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25-05-2011
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The Use of Cultural Appropriation in Fashion
I was thinking the other day about the use of cultural appropriation in fashion. It seems that so much of fashion is taken from a certain culture and then manipulated to mean something else. Cultural appropriation is described by wikipeida to be "the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held."
In particular I was thinking about the use of certain aspects of Native American in relation to fashion. For it always seems that fashion designers are taking the designs of a certain culture but then changing it to fit their own desires. But in the case of Native American cultures (which is just one example of cultural appropriation) they are using symbols such as feather headdress's without perhaps realizing how offensive it is (or maybe they do realize this?). For example a headdress in this culture is something which should only be worn by tribe chiefs yet we have designers and editors who use them all the time. So I guess my question is do you think cultural appropriation is okay or no? Do designers realize what they are doing? Or has it just become so a part of fashion that no one cares anymore? I know this can be a touchy subject but I hope that we can talk about it in a pleasant manner and so that I can understand what others think about it too. Thanks!

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation

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27-05-2011
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^ Concerning the Native American references, Anna Sui comes to mind. I think she commercializes that image quite frequently.

In general, I think culture, religion and society are very personal elements in humans. They form the basis of our identities. So, often, when we see these things assimilated in something as "shallow" as fashion we suddenly feel threatened. We feel under-represented. And this is what this issue about: representation. Who should have the right to represent a certain culture/religion/society? And how should those things BE represented?

Personally, as a person with Middle Eastern ancestry, I like that our traditional males' scarf has found its way to the international fashion scene. It's encouraging and interesting to see one's heritage portrayed in a global context.


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But of course I know many people who aren't happy about the commercialization of this scarf. They feel under-represented - that their culture just isn't being portrayed right. And I totally don't blame them, it's very understandable. Same thing goes for the kimono and the sari and whatever other traditional item there is.

Honestly, I think that as long as the people wearing these items actually know their cultural heritage then I don't see anything negative about it. In fact, if anything I'd feel somewhat respected if someone was wearing something from my culture as a trend, so long as they acknowledge its origins.
Fashion is an important part of any culture/religion, so to have someone wear it is to not only acknowledge its origins but also to acknowledge its modern relevance.


Last edited by Squizree; 27-05-2011 at 06:17 AM.
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31-05-2011
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This is definitely one aspect of fashion I dislike.

Surely, I am not the only one who finds its a little boring to find women/ men wearing jeans all over the world; where are the kimonos? The arab jabbas; the swedish frocks etc.

I actually have made it my mission to bring these back into fashion, one way or another. And irconically, I perhaps am headed in the exact same direction as referred to by YoninahAliza as 'cultural appropriation'.

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02-06-2011
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I think both of you have brought up interesting points regarding this issue. For me I think what bothers me most about cultural appropriation is when people wear a garment and don't realize the backstory behind it. So many people just put on moccasins or some other cultural appropriated garment without understanding the significance or not shopping at places which sell authentic garments. For example everyone knows that moccasins originate from the Native Americans yet people don't bother to shop/wear something which is authentic but instead buy a knock-off of sorts. So maybe I'm just bothered that people aren't getting their due when it's needed?
And Kayote- I love that you want to bring back an appreciation for people's native garments- just be sure to understand the significance behind them! I too would love to see more diversity in clothing but just done in such a way which isn't offensive to people.

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03-06-2011
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Some people are offended easier than others, then. I don't get how you could be offended by other people wearing something related to your culture, even if they have no clue about it. It just means they found it interesting and nice to look at. Maybe it will even get them interested in that particular garment's history. That happened with the keffiyeh, which I think is great.

I wouldn't care the slightest if people started wearing horned helms or whatever is regarded Danish. I just think there are more important things than getting worked up over what people wear.

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03-06-2011
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Oh, yay! I love it that this conversation got started!

Cultural appropriation in fashion is something that's been on my mind for the last few months, and I've been reading a lot of articles written by angry ladies talking mostly about the Native American appropriation that is so used and abused by the fashion world. With Native American imagery, I can understand why it's considered disrespectful: with all the headdresses, totem objects, warpaint, jewelry, etc., we're talking about sacred garments that have a strong spiritual connotation and were meant for symbolic or ceremonial purposes that are intrinsically bound to Native American culture. You can argue that some people are overly sensitive, but honestly when you see a blue-eyed blonde wearing a high street headdress and lipstick-as-warpaint at Coachella, and you consider the past (and present) oppression of Natives by the white man, you can understand where the bitterness stems from. It's the kind of thing that tells you, no, people are not interested in the meaning behind the garment, they're thinking about what the garment makes them look like: "wise", "in touch with their spiritual side", "solemn"...thus perpetuating the whole "stoic indian" cliché without thinking or knowing the first thing about these people's culture.

However, I also think Squizree makes an interesting point about how for him it's a true achievement for women to be wearing the keffiyeh scarves, traditionally reserved for men only. In the end, I think it all boils down to the background and the current state of the culture in question.

