Taking inspiration from other cultures has been a trend in the fashion industry for years. However, it might not always be appropriate to use some cultural symbols with a creative license, which means what people recognise as cultural appreciation might actually be cultural appropriation.
Dr. Shameem Black, from the Department of Gender, Media and Cultural studies at the Australian National University, explains in an interview with ABC that, “borrowing from other cultures becomes problematic when historical context and cultural sensitivities are ignored.”
The line between inspiration and plagiarism is extremely blurred thanks to our modern, globalised world. From the runway to the high street, home interiors to accessories, ‘globetrotter’ and ‘eclectic traveler’ themes repeatedly take elements of cultures and commodify them for our own aesthetic indulgence and pleasure.
This, coupled with a lack of diversity on the runway, has led to some poorly judged cultural appropriation moments in fashion that has seen designers put on blast in the media.
The way we look at cultural reference has certainly evolved. According to Vogue‘s write up of his SS ’03 collection, “John Galliano staged a Christian Dior couture show that smashed cultural boundaries in a spectacle of gargantuan theatricality,” said the writer. “Sweeping, multicolored volumes of fabric that mixed East and West, ancient and modern, were showcased amid appearances from Chinese dancers and circus performers, who flew along the runway in death-defying feats of athleticism.”
Would such a collection receive similar press today?
Isabel Marant was accused of copying the traditional dress of an indigenous community for pieces in her spring/summer 2015 collection.
According to The Guardian, the Mixe community in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca released a statement that read: “Isabel Marant is committing a plagiarism because the Etoile spring/summer 2015 collection contains the graphical elements specific to the Tlahuitoltepec blouse, a design which has transcended borders, and is not a novel creation as is affirmed by the designer.”
Marc Jacobs caused anger when his Spring 2017 runway show featured dreadlock extensions on a cast of mainly white models including Karlie Kloss, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Irina Shayk, Adriana Lima, and Taylor Hill. Jacobs initially responded by claiming that he doesn’t see colour or race but later apologised for being insensitive.
Riccardo Tisci’s obsession with Latin archetypes reached peak appropriation with his Chola Victorian AW 2015 that was called out for combing out fake baby hairs on a runway cast that was made up of around 80% white models.
Valentino met with accusations of cultural appropriation and ignorance for the house’s Spring 2016 Wild Africa collection, particularly when it came to models wearing cornrows in their hair and the lack of black representation in the show itself (eight out of the show’s 87 looks were walked by black models).
Traditionally in Sikhism, a turban is worn by both men and women as a symbol of piety, honour and spirituality. Gucci was heavily criticised after the luxury fashion house sent white models down the runway wearing traditional Sikh turbans for its Autumn/Winter 2018 show.
The line between appropriation and appreciation is sometimes obvious, but not always. Context is key. As the fashion industry becomes more inclusive and diverse, hopefully we will see designers showing more compassion and understanding to sensitive topics such as culture.