Global fashion: appropriation or appreciation?
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Halloween often brings discussions of whether or not certain costumes could be considered cultural appropriation--a sociological concept defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “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.” However, cultural appropriation goes beyond seasonal costumes, and debate around the issue pervades artistic arenas from music to food to makeup. When it comes to fashion, there is some debate about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange or appreciation.
From Katy Perry’s 2013 AMAs performance, in which she performed dressed as a geisha, to “Native American-inspired” makeup tutorials by white beauty bloggers on YouTube, obvious examples of cultural appropriation are rampant throughout American culture. But what about more subtle instances, such as fashion retailers like H&M, Forever 21, and others calling any thin outer layer made from flowy fabric with floral print a ‘kimono,’ regardless of whether the garment in question is anything like a traditional Japanese kimono?
Some, like Business of Fashion’s senior Editorial Associate Osman Ahmed, argue that this kind of cross-cultural blending of fashion can be beneficial, rather than harmful, reframing some kinds of cultural appropriation as “a force for good, creating a cultural exchange and enriching the available vocabulary for designers, artists and image-makers.” For Ahmed, without some cultural exchange, cultures will remain stereotyped and creativity will be stunted. By allowing cultures to borrow from each other respectfully, argues Ahmed, cultural barriers will break down.
Others believe that this kind of cultural borrowing is ethically permissible, but only if royalties or compensation are offered to the culture being borrowed from, as Brazilian sportswear designer Oskar Metsavaht did with the Asháninka people group. The Asháninka allowed Metsavaht to reproduce their tattoo patterns and traditional fabrics, and in return he paid them royalties from his collection, publicized their fight to protect and preserve the Brazilian and Peruvian rainforests, and named his collection “Asháninka.” Metsavaht described his collaboration with the Asháninka people in an interview with the Huffington Post, saying, “It’s very important to respect other people’s culture and find a way to reproduce it for the public while taking into account its traditional knowledge. For instance, what we have been doing with the Asháninka is promoting their battles by disseminating their own best practices toward the preservation of the forest.”
However, Metsavaht’s solution is easier to enact with groups like the Asháninka, and harder to carry out with diffuse culture and national groups. If H&M wants to make kimonos, who would they even offer compensation to? Furthermore, even if one resolves the question of who gets to make certain fashions, there are further questions about who can wear them, and when appreciating a culture becomes appropriating it. When does the act of ‘borrowing’ become exploitative?
Olufunmilayo Arewa, a writer for The Conversation Africa, argues in an article posted in the Huffington Post that “When patterns of borrowing fail to acknowledge their sources and compensate them, they can be categorized as cultural appropriation . . . Even in instances where sources receive compensation, later compensation does not always redress past inequities.” For Arewa, the key difference between cultural borrowing or fluidity and cultural appropriation is context and the social positioning of both the borrower and the borrowed-from. If the cultural borrowing perpetuates patterns of exploitation, oppression, and inequality, then it is appropriation.
Clearly, the conversation around appropriation in fashion will continue on as the global economy becomes more complex and interconnected. Though the nuances of the issue will continue to provoke debate, most agree that the best path forward involves respect, acknowledgement, and awareness of history and current global socio-political dynamics.