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03-06-2011
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^But how do you know that? How do you know that these people don't know the meaning of it?

My mum has worn the keffiyeh for at least two decades, and in DK you used to wear it to support the Palestinian cause. And that is what it was about (in Europe anyway), and of course she knows that. Now it's more of a trend thing, but it's mostly the left-wing kids who wear it. So obviously they know.

And regarding women wearing the keffiyeh...they have been for 40 years, that's not the accomplishment Google Laila Khaled and you'll understand.

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Last edited by The_Ida; 03-06-2011 at 12:10 PM.
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03-06-2011
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Great points, everyone!.

I feel like I've discussed this topic my whole life. I'm not really worried about representation, or misrepresentation, or ignorance about the meaning behind pieces or garments, I think my stance on this will always lean more towards financial credit/reciprocation/support. That's the only thing that does outrage me, when you see someone like Galliano traveling all the way to Peru to get his textile inspiration and then gets back to Paris and reproduces it with slightly better material at skyrocketing prices, you have a community below the poverty line, forgotten by society, unacknowledged by their government, whose only sustain is their artisanal work passed on to generations.. it is public, they already capitalise on it, but just like it'd be nice someone like Marc Jacobs could credit the countless amount of designers he steals ideas from season after season, it'd be nice too if designers from well-known houses could give something back to these communities, don't just grab and go like a regular customer, because they're not regular customers.

It is changing though, or at least some people are sensitive to notice these things, like Dries Van Noten for example, he creates traditional textiles employing local makers of these regions, and I assume he also leaves something to the country at the moment of taking the fabrics out to Europe, plus the way he makes these textiles denotes integrity, it isn't meant to entertain customers with an exotic costume, the customer is the kind that probably has an idea of the works that goes behind Dries' work.
Even if there are only a handful (or just one? ) of those designers, I'm glad they set an example on how to trade respectfully and with fairness, especially when situations aren't just equal (say, a Paris-based designer getting inspired by a tiny community in Switzerland) and you are taking inspiration material from some of the poorest corners of the third world.


Back to representation, credits, because I feel like adding more on this, the thing is, even if they have spiritual value, in a good number of cases, you visit their communities, and they are creating replicas themselves and selling them to tourists. Like I said above, they are doing it out of necessity, but I'm also inclined to think their spirituality goes beyond uniqueness or wanting full, materialistic possession of something, these are items to do rituals with.. the meaning resides in the ritual, not in the tools they create rituals with, which for me explains perfectly why would they capitalise on these items. Perhaps it's too simplistic, I don't know. I do know that it would've been odd to ask the indigenous kids I went to school with if they took offense in people using their traditional fabrics for hoodies/hippie bags.. because some things are just so out there, already integrated in a sea of clothing options.

And speaking of 'out there' and in fear of erring on optimism or cynicism here, I actually find it great when people, especially those living in the American continent, with no indigenous background, celebrate indigenous life or mere aesthetics. I find it hard to put this in an eloquent manner (!). But see, I grew up in a region originally owned by Kumeyaay people.. in my 15 years? of basic schooling, I studied them for a week.. never went back to the topic.. history was taught to be ours only from the moment European colonization breaks in.. I never had an idea of what Kumeyaay people wore, what they spoke, where they live, I never even saw them and I certainly couldn't recognise them now!, but I now know there are currently less than a thousand Kumeyaay people, and they live in bad conditions and are trying to move on into conventional society. In 50 years, there will probably be none left. They passed through history as ghosts, leaving zero traces that no one will celebrate, because kids living now in the land that once belonged to them, are not taught to acknowledge them. So in that regard, I feel like exposure through traditional items such as clothes or pottery or maybe writing material such as poems, would've helped them last longer.. of course it's too late now but I do think it's important that real American life is fully acknowledged and recognised, not just by history, but in popular culture too.. that people are able to embrace it and appreciate it, and since educational systems won't bother to encourage that.. it may work through regular and more 'sugary' exposure of their traditions.

Ok, I feel like I typed a lot and it's all over the place but I had some things to say on this lol.

I see religious motifs that belong to organised groups a little harder to deal with. But the exploitation of them usually happens as a mood, rather than as an actual imitation of their traditional creations.. so that.. I won't bother with.

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Last edited by MulletProof; 03-06-2011 at 02:46 PM.
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03-06-2011
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Wonderfully stated, MulletProof, as always

And The_Ida, I don't mean to say it's impossible for Westerners to understand the meaning behind the garments and ornaments originating from other cultures. I think I was too broad in my approach, and basically what I have a problem with is when these highly symbolic items are marketed for the masses as "ethnic" and "exotic". And the Native American example is quite a striking one for me.

