth century fashion was somehow based on borrowing from other cultures.  It also struck me just how much more rich fashion history is because of these appropriations.

This 1944 dress from Madame Eta Hentz, was based on two Greek garments, the chiton and the himation.

In the mid 1920s, French designer Suzanne Talbot based this dress on the toga.

Jeanne Lanvin adapted the Japanese obi as the train of the 1923 dress.

Couturier Emile Pingat used motifs based on those of American Plains Indians in 1891.

Madame Gres produced Greek inspired dresses throughout her long career, this one in 1937.

Even Bonnie Cashin, who is generally not classified as the type to indulge in “ethnic” fantasies, took the poncho from South America and turned it into a fashion statement.

It’s hard to imagine our wardrobes were they to be stripped of all the cultural influences, but still the internet is quick to pounce on any trace of cultural appropriation.  Some, of course, would be considered by many to be justified, as in the using of sacred garment to create fashion.  But most might be looked on as part of the broader picture, of fashion as design sponge.

High Style by Jan Glier Reeder is the catalog that accompanied this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and the Cincinnati Art Museum.  I bought it at the Cincinnati museum when I saw the exhibition, as I like to do, especially when a museum is free.  It helps the museum, and it gives me a nice remembrance.  I like and enjoy it, but it’s not the sort of useful book that I would recommend for other to buy.



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Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

More Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Copyright Timberland.com

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.


Filed under Viewpoint

Some Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Photograph © Chris Hornbecker., via pendleton-usa.com

Last Sunday I linked to a photo essay at Slate on the Pendleton trade blanket, or as it would be more commonly referred to, the Indian blanket.  If you have not read the essay, you really do need to before reading my post.

Cultural appropriation has become a hot topic lately, not that is a new topic, as I remember discussing some of these issues in collage in the mid 1970s.  I  became interested in this several months ago when my blog stats showed a lot of traffic being driven to my posts on Pendleton.  I did a bit of searching myself, and found the blog that is linked to in slide 14 of the essay.  In this post, the writer expresses her concern about the use of Pendleton Indian blanket fabrics in clothes that are being marketed toward “hipsters.”

So what is cultural appropriation?  Simply put, it is when one 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 understand the original meaning of the item being used.

A good example is the use of “Indian” feathered headdresses by children who are playing “Indian.”  It is pretty much assured that the kid running around the yard, chasing little sis with a faux tomahawk has no idea of the significance of a feathered headdress to a person in the culture that uses feathered headdresses in religious ceremonies.  The parent who bought this play headdress did so without thinking that the real item is a sacred object.   And it’s just possible that the play headdress was made by Cherokee in their Cherokee, NC factory.  The only Cherokee who wear feathered headdresses are the “chiefs” on the street who want you to have your photo taken with them.

So we have  one simple toy, being appropriated for fun and profit, with no thought of nor respect for the true significance of the object.  It’s easy to see why people to whom the headdress is a part of their religion would be upset.

But not all examples of cultural appropriation are so easy to grasp.  Part of the reason is that humans have always looked outside their own culture for something new.   There are plenty of examples going back to ancient times.

As for fashion, I’ll start with the paisley shawl, so important to the well-dressed Victorian woman.  The paisley design originated in South and Central Asia, where followers of Zoroastrianism consider it to sum up the essence of their religion.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, woven paisley patterned fabrics were taken to Europe by the East India Company.  Before long, European factories were making the print, which was called paisley due to so much of it being made in the Scottish town of Paisley.  Demand for paisley shawls continued through Victorian times, as the huge shawls were easy to wrap around the largest of hoop-skirted dresses.

Today, paisley is seen mainly on men’s neckties.  I have a very strong idea that no man who puts on his necktie has much of a clue that the print on it might have a deeper cultural meaning to the followers of  Zoroastrianism.   Even though the use of paisley has all the earmarks of cultural appropriation, is it somehow wrong for a Western man to wear it?

There are plenty of other examples.  In the 20th century, Western fashion and fabrics designers were heavily influenced by other cultures.   In the 1910s Paul Poiret made his reputation on his “Oriental” collections.  The 1920s brought a fascination with Egyptian-inspired fashion due to the opening of King Tut’s tomb.   Before and during World War II there was a craze for Germanic folk costume.  There was Tina Leser, and her famous 1947 honeymoon of inspiration, where she tapped into every culture imaginable.  And in the 1960s and 70s, if it was “exotic,” it was fashionable.

Frankly, I’m having a very hard time picturing fashion history without these influences.  And the bottom line is, take away all the cultural influences and you aren’t left with much.  I’m tempted to say we’d look like we were wearing the Maoist era Chinese uniform of grey, but that too is a cultural appropriation.

