In recent years there have been several notable debates and discussions centered around cultural appropriation, however the issue is far from new and has long been contentious. Historically, under-represented communities have complained that their traditional attire has been adopted by members of the general public without any connection, context or credit. In this process, elements of particular cultures and the proper use or meaning of sacred or traditional practices are eroded, diminished and devalued as the accoutrements of that culture are used in a generalised, uninhibited way by those who do not truly understand or appreciate their significance. The harm caused may not always be intended, however ignorance is insufficient excuse. When wearing a culturally important garment, accessory, or headdress an effort should be made to understand its significance and show appropriate respect.
Understanding the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation can pave the way for a more respectful fashion industry, one that can include aesthetics from across the world while also respecting and appreciating them in their own right for what they represent.
Broadly speaking, cultural appropriation occurs in fashion whenever a designer or brand uses elements from a non-dominant culture without giving credit to its source or respect to said element’s symbolic meaning. Often, cultural appropriation occurs when the dominant culture utilises pieces from or the entirety of the traditional attire of a particular group without due diligence or considering relevant information, including whether traditional, cultural, religious or spiritual beliefs are impacted and whether the dissemination of the concept might be oppressive. The popularity of a garment or style without widely known origin can lead to the erasure of its original creators and the culture behind it in the future.
These are uncertain waters to navigate, therefore when executing such a concept it helps to stay informed at each step, from concept through to execution. In August 2019, Harper’s Bazaar China faced some controversy as Rihanna donned Chinese traditional attire and makeup for a feature; for many, seeing a non-Chinese artist wearing culturally important clothes and makeup from the country seemed disrespectful and appropriative. Others saw it as a sign of appreciation of Chinese culture and fashion. Whilst the issue is a thorny one and we reach no conclusion here, arguably there may be weight to the argument that the shoot could be seen as a cultural exchange as, with the exception of Rihanna, the entire team behind the photoshoot was Chinese. It was the team which built the aesthetic for the shoot; the clothing was not only selected by people to whom the culture belongs, but it was they who endorsed the idea that Rihanna wore it. Appreciation can be difficult to identify versus appropriation. To this end transparency and communication throughout the process is crucial.
Featuring varied cultures as an influence in the context of fashion and attire is a key part of how fashion has, and will continue to evolve. But now that we are more aware of the potential harm as an industry, we can do better. There are steps we can take as designers and brands to avoid cultural appropriation and intead appreciate the cultural contributions of others.
Amplify BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour) voices. Whenever there’s a project that touches upon a culture’s elements, there must be representation of that culture at the decision-making table. These voices can lead brands on how to respectfully work around certain elements and, explain which ones are off-limits and why. The presence of such voices enables visibility and creates a path for remuneration for time, contribution and value.
Keep away from sacred garments or pieces that have been used as a form of oppression. It’s time to bring an end to celebrities casually adopting symbols considered sacred to particular cultures and religions for aesthetics. Some things can be a form of appreciation, but others are simply out of bounds.
Co-create with indigenous communities. A more thorough way of amplifying BIPOC voices is directly working alongside the communities that make specific garments and crediting and remunerating such contributors directly and fairly. There have been instances in which designers are accused of egregiously plagiarising the work of indigenous communities whilst failing to credit the sources, give them a voice at the table or any share of resulting profits. Such valuable pieces take the work of generations to create and creators deserve their due place as artisans. An example of how this might work is presented by Threaded Tribes, a Ghanaian luxury brand that sources all its materials from African nations and produces them in Accra through traditional weaving, giving credit to local creators.
Cultures across the world need to be part of the conversation whenever a non-native designer is intending to honour their styles, garments and accessories. Representation matters!