From dreadlocks to kimonos: does fashion have a problem with cultural appropriation?

There has long been a tempestuous relationship between fashion and culture

Model Bella Hadid displays the fashion of Marc Jacobs during New York Fashion Week in New York on September 15, 2016. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP)
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The age of social media has given a voice to people who might not normally have been heard, with both their praise and their censure spreading with the rapidity of a few clicks. One notable arena where that voice is being heard loud and clear is in the luxury fashion industry.

In a highly charged environment, designers and brands have been feeling the heat in recent seasons for the way they may use other cultures as a source of inspiration, with some being accused of being downright insensitive.

Travelling back to Paul Poiret’s love of Eastern exoticism in the 1920s, Yves Saint Laurent’s richly cultured collections of the 1970s and 1980s, and looking at John Galliano (during his Dior years), Dries Van Noten, Marc Jacobs and Alessandro Michele at Gucci in recent decades, all have “borrowed” (as it was phrased then) considerably from other cultures. In the past, creativity was revered no matter what, and the results of that plundering were praised by the media and lapped up by buyers, so it largely went unnoticed.

Appropriation, for me, refers to theft of property and dispossession, that is to say, the act of depriving someone of land or property, including cultural and intellectual property

However, in today’s connected era, it has become highly visible. The connected world means everyone can potentially trace the “inspiration” of creatives and call them out, often brutally, if they feel cultural appropriation is taking place.

As Business of Fashion commentator Osman Ahmed wrote in 2017: “Perhaps the key to the riddle is in the word itself: appropriation. In recent years, it has become associated with the violent pilfering of non-western cultures and sacred symbols, policed by a self-proclaimed ‘generation #woke’. But what they’re really referring to is mis-appropriation: when the act becomes superficial or exploitative.”

Serkan Delice, senior lecturer in cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion, delves deeper: “Appropriation, for me, refers to theft of property and dispossession, that is to say, the act of depriving someone of land or property, including cultural and intellectual property.

The reason appropriation is such a controversial concept in the context of fashion and culture is the question of whether we can see culture as an exclusive property that can be owned by a specific group of people or not.”

Appropriation has become a volatile debate in the past decade, and politicised, too. Gucci put turbans on non-Indian models on the catwalk; Marc Jacobs styled Bella Hadid with dreadlocks; and Johnny Depp's Eau Sauvage commercial for Dior featured a Native American dancer. All were criticised. Racism, discrimination and prejudice towards certain ethnic groups, and the emergence of activist groups to counteract, will, says Delice, lead "to a stronger sense of belonging and cultural ownership among people of colour".

FRANCE - JANUARY 22:  Christian Dior, Haute Couture spring-summer 2007 fashion show in Paris, France on January 22, 2007.  (Photo by Alain BENAINOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
A kimono-inspired look from Christian Dior's haute couture 2007 runway, at the Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition at the V&A. Photo: Getty Images

He points to a recent article in The Guardian by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, which made a thoughtful point: "There is a bigger and broader issue, one that, for me, is more emotive. Cultural appropriation is a 'thing' because of our histories. The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity ... and now identity is to be taken as well?"

One possible answer to the problem, cites Delice, is creatives acknowledging their sources and the invisible labour behind the originals, and then sharing the platform with people from those cultures. Tommy Hilfiger, for instance, makes a point of celebrating diversity and inclusion, as evidenced in his work with hip-hop artists since the 1990s. Sometimes he is criticised for preying off minority cultures and profiting from those designs, but he has built a strong relationship with African American artists, making sure that they are central to his marketing efforts.

Dries Van Noten acknowledges that the current microscope on fashion’s cultural appropriation has made it nearly impossible to reference other cultures in a way that offends no one. “For me, other cultures have always been a starting point,” said Van Noten at a Business of Fashion Voices event. “But I never took things very literal. Quite often, we take one element that we like ... and mix it to be something very personal. It’s like layering. Indian or African-inspired or ethnic-inspired ... it has to be clothes people want to wear now. Clothes that are used to express who they are. To me, that’s the final goal.”

People are becoming more sensitive to cultural appropriation, "but sometimes they are not looking too deeply into the context of each example and [they] should think about what inspiration is, and what appropriation is", says Jing Zhang, editor-at-large and style director at Prestige magazine in Hong Kong.

As co-founder of branding and design agency Tandem Asia, she is all too aware of cultural sensitivities in China. Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Gucci and Coach have all had insensitive products and communications damage their businesses. “They get into trouble if they don’t listen to their local teams because each culture, whether it’s the Emirates, China or Europe, has its own set of cultural peculiarities and nuances. International companies really need to rely on those teams who know what is appropriate, what people find funny and what can offend.”

Reaction to western fashion’s creative interest in China’s heritage depends on the designer and how it is manifested: “Generally the Chinese public and fashion fans like designers to be inspired by their culture, certainly well-respected designers such as Galliano and Dries Van Noten,” says Zhang.

“I definitely think it would stifle creativity if no one could reference a culture outside their own. It defeats the purpose of creativity, but there is a difference between referencing and completely appropriating.”

Japan is another culture that has inspired designers, from Poiret and Saint Laurent to Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne and, as a country, is proud that its national costume is widely appreciated. "Japan has a completely different attitude towards appropriation, having had agency in both the exporting of Japanese culture to the world and adaptation of western elements in Japanese life," says Anna Jackson, co-curator of Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, an exhibition that was running at the V&A in London, but that has been temporarily closed amid the coronavirus crisis. Jackson is also keeper of the museum's Asian collection.

“The kimono has a fascinating place within the fashion story,” she says. “What is different about the kimono is that it is, and has always been, a fashionable garment, and fashion is inherently transnational. It was only when the majority of the Japanese population adopted western clothing in the postwar period that the kimono became a ‘national costume’. The recent kimono revival has sought to reinstate the garment as an item of fashion.” 

The fashion system puts designers under huge pressure these days to deliver several collections a year, and reduces the time that can be spent in research, layering and evolving ideas to ensure they are not dependent on one culture or demographic. However well-intentioned, appropriation can be a force for good, creating a cultural exchange and enriching the available vocabulary for designers, artists and image-makers even for chefs, filmmakers and architects. 

Limiting designers to their own cultural source contradicts fashion’s raison d’etre to be innovative, and is liable to be repetitive. Design, in whatever field, from art and fashion to fusion cuisine, can all be the engine that drives culture forward and dismantles borders and divisions, rather than erecting them.