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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.

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