In the road of endless ethical issues that the fashion industry has created, from child labor to sweatshops to environmental pollution, cultural appropriation is one of the most pressing issues of the industry. Here, nobody is safe, whether it’s H&M or Chanel. But what is appropriation anyway and how do we differentiate appreciation from appropriation?
Appropriation, according to Google is to take (something) for one’s own use, usually without the owner’s permission. Typically in fashion, this occurs when a brand wants to produce something that has meaning and value to a certain culture without crediting or properly asking for permission from the people. Among the guilty are high fashion houses Gucci and Loewe. In their autumn-winter 2018 collection, Gucci debuted a Sikh turban in which they refer to as an “indy full turban”, this sparked immediate controversy amongst the community and earned a call out by one of the most influential voices in the industry at this moment, @diet_prada. They pointed out that they should have at least used Sikh models instead of white models to showcase the piece. Why is it such a big issue you ask? It’s because Sikhs often face enormous criticism and discrimination for wearing turbans in public. White people wearing a Sikh turban and calling it fashion not only disrespects the religious and cultural value of the Sikh turban; it invalidates the issue of discrimination amongst turban-wearing Sikhs. As dietprada has mentioned, it would be better for them to do fashion turbans instead like Marc Jacobs or Prada that don’t read as sacred religious headwear.
As was mentioned, another brand that has plunged into the appropriation pitfall is the Spanish luxury brand, Loewe. During the spring 2018 ready to wear collection of the brand, they forgot to mention where they drew inspiration from. In the collection people pointed out the similarity of the figures shown on the clothing that posed a great similarity to the figures that represent the women of the Otavalo Culture called “chismosas” according to the research made by Mendoza and Moncayo in 2012 called “Estudio Iconográfico de la Cultura Otavaleña en su Manifestación Gráfica Textil” (Iconographic Study of the Otavalo Culture in its Graphic Textile Manifestation). People at Loewe may think they just got inspired by the figures but there is not too much difference from the original ones. That opens the question of “Where is the execution of design?” fashion design is not only choosing color and fabrics, it implies investigation and the application of design theories or techniques. With all of these, it looks like the Loewe design team did not do their homework. (Ordóñez, 2017). While actual Otavalos are struggling to sell their pieces that donned an exact portrait of these chismosas , Loewe is making a great profit from stealing their designs and not crediting them. The great issue, in this case, is that Loewe could’ve collaborated with Otavalos to create these pieces and actually provide a voice for them. If that was the case, then Loewe would be appreciating the culture and not appropriating it.
Among the beauty-fashion bank, one extremely common example are dreadlocks or cornrows, Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber and many other celebrities are guilty of this. The reason why we call this appropriation is that when people of African descent wear dreadlocks or cornrows they are seen as “ghetto” and “gross” but when kylie does it, it’s cool and trendy. What people often don’t know is that African people wear dreadlocks because of their fragile hair and to achieve locks , they must undergo a complicated process of matting and braiding their hair to achieve rope hair strands , not letting them form from naturally unwashed and dirty hair, which is how a lot of people seem to think they’re made. When white people wear it because it’s “trendy”, it neglects the rich history and traditions of why Africans wear it in the first place. The bindi also faces a similar problem to this.
So, we’ve covered appropriation. Then you ask, how do we appreciate and what differentiates appropriation and appreciation? First of all, appreciation is honoring and respecting other cultures and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding. That means that if you want to use someone’s design or practice you need to do it in the right context. Furthermore, cultural appropriation happens when there are power inequalities between different cultures for we still live in a world where some cultures hold more power and influence than others. For instance, Gucci should have at least use Sikh models instead of white models to demonstrate their turbans and Loewe should’ve credited and commissioned the Otavalos to make their articles. Doing so would empower the people that aren’t as known as and don’t have as much of an influence as some others. As for the box braids and dreads, it’s complicated. There are so many layers to this question that it’s just safer to not wear it. Let’s give credit where credit is due. It’s really that simple.
Written by : carina elvira
Picture credit : Vogue March 2017 by Mikael Jansson