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Cultural appropriation in fashion: what is it and can it be prevented?

By FashionUnited


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Chinese cloak made into evening cloak, and Romanian cloak worn as evening cloak, 1920s, Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Photo: Alice de Groot.

Cultural appropriation: The term has been used more and more in recent years, but the practice of cultural appropriation has been around for much longer. Kunstmuseum Den Haag zooms in on the phenomenon in the new exhibition 'Global Wardrobe - the worldwide fashion connection', but the subject is also often discussed during talks about diversity and inclusivity in the fashion world. Therefore: What is it, where is the line between appropriation and appreciation and how can it be prevented according to experts?

First of all: What is cultural appropriation? The Kunstmuseum Den Haag refers to it in the press release surrounding the exhibition as 'copying' from other cultures, often without correct reference to the source. In a talk at Digital Fashion Week Europe last July, writer, curator and activist Janice Deul described the phenomenon as using symbols from other cultures purely for aesthetic reasons without considering the meaning of the items. Often this also involves using elements of marginalized cultures.

In recent years, fashion houses and brands have been increasingly criticized for using symbols, prints and garments from other cultures. Thus the recent examples of Isabel Marant and Louis Vuitton come to mind. Mexico accused fashion designer Isabel Marant in 2020 of commercially exploiting several traditional Mexican indigenous designs in a collection. The designer was already accused of the same in 2015. Not much later, Marant apologized for the cultural appropriation of the patterns. The designer admitted that the Purepecha patterns have indeed been used as inspiration and that in the future she will 'honor the sources of inspiration used'.

Louis Vuitton withdrew a scarf inspired by the Palestinian keffiyeh from the website in June 2021 after criticism on social media. The keffiyeh is seen as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. The traditional black and white pattern of the Keffiyeh was changed to blue and the brand incorporated its own monogram into the scarf. Price tag? $705. Also, the timing of the item was very unfortunate, as several bombings had taken place in Palestine at the time.

However, examples go back much further. Think, for example, of 1994, when Karl Lagerfeld used a verse from the Koran as a print on a corset in the Chanel summer collection. The brand apologized and Lagerfeld said he thought the verse was an Indian love poem inspired by the Taj Mahal. The collection contained three dresses with verses on them, Chanel promised to burn them.

One of the three famous Chanel dresses with Quranic texts on them. Chanel SS94, image via Catwalkpictures.com.

In the new exhibition, which can be seen from 9 October to 16 January 2022, the Kunstmuseum shows that for a long time it was normal to use clothing items, traditional costumes and symbols from other cultures under the guise of 'appreciation and inspiration'. For example, the 'Japanese rock', a dressing gown, which was worn by wealthy men in the seventeenth century and was seen as a status symbol. But also the Kashmir scarf and the turban. It also happened that clothing that was worn by a man in India or China, for example, was put on by a woman in Europe. In the 1920s, many Western European women wore a men's coat from China that functioned as an evening coat for them. “Valued for the handicrafts, the decorations and the splendor of colours, but almost certainly without the understanding of the symbolism in Chinese embroidery,” according to a report from the Kunstmuseum. The 1970s were also full of cultural appropriation with clothing from Afghanistan, for example, that was worn by hippies. So cultural appropriation in fashion goes back much further than we might think, it just wasn't called that.

Two Japonse rocken (: dressing gowns for men) in kimono model of Chinese silk and 'bizarre' silk, ca. 1750-1775, Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Photo: Alice de Groot.
Empire dresses with embroidery in buta motifs (derived from the Kashmir scarf fashion) and Kashmir shawls with buta motifs. The Kashmir scarf originally comes from India, first quarter of the 19th century, Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Photo: Alice de Groot.

Preventing cultural appropriation? “It can only be avoided with cooperation”

Where in one case a Minister of Culture (Alejandra Frausto of Mexico) writes a letter to a brand, another chooses to sell the licenses of, for example, their name or the well-known patterns and to claim license income from fashion houses. Take the Maasai, for example, an African tribe that lives in Tanzania and Kenya. In 2011, Kim Jones, who spent his childhood in Kenya, used prints linked to Maasai culture in his Louis Vuitton debut. It's not the first time the Maasai's name or prints have been used in fashion.

Two years before Jones' debut at Louis Vuitton, 9 elders of the tribe decided to form an organization called the Maasai IP Initiative Trust Ltd (MIPI) to fight back. MIPI takes their cultural heritage into their own hands and starts a clear and professional process whereby commercial users of their culture can apply for a license. Proceeds from the licenses should help support the Maasai community in health, education and repurchase of the right to water and land to graze animals. FashionUnited has contacted MIPI and inquired about how often the organization has been successful, but to date have not received a reply.

To take it one step further: Is it possible to sue when a community experiences cultural appropriation? FashionUnited calls Nine Bennink from Köster Advocaten in Haarlem. When asked, Bennink answers that there is a procedural option when it comes to cultural appropriation. This concerns copyright that can be reverted to. “Most communities have not registered a trademark, but copyright already exists the moment something is made, without registration.” Communities could therefore file a lawsuit and also win, the lawyer says. Such a lawsuit is anything but desirable for fashion houses. “The cost of losing face to a fashion house is many times greater than offering a community compensation or paying licensing fees.” How much such a license should cost is a gray area, as there is no standard for it. What Bennink is sure about is that fashion houses are starting to be much more careful with cultural heritage, partly because it causes reputational damage and the fact that communities can actually win in court. “Copyright is a tool for communities to address a social problem.” Bennink sees it mainly as a means that is used for this. “But the social pressure and the possible loss of face that the fashion house can suffer are in fact also powerful tools.” since there is no standard for it. What Bennink is sure about is that fashion houses are starting to be much more careful with cultural heritage, partly because it causes reputational damage and the fact that communities can actually win in court.

'Equal collaboration is the only way to prevent cultural appropriation in fashion'

The only real way to combat cultural appropriation? There are more sides to that. First of all, other people's heritage is not meant to be simply copied for purely aesthetic reasons. Secondly, if one wants to make use of cultural heritage, it is important that one knows the meaning and context of the elements and treats them with respect. It would help if designers and brands tell the story of these elements and thus also impart this knowledge to the public. In addition, and perhaps the most important point, connecting and equal partnerships can be entered into with a community where the craft is performed locally and, of course, paid fairly, according to the Kunstmuseum.

Time, then, to turn cultural appropriation into cultural appreciation, whereby the use of other people's heritage is accounted for, a fair price is paid for its use and makers and carriers delve into the heritage of an item. Does this mean that makers and carriers should only seek inspiration within their own heritage? Certainly not. Is there room for improvement in the fashion world? Absolutely.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL, translated and edited to English by Kelly Press.

Cultural Appropriation
Global Wardrobe