Fashion is all about owning a look, figuratively and literally. Clothing companies take their proprietary designs and signature looks very seriously. Gucci once sued Guess over who got to use the letter G on their clothes, they requested over $4 million in damages and the legal battle took four years. But not everyone has the resources to copyright their creative work (or random letters of the alphabet) so big name fashion brands have been freely borrowing/stealing designs, patterns, styles, accessories and looks from different cultures for decades. This phenomenon of cultural appropriation is of course, not exclusive to clothes; music, film, art, and other industries are all rife with the practice and it’s become such a large scale problem that a self funded agency of the United Nations, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), has recognised the damage that it does to cultures around the world, and has drafted articles aimed at preventing the practice which include the possibility of sanctions, civil repercussions, and even criminal enforcement.
WIPO’s attempt to curb the practice using international law is just the latest chapter in a debate about cultural appreciation and appropriation that has been going on for several years. All over the internet on a daily basis there is heated discussion about what cultural appropriation exactly is, who is doing it, and whether or not specific instances are examples of it. Certain things clearly meet even the loosest criteria of cultural appropriation. For instance in 2008 a British company tried, unsuccessfully, to register the word “Kikoy” as a trademark. This is another spelling of “kikoi”, the traditional Kenyan striped fabric that is made and worn in coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania. Trademarking the term would have effectively made it illegal for people in the culture that invented the kikoi to continue to use the word to describe the fabric and would have had negative ramifications for East Africans who made a living designing, manufacturing, selling, and exporting Kikoi/Kikoy. Another obvious case of cultural appropriation in fashion occurred in 2012 when Urban Outfitters was sued by the Navajo Nation for using the word Navajo in the names of products like underwear and liquor flasks with certain patterns on them.
The fact that anyone, or any business thought that the above actions were OK is mind boggling, but it underscores just how hard it is for some people to understand the problem of cultural appropriation. And when it comes to other types of cross-cultural borrowing, for a lot of people there is some grey area between appreciation and appropriation. With so much of culture, fashion and art open to interpretation, the truth is there may never be a universally accepted definition of cultural appropriation, but as individual consumers of fashion and other cultural expressions there are questions we can ask that can help determine whether something is an act of cultural appreciation or if it’s cultural appropriation.
Who did the work and who benefits?
Appreciating something means recognizing that it has value. And if something has value then the person or people who created it should be compensated by others who want to use it. Taking someone’s work and benefiting from it without compensating the creators isn’t appreciation, it’s appropriation, or to put it another way, theft. This goes to the core of why cultural appropriation is a problem, and why advocates for indigenous people and others are asking WIPO to draw up rules that prevent multinational fashion companies and others from essentially stealing the intellectual property of other cultures.
Is this really appreciation or is it something else?
As people become more aware of cultural appropriation and as Hallowe’en gains popularity outside the U.S., costumes are raising a lot of questions about cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. When discussing costumes it’s probably worth noting that costumes that are intentionally mocking or derogatory, or that perpetuate negative stereotypes don’t fall into the discussion about cultural appropriation because they are just examples of plain old bigotry. Blackface isn’t cultural appropriation; it’s just racist. But for other costumes some may argue that they are appreciating a culture by dressing in a certain way for Hallowe’en, and that may be possible. A matador costume is generally not going to elicit the response that the wearer is appropriating Spanish culture, dressing in a toga as an ancient Greek probably won’t read as cultural appropriation either. But a lot of other costumes do. If you go to an online costume seller you probably won’t find any costumes labeled Romani or Roma, but if you searched for “Gypsy Costume” your likely to find plenty, even though many Romani consider the word “Gypsy” to be a racial slur. People who wear this costume may say that they “like” the culture they’re dressing as, but fetishizing is not appreciation. This, and other costumes like it, have the effect of turning the whole culture into a character, and dehumanizing the very real people who belong to that culture.
Is this part of the culture meant to be appreciated in this way by outsiders?
Many cultures pride themselves on sharing portions of their traditional practices with visitors and outsiders. Japanese tea ceremony is a unique cultural practice that now takes place not just in Japan but all around the world. In many major cities there are classes, which are open to everyone not just Japanese people, that offer instruction on how to correctly conduct a tea ceremony. This aspect of Japanese culture is meant to be respectfully shared and appreciated by people who are not members of the culture. Other cultural practices and items are not meant to be shared or used by those outside the culture. For instance the feathered headdresses, or War Bonnets, created by the Cheyenne, Lakota, Crow and other Native American tribes are intended by their cultures to be worn by members of the tribes who have earned them. They are not intended to be fashion accessories at music festivals, or anywhere else for that matter. What this really comes down to is respect. Any appreciation of a culture requires that we honour the people who are part of that culture and respect how and whether they want their culture to be shared.
What is the power dynamic?
Throughout history certain cultures have endured attempted extermination, abuse, and exploitation of all kinds at the hands of other cultures. These destructive power dynamics are real and they are not just historical, there are contemporary components as well. Acts of cultural borrowing that adhere to these same negative patterns are, rightfully, viewed differently than acts that don’t play into these same roles or even turn them on their heads. A Chinese fashion company that draws inspiration for it’s clothes from the robes of Catholic monks is not likely to raise many eyebrows, whereas a Chinese fashion company that releases a clothing line mimicking the color and styling of Tibetan Buddhist monks’ robes could justifiably be called out for cultural appropriation.
Thinking about these questions is not going to eradicate cultural appropriation. But using these as a framework can help us understand how cultural appropriation differs from cultural appreciation, and why appropriation is so damaging. In a time when the internet gives us virtual access to people and cultures all over the world, and when cities and countries are becoming more and more multicultural and international, and when cultures are mixing like never before in history, it’s easier than ever to appreciate other people’s cultures. It’s also more important than ever to make sure that we are respecting each other’s culture and truly appreciating rather than appropriating when we make decisions about things like what kinds of fashion, and what kinds of looks, we want to own
Photo credit: "4 Colors" Native Arts Gallery / CC BY-NC-ND