REVISITING CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: When Culture Becomes a Costume

Cowrite with Charlie Houkjær Klausen

Cultural appropriation has long been a trending topic within fashion industries – designers appropriating trends, patterns, fabrics, and facets inspired by local and indigenous cultures, into western fashion. This has not been without controversy, as both the Native American headdress and the Indian bindi have been subject to the catwalk, fueling the debate on political correctness and cultural appropriation. And even though the debate has grown somewhat tiresome, it still remains a prominent issue in the industry.

As western designers move into appropriating African style into fashion, it is worth giving cultural appropriation another look and asking the question: Why is it potentially so problematic? Indeed, many people within and outside the industry do not consider the term fitting, arguing that “cultural appreciation” would be a more accurate term. But however one chooses to denote appropriating culturally sensitive style into western fashion, it raises serious concerns about power, discourse, and even neocolonialism. But there is another important element to be aware of. The interest in African culture and heritage is not solely defined by the inspiration it contributes to western designers, but equally by the rise of a new generation of young African designers, wanting to paint a new, more accurate picture of Africa. Growing up in the western world, we have also grown up with a story about Africa that has been dominated by war, disease, poverty, and unstable political conditions – something that has proved to be a hard bias to shed. 

Young African designers and artists have been on the rise on the western fashion scene, wanting to create positive attention surrounding Africa and tell a new story, and this has generated a different interest in the continent. Not only have we seen a huge African influence on the catwalk of the SS14 illustrated by brands like ACNE, Céline, Prada, and Chanel, but also a rise in African designers who are taking on the catwalks around the world. Merging African culture through techniques, fabrics, and prints with a western twist, one can’t help but question the influence the West, and the impression the West has, on Africa, has altered their perception of themselves when entering western catwalks. Who are they designing for, what is their ambition, and how much has the western view of Africa participated in what we see from young, African designers today?

In this article we refrain from specifying whether we are talking about cultural appropriation or misappropriation – we are aware of the gap between these two terms, and recognize that of course not all cultural appropriation is necessarily a bad thing. Blogger on all things Native American, Jessica Metcalfe explains the distinction well in the Guardian in May 2012: “Power factors shape the definitions of these two categories. Sharing is great. Unauthorized taking is not. Being inspired by an artist is great. Copying an artist and writing it off as your own is not. Appreciating Native American headdresses is great. Wearing a headdress when you have not been authorised to wear one is not.” 

The problem becomes evident when you examine who is culturally appropriating who – when the dominant culture (meaning the one with the most power) is the one appropriating the culture of the minority group. As such, the dominant culture takes cultural ownership, and potentially devalues the cultural heritage of the minorities, and makes the cultural facet their own – and this is how we must be careful not to categorize cultural appropriation as cultural borrowing. As professor in political science Tracy B. Strong puts it: “I have appropriated something when I have made it mine, in a manner that I feel comfortable with, that is in a manner to which the challenges of others will carry little or no significance.” So we see a problem of ownership – an act and a right to recategorize and repackage culture in order to appropriate it as the designer sees fit. Again, this can of course be done in an appropriate manner. It is important to reiterate that we are not arguing against all forms of cultural appropriation. But the challenge seems evident as questions of power surface, recognizing that a vulnerable culture that is being appropriated against its will, rarely has the means or capacity to act against such appropriation. 

The way western designers present African culture is a picture of Africa through a very narrow lens; an image that African designers don’t necessarily agree with. The interest in African culture has brought these designers to the surface, and given us a new idea about what African fashion is, and what it can be. But what happens when the trend shifts and the interest dies? What happens after the African influence is no longer in focus? Because the fashion industry is dominated by the West, it also sets the standards and trends, giving the West the upper hand and control. This control, however much we are starting to appreciate the influence and rise of African and Asian designers, is still something that we need to take seriously.

The rise of African designers on western catwalks represents an important shift regarding this control, but their designs are still heavily influenced by the western view of Africa, and a wish to fit in. As such, the question of how much they are really in control of how African culture is presented is still prominent. As the dominant culture appropriates cultural aspects and applies it in fashion, it simultaneously creates the culture and controls how the culture is represented. This is what Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci calls cultural hegemony: the domination of culture and social groups through institutions – in this case the fashion industry. When you go to an ethnographic exhibition at a museum, what you actually see is a representation of a culture. How are they represented? As violent? Peaceful? Primitive? Noble? How is the lighting – does it make the culture appear threatening? All of these things are presented to you in a certain way, and paint a picture of what that culture is like – the same goes for fashion and appropriating culture ad lib. It creates a certain image of a given culture – and the culture represented rarely has anything to say about that representation. 

