what is it and can it be avoided?

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Cultural Appropriation: The term has been used more and more in recent years, but the practice of cultural appropriation has been around for much longer. The Kunstmuseum Den Haag focuses on the phenomenon in the new exhibition “Global Wardrobe – the world fashion connection”, but the subject is also often brought up in discussions about diversity and inclusiveness in the world of fashion. Therefore: what is it, where is the line between appropriation and appreciation and how can it be avoided according to experts?

First of all: what is cultural appropriation? The Kunstmuseum Den Haag refers to it in the press release surrounding the exhibition as a “copy” of other cultures, often without correct reference to the source. Speaking at Digital Fashion Week Europe last July, writer, curator and activist Janice Deul described the phenomenon as the use of symbols from other cultures purely for aesthetic reasons without considering the meaning of objects. Often this also involves the use of elements from marginalized cultures.

In recent years, fashion houses and brands have come under increasing criticism for using symbols, prints and clothing from other cultures. We think of the recent examples of Isabel Marant and Louis Vuitton. Mexico accused fashion designer Isabel Marant in 2020 of commercially exploiting several traditional Mexican indigenous designs in a collection. The designer was previously accused of the same in 2015. Shortly after, Marant apologized for the cultural appropriation of the designs. The designer admitted that the Purepecha designs were indeed used as a source of inspiration and that in the future she will “honor the sources of inspiration used”.

Louis Vuitton removed a scarf inspired by the Palestinian keffiyeh from the website in June 2021 after criticism on social media. The keffiyeh is considered a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. The traditional black and white pattern of the Keffiyeh has been changed to blue and the brand has incorporated its own monogram into the scarf. Price tag? $ 705. Also, the timing of the article was very unfortunate, as several bombings had taken place in Palestine at the time.

However, the examples go back much further. Think, for example, back to 1994, when Karl Lagerfeld used a verse from the Quran as a print on a corset in Chanel’s summer collection. The brand apologized and Lagerfeld said he believed the verse to be an Indian love poem inspired by the Taj Mahal. The collection contained three dresses with worms, Chanel promised to burn them.

One of the three famous Chanel dresses with Quranic texts on it. Chanel SS94, image via Catwalkpictures.com.

In the new exhibition, on view from October 9 to January 16, 2022, the Kunstmuseum shows that for a long time it was normal to use clothes, traditional costumes and symbols of other cultures under the guise of “appreciation and inspiration. “. For example, “Japanese rock”, a dressing gown, which was worn by wealthy men in the 17th century and was considered a status symbol. But also the cashmere scarf and the turban. It also happened that clothes worn by a man in India or China, for example, were put on by a woman in Europe. In the 1920s, many women in Western Europe wore a men’s coat from China that served as their evening coat. “Appreciated for the craftsmanship, the decorations and the splendor of the colors, but almost certainly without understanding the symbolism of Chinese embroidery,” according to a report from the Kunstmuseum. The 1970s were also full of cultural appropriation with clothing from Afghanistan, for example, worn by hippies. So cultural appropriation in fashion goes back a lot further than you might think, it just wasn’t called that.

Two Japonse rocken (: men’s dressing gowns) in Chinese silk and ‘bizarre’ silk kimono pattern, ca. 1750-1775, Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Photo: Alice de Groot.
Empire dresses with buta patterned embroidery (derived from cashmere scarf fashion) and cashmere patterned buta shawls. The Kashmir scarf originates from India, first quarter of the 19th century, Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Photo: Alice de Groot.

Prevent cultural appropriation? “This can only be avoided with cooperation”

Where in one case a Minister of Culture (Alejandra Frausto of Mexico) writes a letter to a brand, another chooses to sell the licenses of, for example, their name or the well-known models and claim income from license to fashion houses. Take the Maasai, for example, an African tribe that lives in Tanzania and Kenya. In 2011 Kim Jones, who grew up in Kenya, used prints related to Maasai culture for her Louis Vuitton debut. This is not the first time that the Maasai name or prints have been used in fashion.

Two years before Jones’ debut at Louis Vuitton, 9 tribal elders decided to form an organization called Maasai IP Initiative Trust Ltd (MIPI) to fight back. MIPI takes ownership of their cultural heritage and initiates a clear and professional process by which commercial users of their culture can apply for a license. The proceeds from the licenses are expected to help support the Maasai community in the areas of health, education and the redemption of the right to water and land to graze animals. FashionUnited contacted MIPI and asked how often the organization has been successful, but to date has not received a response.

To go further: is it possible to continue when a community is the object of cultural appropriation? FashionUnited calls Nine Bennink from Köster Advocaten in Haarlem. When asked, Bennink replies that there is a procedural option when it comes to cultural appropriation. This is copyright that can be reverted. “Most communities haven’t registered a trademark, but the copyright is already there by the time something is done, without registration.” Communities could therefore file a complaint and also win, according to the lawyer. Such a trial is anything but desirable for fashion houses. “The cost of losing face to a fashion house is many times greater than offering community compensation or paying license fees. The cost of such a license is a gray area, as there is no standard for it. What Bennink is sure of is that fashion houses are starting to be much more careful with cultural heritage, in part because it damages reputation and the fact that communities can actually win in court. “Copyright is a tool for communities to solve a social problem. Bennink sees it primarily as a means used for this. “But the social pressure and the possible loss of face that the fashion house can undergo are in fact also powerful tools.” because there is no standard for it. What Bennink is sure of is that fashion houses are starting to be much more careful with cultural heritage, in part because it damages reputation and the fact that communities can actually win in court. “Copyright is a tool for communities to solve a social problem. Bennink sees it primarily as a means used for this. “But the social pressure and the possible loss of face that the fashion house can undergo are in fact also powerful tools.” because there is no standard for it. What Bennink is sure of is that fashion houses are starting to be much more careful with cultural heritage, in part because it damages reputation and the fact that communities can actually win in court. “Copyright is a tool for communities to solve a social problem. Bennink sees it primarily as a means used for this. “But the social pressure and the possible loss of face that the fashion house can undergo are in fact also powerful tools.” “Copyright is a tool for communities to solve a social problem. Bennink sees it primarily as a means used for this. “But the social pressure and the possible loss of face that the fashion house can undergo are in fact also powerful tools.” “Copyright is a tool for communities to solve a social problem. Bennink sees it primarily as a means used for this. “But the social pressure and the possible loss of face that the fashion house can undergo are in fact also powerful tools. “

“Equal collaboration is the only way to prevent cultural appropriation in fashion”

The only real way to fight against cultural appropriation? There are more sides to it. First of all, the heritage of others is not meant to be simply copied for purely aesthetic reasons. Second, if one is to make use of cultural heritage, it is important that one knows the meaning and context of the elements and that one treats them with respect. It would be useful for designers and brands to tell the story of these elements and thus pass this knowledge on to the public. Additionally, and perhaps the most important point, connecting and equal partnerships can be made with a community where crafts are made locally and, of course, paid for fairly, according to the Kunstmuseum.

It is therefore time to transform cultural appropriation into cultural appreciation, whereby the use of the heritage of others is taken into account, a fair price is paid for its use and manufacturers and bearers explore the heritage of an element. . Does this mean that creators and carriers should only seek inspiration from their own heritage? Certainly not. Is there room for improvement in the fashion world? Absoutely.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL, translated and edited in English by Kelly Press.


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