Cultural Appropriation: The New Rules of Engagement
Karlie Kloss should know better than to appear in a Vogue magazine spread dressed in full Geisha regalia. She's been accused of cultural appropriation before, most notably for wearing a trashy Native-American themed get-up for Victoria's Secret. She has issued apologies for her insensitivity, but she just can't seem to stop herself.
Cultural appropriation is a modern term for a time-honoured American tradition of adopting the style of older cultures. Long ago, I realised that everything cool in mainstream America originated in Black culture, from music to slang to hairstyles. It's just a fact. So far, we Caucasians have gotten away with it, because White Privilege.
Fashion to me is a glorious mash-up of everything, with influences from all over the world and from a multitude of eras. It's only recently that appreciation for the styles of other cultures became suspect. I don't like where this is going, but my feelings may not count. Again, White Privilege. I'm not allowed to tell members of a historically oppressed group that it's silly to take offence. Copying is the sincerest form of flattery, remember? Well, not any more.
I would love to wear a sari, for example, but now I'm afraid of offending someone from India. I used to wear kohl eyeliner that I got from an Indian import shop, and I sometimes sleep in a kurta. I also have a stack of glass bangles that a friend brought back from New Delhi, but I ascribed my love of these things to a good impulse, not a bad one.
The line between appreciation and appropriation has been defined by various self-appointed authorities. Here's one explanation for my obtuseness: "Cultural appropriation’s toxicity is hard to fully comprehend if you don’t have an understanding of white supremacy." Singer Zendaya Coleman says this: "You can go about it as cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation. You have to be very careful. Some things are really sacred and important to other cultures, so you have to be aware, politically, about those things before you just adopt them."
Again, this makes me uncomfortable and sad. I want to wear whatever I like. As a person of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, I am more than happy when designers adopt aspects of Hasidic dress; I love the big hats and the heavy black coats. Jean Paul Gaultier's "Chic Rabbis" collection from 1993 is full of greatness, however shocking it may have been at the time. He was not alone in finding inspiration in Orthodox Jewish dress. Ricardo Seco, Alexandre Herchcovitch, and Gunhyo Kim incorporated Hasid style into their collections, very engagingly I think.
Here's a quote from Eco Fashion Talk that seems to defend this type of borrowing:
“As young designers learning the system, we are taught to mine inspiration wherever we find it, to mix ancient cultural symbols with recent fashion trends, fine art and architecture without consideration to anything but the creative process. In education, we traditionally teach students to delve into other cultures as a rich repository of inspiration.”
Yes! Sounds good to me. But wait. It's not. The quote goes on...
“We do not however teach them how to give back to the cultures they benefit from. In fact the topic of ethics rarely comes up in reference to design inspiration, except in the most blatant of cases where it overlaps with plagiarism. This model of design appropriation for inspiration no longer works. The West has a long history of taking what they want from other cultures, while impressing the superiority of their own. For a cultural exchange to be honest and true, there needs to be mutual understanding, equality and respect.”
Well, okay, but in practice, how will this work? How can you prove that you understand and respect the culture you're borrowing from? Can you get a letter of transit or something? When Karlie Kloss does it, it's such full-on minstrelsy that we know it's egregious. Other instances are less clear cut. For example, kimonos are making a fashion comeback. Is it safe to wear one? I have no idea. I'll just wear mine around the house until I find out.
Meanwhile, the future of couture seems kind of iffy if we can only use references from our own ancestors. That, to me, is problematic. I know, I know, White Privilege. But if I let you wear a big black wool hat, you should let me wear a sarong, right? Or not? You tell me. All I ask is, don’t criminalise tartan. That would really be the end of the world.