Stealing Beauty: On Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

If there’s any constant in fashion, it is that it always changes. And part of that change is fashion’s taking of inspiration from every time and place that it can.

One of fashion’s favorite places to be inspired by is the imaginary past – a place with loads of visual imagery, and stories that are just vague enough to be recreated at will in photos, or on the runway.

But when these inspirations come from native cultures, there are both opportunities to create beautiful photographs or objects – or to offend people from the cultures themselves. Historical conquests and mass exterminations of both peoples and their cultures around the world cloud the meanings of the inspirations we seek. And even if a given culture’s history was told in its entirety in a high school class, most future fashionistas would sleep through it – at least until the clothes and jewelry came up on the slideshow.

Given fashion’s endless inspiration by – and appropriation – of other cultures, how do we decide what to incorporate ourselves? Is there any way to know what is appropriate and what is offensive? For sure? Probably not, but here are a few ideas:

1. Make beautiful things useful, and useful things beautiful.

Iñupiaq man’s parka, Cape Gnome, Alaska. circa 1900
Iñupiaq man’s parka, Cape Gnome, Alaska. circa 1900

Part of why people love native cultural artifacts so much is that what remains – what has been collected – is so beautiful. And much of it is useful too. Our modern era of machine manufacturing makes life easier, but it also produces a whole lot of junk. Alan Watts once said that American culture can’t be properly called “materialistic” because we don’t actually value our materials. Modern cultures feel this – a certain cultural and existential emptiness – from our disconnection from our objects and the hands that make them.

Contrast any fast fashion piece with the parka above – handmade with great care – not only for utilitarian warmth but for beauty as well. Demonstrating to the animals that the wearer valued the protection their skins would give him was considered necessary for a successful hunt, as the animals would ignore the needs of a less grateful hunter.

Asking for spiritual meaning in our garments may be a stretch in modern life, but having some connection to – and gratitude for – the people and processes that bring us our goods might be a necessary step in reclaiming our connection to the planet we all live on.

2. Know that there will always be cross-cultural mingling.

No-Tin, Chippewa Chief, 1842

Fashion – its designers, stylists, and wearers – will never cease to borrow from whomever and wherever it can. It may not please more politically aware readers, but in fashion, the number one rule is: does it look fabulous? Designers – like musicians – are remarkably apolitical. And since designers and photo stylists come from all over the world, the opportunities for cross-cultural inspiration – and cross-cultural misunderstanding – grow along with media exposure.

One example is the opening photo: styled for a Spanish publication by a Spanish fashion editor, the photo was taken by a photographer who’s lived in England, Peru, Poland and Botswana. I personally get both how it’s both beautiful and appalling at the same time, but how much the people producing the image are unaware of history (and how much they’re pushing buttons, which fashionistas also do) is harder to know.

And the trade is not one way, as Charles Bird King’s portrait of Chippewa Chief No-Tin illustrates. Travel, technology, trade, and cultural meaning – they all play their part in what any single person wants to wear on their body at any given time – and we all appreciate some new swag now and again. Of course, there’s a big difference between what is freely traded and what is stolen, and the historical power grabs, mass exterminations, and rewrites of history make the symbolism of individual things harder to immediately comprehend.

3. Do a little research.

Rihanna's Maori/Indian hand tattoos
Rihanna’s Maori/Indian hand tattoos

Especially if you’re a celebrity. Or you’re getting a new tattoo. Or you’re a celebrity getting a new tattoo, like Rihanna, who went Maori tribal and then Indian mehndi with her hand tattoos. Rihanna may have the best of intentions, or no intentions at all, but taking on the symbolic designs of other cultures and wearing them faddishly is an easy way to offend people. (Not everyone though: the Indian cashiers at my local drugstore think she rocks her new mehndi tattoos very well…)  But looking into the origins of menhdi might have given her something intelligent to say about why she’s taken another culture’s wedding night decoration as her own.

4. Picture yourself visiting them. For dinner.

Military uniforms from 1690 to 1865 by René L'Hôpital.
Military uniforms from 1690 to 1865 by René L’Hôpital.

You love your military-inspired jacket, but would you wear a full vintage uniform to visit your cousin who served in Afghanistan? How about medals of valor? No? Yeah, that’s probably not a good idea. If you were visiting a Native American friend, you might feel silly (or worse) in a tribal headdress. You get the drift.

But if many artifacts and symbols from other cultures have been stripped of their meaning, people might still want to wear something because it’s beautiful, or feels vaguely “powerful” – and not really know what they’re doing, or who they’re offending. After all, we don’t all do extensive research before heading out for the evening. Which is where idea #5 comes in….

5. If you screw up, be sincere in your response.

Paul Frank's Native Designer Collaboration
Paul Frank’s Native Designer Collaboration

Sometimes fashion really does a bang-up job of being offensive for no good reason. (Crass marketing is not a good reason, international-lingerie-chain-that-will-not-be-named-here).  Sometimes people think they’re being really cute when they’re not. And when they do, they should really make amends as best they can.

The best handling of this was done by Paul Frank, who hosted a “Dream Catchin’ Pow Wow” event complete with neon warpaint, fake tomahawks, feather headdresses, and a social media stage for guests to pose for Facebook photos. Encouraging teens to misunderstand Native cultures was unmistakeably offensive, and Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin demanded not just an apology, but also a donation to a Native American youth arts program, and suggested the possibility of a collaboration in the future, should Paul Frank’s designers be interested in Native American culture.

Their response? In addition to expunging the offending artwork from their style guide and manufacturing catalogue, the company teamed with four Native American artists to create a capsule collection which incorporates Native heritage into modern fashion. Which not only brought their own designers into a better understanding of Native American culture – it created better publicity for both groups.

5. Look into current cultural production.

It’s easy to romanticize the past of any culture you don’t know, but what are their artists producing now? Cultures don’t just live in history – living people everywhere are still making art, fashion, and jewelry.

If a culture fascinates you, why not look into their contemporary scene as well? Seeing how artists and artisans blend tradition with modernity might be newly inspiring. And you might be surprised at how close they are to the mainstream: Patricia Michaels designs clothes that are informed by Native American tradition and the body itself. She recently placed second in Season 11 of Project Runway, and has shown in New York in the past. If you’re wanting to spend some money right now, she also sells beautiful handpainted scarves inspired by the eagle feather through her website.

Cultural Inspiration versus Cultural Appropriation

Ultimately, what we wear is how we represent ourselves – our wealth, status, aesthetics, and increasingly, our understanding of the world around us. It’s a daunting thought – that what we wear, who we borrow from, and how – carries meaning far beyond our original intentions.

Taking fashion inspiration from other cultures adds meaning and story, and as humans we love to imbue our objects with imagination and power. And most people do have good intentions in their desire to understand and incorporate other cultures into their worldview.

But history is complex, and no one likes to have their story mistold by someone else, especially when that mistelling is part of a centuries-long history of oppression. Perhaps by taking this into consideration, fashionistas can take their inspiration to a place where we can all enjoy it.

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