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The conversation around cultural appropriation in the fashion industry has hit the headlines again. The latest news is that Mexico has accused major fashion brands like Zara, Anthropologie and Patowl of using indigenous communities’ patterns in their clothes, and urges them to pay back "the creative communities" for the use of Oaxacan patterns and embroidery in one of its dresses.
This is not the first time Mexico has experienced controversy over the use of indigenous peoples’ designs in fashion collections. It all started in 2015, when the French fashion designer Isabel Marant made a dress that had remarkable resemblance to the Huipil, a traditional costume of indigenous people from Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, southwestern Mexico.
As a symbol of their identity, they asked Marant for recognition of the heritage of the community and that she removed the dress from her collection. Originally, the garment costs around 300 Mexican pesos. However, the French house sold it online for US$365, the equivalent of 4,500 pesos. Even though later in 2015 she had to pull the dress from sale, she didn’t give the Mixe community their recognition.
However, a year later, justice was made. According to Brigitte Vézina’s paper on Curbing Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion industry, the congress of Oaxaca, along with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), proclaimed Mixe’s peoples traditional designs, embroidery and language as intangible cultural heritage.
Oxford Dictionaries included the term cultural appropriation only four years ago, in 2017. It’s defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” In a nutshell, when someone adopts something from another culture. Edward Taylor, cultural anthropologist, coined the term cultural diffusion back in the 19th century. He describes it as transferring elements between cultures and societies.
The earliest reference to cultural appropriation was found in 1979 in the book; Subculture: The meaning of Style written by the sociologist Dick Hebdige. He examines how we are interested in subcultures, especially “in the expressive forms and rituals from those subordinate groups” and how we borrow that to make it part of our own style. He uses the example of White subcultures in Britain; punk style borrowing from Rastafarian Culture and working–class apparel.
Cultural appropriation is essentially based on the spectacularization of the indigenous cultural identity, which usually, doesn’t get the deserved recognition of the cultural element or its value by third parties. This interruption of the identification process, forces members of racialized groups to apply acculturation strategies, which often result in the disappearance of these cultural groups.
However, not all forms of cultural “borrowing” and inspiration are harmful. Vézina states that reinterpreting elements from different cultures can be enriching for both the source and the destination cultures. Curbing cultural appropriation does not amount to eradicating all forms of cultural influences across the board.
We know fashion is an important expression tool. The industry is known for its creativity and ability to make stand–out clothes. Still, it has a high component of copying and imitation. Take fast–fashion as an example: luxury brand items are blatantly and hastily copied in order to be sold to consumers as soon as possible. Taking this into account, cultural appropriation is another manifestation of the tendency to copy and imitate.
Throughout history, many designers have used world cultures to make their collections. In Vézina’s words: “Examples range from French designer Paul Poiret’s harem pants and tunics in the 1910s, inspired by the cultures of the Middle East and Turkey, to Yves Saint Laurent’s beaded and feathered African collection in 1967, inspired by African handicrafts, among others. Even Coco Chanel applied traditional Russian embroideries on tunics in her early collections in the 1920s.”
The key is to be able to identify when someone is being inspired by another culture and when they’re appropriating that culture. The truth is it’s really a “Grey Zone”. The main difference is that when you’re appreciating it you ask for permission and show an interest for the culture. You buy directly from creators and take the time to learn about the origins of the garment. On the contrary, when appropriating a culture, you do it without consent, coming from a privileged group and with little to no interest for the culture.
The consequences of cultural appropriation are devastating for the culture you’re borrowing from. They are stripped of the inherent characteristics of their community: identity, dignity, autonomy and self–determination. On an economic level, they are robbed from recognition and compensation for using their designs.
All in all, the basis must be respect. We live in a world full of cultures, each one more special and diverse than the last. It is logical that we feel inspired and like clothes from these cultures, but we must not forget that their origin must be respected. Let’s inform ourselves about the history or the characteristics of the garment in order to wear it honouring and acknowledging its amazing culture.