Pendleton Indian Blankets – for many generations a part of the daily life and ceremonials of the American Indian – have been adopted for their picturesque beauty and utility by all outdoor’s folk.

“Pendletons” are servicable companions for any outdoor adventure – no hardship being too severe for the strength of their weaving or the performance of their dyes.

You will see countless “Pendletons” on the beaches this Summer – a flash of bizarre coloring – an all-protecting robe.  You’ll meet them, too, when motoring, camping, canoeing, picnicing; on the verandas and in the homes.  They’ll be accompanying the young folks to college next Fall – to make their appearance on the sleeping porches – at the big football games – for all Winter sports.

Ad in Vogue, July 1, 1926

As for Pendleton, the real appropriation took place years ago, when the blankets were first designed and marketed. As the Pendleton site says, the blankets were designed by the mill owners, using designs and colors they thought would appeal to Native consumers.  It doesn’t say that these blankets were also sold to White consumers as “Indian” blankets, but of course they were, as were similar blankets by other weavers like Beacon.

What seems to make the Pendleton blanket different from other appropriations is the fact that it has been embraced for many years by many Native communities. So I can see why some Native cultures would have these feelings of ownership.  It is an important part of their culture.

Pendleton using these “Indian” designs on clothing is really not a new development, as they have been doing this at least since the 1970s.  It’s just that now Pendleton has found a way to capitalize on the growing “heritage” trend in clothing styles.  Not Native heritage, mind you, but classic American brands heritage.  Having collaborations with Vans, Levis and Opening Ceremony is a way to get Pendleton woolens before a wider, younger, audience.  And not just the “Indian” patterns, but the plaids as well.

When you look at the economic pressures a company like Pendleton faces, just to continue manufacturing in the USA, you can see why they are taking this route. For them, it may make the difference between surviving or not.  In fact, as recently as July 2009, the company announced employee lay-offs and wage cuts.  I can hardy blame them for looking into their own history to find products and designs that appeal to the consumers of today.

I do find certain “trends” to be offensive, and others to be silly.  Why would any (non-native) adult think it is cool to wear a feathered headdress?

copyright gq.com

or a stuffed animal on their heads

via voices.girlybubble.com

Though I’m of the mind that “spirit hoods” are more Luna Lovegood of Harry Potter in origin, than any Native culture.

Via harrypotter.wikia.com

The way I see it, it would be virtually impossible to erase all the cultural influences in fashion.   My new Bass loafers, a descendant of the moccasin, is  good example of how we often do not realize the influence is even there.  But before you don the next New Agey/Native/Spititual influenced fashion, do a little research and make sure you are not sending the message that you are a cultural nincompoop.

A little personal aside:   My father’s family is Cherokee.  He was not reared in the culture, as they lived outside the Boundary in a White community.  They are listed on the Baker Role of 1924, an official listing of the members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.  My father was not born until 1927, and he was never enrolled in the tribe, but his two remaining siblings are today Cherokee elders.

I claim no special understanding of how Native people feel about this issue.  I can tell you from another aspect of my life that cultural stereotypes and appropriations are hurtful.  Being from the mountains of Southern Appalachia, I find the cultural stereotype of the “hillbilly” to be highly offensive.   Yet the word is tossed around in the US as if it were harmless, without thinking that behind the stereotype are real people, few of which are toothless, barefoot and illiterate.  Please excuse me, as I’ve got to go out and run off the next batch of moonshine!

And could someone explain to me, exactly what is a hipster?


Filed under Viewpoint

Original Lanz

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I love ethnic inspired fashion.  And one of my favorite vintage labels is Lanz.  Not the 1950s and 60s fashion Lanz, not the modern flannel nightgown Lanz, but the Original Lanz of Salzburg.  The company was founded in 1922 by the Lanz family.  They were located in Salzburg, Austria, where they supplied traditional folkwear costumes for Austrians attending the Salzburg Music Festival.  That’s the festival depicted in The Sound of Music, by the way.

In the mid 1930s, Lanz had expanded in the US, where they continued to make their trachen – type garments.  What I find really interesting is how popular these styles were during WWII.  The dirndl is not necessarily a German garment, but it certainly is associated with the region.  So it’s puzzling to consider why German and Austrian styles were so favored during a time in which we were at war with Germany!

There is a theory of cultural imperialism, in which the victors (or in this case, hopeful victors) take on the dress and other customs of the defeated.   That certainly seems to be the case.

Well, whatever the reason, I just love the clothes, and have a mid 1940s embroidered dirndl dress and a sweet jacket from about the same time.  And now I have a real collection of Lanz, because I just found my third piece.  This one is a belt, all hand worked and wonderfully detailed.  Check out the kissing couple on the back!

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Filed under Vintage Clothing, World War II