By Julia Roos
What defines art? We know by now that art is not confined to brush strokes on a canvas, since art is even found in the clothes we wear. Fashion brands dedicate their businesses to create wearable art; to encompass expression, emotion, and inspiration. Many designers look to other countries and cultures for inspiration. Enter: cultural appropriation. Often referred to as misappropriation, cultural appropriation occurs when fashion brands are accused of trivializing and misinterpreting non-European artifacts in a way that disrespects and exploits a minority culture for the prospect of financial gain. But is all cultural appropriation done with malicious intent? The fashion industry embodies the opposing arguments: is cultural appropriation beneficial or harmful to society? Cultural appropriation can take many forms, and it is up to the public's interpretation of the designs to determine if they are acceptable or not.
A clear criterion for cultural appropriation is using sacred artifacts of a culture as an accessory. Gucci showed a traditional Sikh turban during their 2018 Autumn/Winter show. The use of the headdress on the runway reduced a sacred element of the Sikh religion to a “trend” for a season. The item, sold as the “Indy Full Head Wrap,” represents one of the five articles of faith and symbolizes spirituality. This action establishes a problem that transcends the act of just exploiting indigenous designs. When designers’ are inspired by another culture, it is often a historically marginalized one. The people of the Sikh religion habitually deal with persecution and discrimination for wearing a turban that Gucci could retail for hundreds of dollars. When it comes to introducing cultural elements on the runway, especially those regarding religion, it is the brand’s responsibility to understand the symbolism and the religious practices associated with it before advertising it as an accessory.
The real issue, however, lies in the realm of social media outrage and sensitivity. Self-appointed “woke” users on social media litigate numerous, and often harmless, acts of cultural appropriation against popular fashion companies. The first issue of Vogue Arabia launched In March of 2017, with American model Gigi Hadid on the cover. Embellished in a heavily jeweled veil, Hadid faced criticism for appropriating Middle Eastern culture, even though she is half-Palestinian and her father is Muslim. Critics argued that she should not be wearing a hijab because she is not Arab enough to represent the region on the cover. A person’s ability to wear pieces that are inspired by their own heritage should not be shamed by social media users. Cultural appropriation allegations have become so frequent and popular because “the term [has] trickled into mainstream fashion discourse, becoming a buzz-word.” Discussion about offenses like cultural appropriation are important to have and are good measures to take for change. However, most online users have misguided judgements.
Cultural appropriation claims limit innovation and self-expression and therefore hinders cross-cultural appreciation. It is an important aspect of fashion, as “cultural exchange and the intermingling of forms, ideas and styles [...] are at the heart of the creative enterprise.” The power of cultural inspiration can be seen at fashion’s biggest night: the MET Gala. Every year the attendees dress according to the varying themes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The Gala provides an opportunity for designers to celebrate various cultures through their garments with themes like Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination and American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity. The most renowned garment that has ever walked the MET Gala’s red carpet was Rihanna’s dress during the 2015 theme China, Through the Looking Glass. This theme provided an opportunity for designers, celebrities, and viewers to reflect on China’s influence on Western fashion and culture. Rihanna wore a regal, yellow, fur-lined cape embroidered with floral scrolls created by Chinese designer Guo Pei. The dress is celebrated for its tactful appreciation of Chinese culture that allows for education through wearable art.
For the Dior 2020 Cruise Collection, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri gracefully connected African and European culture that celebrated collaboration and globalization. The fashion show was located in Marrakech, a city in Morocco, and the theme of cultural exchange was prevalent as the Moroccon inspiration of color and craftsmanship was deeply rooted in the collection. Chiuri appointed local artists, artisans, and designers to help fuel her design aesthetic. This is an example of a designer doing the right thing regarding the fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Designers should be consulting artists of the targeted culture to educate themselves while creating a collection to appreciate and not appropriate that culture.
Regardless of the context, cultural appropriation will always be seen as a negative action. However, the notion that artists should not use elements of other cultures would be counterproductive for society. To try to untangle all ties of culture is impossible, “and the impulse to do so is ahistorical and philistine.” Truly innovative ideas arise only when the inspirations of culture are mixed. Society needs to reframe the construct of appropriation in fashion as a discussion of ideas and inspiration, not an act of malice. At times this “inspiration” is carelessly and excessively offensive; other times the utilization of another culture is artistically purposeful. At times the controversy sparked from these productions is pettily misinformed; other times the discussion is enlightening. Fashion is a language, and we should use it to spread knowledge, inspiration, and positivity.