I don't know if this is even relevant or if it will make sense, but right now I'm working on a thesis about world music in Europe, and what happens very often is what MulletProof stated above: rich European bohemians go off into the Congo or India - places historically colonized and oppressed by European countries - buy 5$ instruments from a local salesperson, come back to their home countries and market themselves as world musicians. Their intentions might not be bad and their heart might be in the right place, but what happens is that there's this sort of colonial tourism, perhaps a search for the exotic, in cultures that are constantly evolving as any other. So then these cultures and their art and their music get boiled down to one big "fiesta" or "rumba", regardless of what they truly want to represent, without any space for originality or essence besides that of fulfilling an image of the unknown. And what sucks is that they get the support that labels working with musicians locally will NEVER get because they are "unreliable" and "unrelateable"; and if they do get to make a name for themselves, they have to make sure to stay true to their "roots" (or what Western audiences make their roots to be) and never show that they, too, have been influenced by the west, lest they won't fit the image that the Western audiences conceive as authentically ethnic or whatever.

Now, I'm not saying this is exactly what goes on in the fashion world, but when you see DesignChic selling backyard tee-pees or Urban Outfitters making totem pole jewelry stands, you can't help thinking something just isn't right when it comes to portraying these cultures to the masses. I can see why people are aesthetically drawn to the imagery (hell, I have a pair of dream catcher earrings that I love) but I do think it's important to talk about it and think about what it means to mass-market cultural symbols of a historically oppressed people BY their historical oppressors.

Anyway, I hope all of that made sense! I'm tired and it's late, but this subject really interests me and I'm happy to have a place to talk and learn more about it from different points of view

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04-06-2011
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isn't this the story of modern fashion ?
when coco chanel took from the "workwear" (ie workers culture) to sell it to rich people, i guess same problem were raised.
and when mr. saint laurent took from menswear and casual (i mean a safari jkt is more than casual) to make it look chic and choc and expensive ? wasn't this cultural appropriation, too ?
i'm not sure, but i think that if we have a look in the past, fashion has always take from another culture. for instance, when they discovered new culture (in the 19th century, wasn't there a ancient greek or egyptian trend ?) and new country (i really cannot tell for renaissance fashion). those occurences are only "zeitgeist" or not ? if they are only artistic (galliano and dvn would go there) ?
for instance, what's the difference btw the burqa designed by hussein chalayan (with the 3 girls) or a nepalese dvn dress ? is there one, first ? what is the difference btw Kenzo taking inspiration in the asian culture (in the 80s, for instance) and YSL taking in the russian culture ?
fashion and occidental mass culture has completely "carnavilized" the world, so probably cultural appropriation (or folklore appropriation, from what i read) is a way to pay hommage/honor to another culture ?

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04-06-2011
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But when Coco Chanel made workwear fashionable she also broke down A LOT of barriers.

Think about something like jeans - everyone owns a pair now. You can't tell rich from poor (in my country anyway). I think that is pretty awesome. You see the person, you don't see the class. I'd rather see the person than I'd see the culture, if that makes sense. Not that I dislike other cultures, I don't - people just mean more to me than an idea of something.

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04-06-2011
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unspoiledbird I get your point I'm always amused when something is classified "ethnic", we all have an ethnicity, so what is ethnic anyway? We're all ethnic? And who are we to call something ethnic? Baffles the mind, doesn't it

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04-06-2011
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The_Ida View Post
unspoiledbird I get your point I'm always amused when something is classified "ethnic", we all have an ethnicity, so what is ethnic anyway? We're all ethnic? And who are we to call something ethnic? Baffles the mind, doesn't it
Seriously just like the world music example: aren't we all from the same world anyway? :p

I know that, as humans we have the need to categorize everything somehow, often with the purpose of making the world easily digestible and comprehensible. But in some cases stamping whole groups of people with a reductive label really minimizes the richness of what they could offer in cultural terms.

Now, I can understand being inspired by other cultures and wanting to integrate their influence into art, fashion and music ...but it's really the unfair balance of the world that makes this a touchy subject. Especially because if Western bigshots are hopping on planes to Africa and Asia and South America to "absorb local flavor" and get really stinking rich out of it, it doesn't do much for the public besides selling them a feeling of open mindedness through a 3$ wooden H&M bracelet.

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04-06-2011
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Focusing on the 'ethnic' discussion, I do feel it has its place, in bringing diversity and creativity to the world.

Yes we each have our ethnic background but thats what should be awesome, understanding and moving that ethnic style forward. As in the American Indian example cited above, if their religion is so tightly integrated into the garments/ accessories (as we define them), then there really should be no excuse for not respecting them.

If the designers can travel to Peru et all and take inspiration, one would hope its not just a matter of liking the designs, packing a big suitcase with the variety and 'modifying them' back in Paris. Hopefully the designer would have read a thing or two on the significance/ history and inspiration for the design in the first place.

Facinating thread.

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15-06-2011
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You all have made wonderful points.

I think the way it hits negative, for me, is when the 'inspired' pieces are categorized by one set of models. ie. shoots called "Bold in Bollywood" using strictly Indian models.

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