Young African designers like Adama Paris and Maki Oh, and the social media personalities behind 2 Many Siblings and La Frohemien are working on redefining the narrative about modern Africa. The western image of Africa portrayed through art exhibitions, in our bias, and on the catwalk are in many ways a narrative that one can describe as fetish. The West labeling African inspired collections as “ethnic” and “exotic” is a problem in itself, because it fuels the existing narrative of Africa as underdeveloped or primitive, defined by tribal communities, and something that we in the West can borrow from when we want to.

The notion of representation in anthropology was made famous by Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism – that is how Eastern cultures such as the Middle East, North Africa, South West Asia, and South East Asia, were represented and appropriated through art and architecture in the West. Said famously said that Orientalism “…enables the political, economic, cultural and social domination of the West, not just during colonial times, but also in the present.” Cultural appropriation is easily problematized in the context of fashion. How designers choose to infuse culture and thus how they choose to represent a given culture, creates a huge uneven distribution of power. In industries where culture is signified through some form of representation, producers and designers have to be wary of its significance, as it is clear with whom the domination lies. When Valentino’s Spring 2016 collection based on a theme they called “wild, tribal Africa” (oh, that Africa), they represented an entire continent in a specific way and created an image of what Africa is, on behalf of the people who are actually from there. Furthermore, they risked legitimizing a degree of mockery, leading to marginalization and stereotypical framing of culture. 

This stereotypical framing of Africa is one that is widely accepted and appreciated by the West. As the dominant culture we feel like we can choose the parts of African culture that we want, to create the specific story we want to tell. The ambition is often obscured by explanations like “the designer’s recent inspirational trip to an African tribe”, without taking into consideration what the act of making a collection titled “wild, tribal Africa” actually does, not only to us, but to our perception of Africa. The fact that African designers are getting recognition in the western world might open us up to a new narrative about Africa, but we are heavily biased. Through colonial times, and up until today, the West has always been (and felt) superior. The world has changed, but we are still influenced by our western privilege, which is not only visible in the way that we choose to use and frame other ethnicities and cultures, but also in the way that we exploit their heritage.

If one were to stretch the issue of cultural appropriation, the notion of neocolonialism is a tempting perspective to add. Not to be confused with colonial administrations of old, where white men wearing knee-high socks and dashing mustaches would occupy or exploit a community or entire country. No, neocolonialism makes itself distinct by being hidden among the fibers. It can be hard to see at times, but it weaves through much of the peripheral relations that go from the Global North (which is us, the rich and dominant) to the Global South (the poor and vulnerable). How clothes are produced by often poorer countries under horrendous work environments, is a prime example of how neocolonialism works. The dominant culture takes advantage of the weak. Cultural appropriation smells like neocolonialism as the western industry once again takes ownership over cultural domains. Colonial administrations would, at the time, often shape societal rules and laws according to their wishes – shape caste systems, denote who could be “chieftains” and who couldn’t. It is important to be aware of these historical challenges, so as not to (by accident or purpose) shape a culture that does not belong to us, or (un)knowingly recreate (neo)colonial relationships. 

When all comes down to it, it is paramount to discuss the discourse concerning cultural appropriation. As mentioned, the narrative is the issue many would sweep aside, arguing that it is actually closer to cultural appreciation, and this is why it is even more important to remind ourselves of the power of language. In other words, we have to be mindful of the discourse. Words create reality, and if we continue to ignore the power of words, we risk creating an entire industry impervious to the critique of cultural sensibilities, an industry that shapes cultural representations for its own gain. We can achieve all this by simply talking about it in a certain manner. How refugees and Muslims are talked about in western media is a powerful example of how discourse shapes the perceptions of culture and thereby people. As a result of terror attacks carried out by radicals, an entire group of religious people are subjected to suspicion that they may also be terrorists. The power of western media discourse as such fuels xenophobia, and paints with broad antagonizing strokes, an image of danger and “the Muslim threat”. The source of this hateful discourse is based on fear, while in our context it is based on western privilege and bias. 

We are sure that most designers are engaged and well-meaning when inspired by other cultures. Indeed, we are sure that they are in awe of the cultural beauty of the locals and feel that they want to convey that beauty on the catwalk. But there has recently been a disconnection, not including the culture being appropriated into the design process, and the lack of acknowledging our inherent bias. As dominant cultures, we have to be aware of all of these things when culturally appropriating the culture of minorities, as it also affects their view of themselves. This is one of the elements that is abundantly clear when considering the collections that come from many African designers. They often look less “African” than the collections from the western designers who claim their culture. While working with traditional textiles, wax prints and ideals, the influence from the West is still visible in a way that raises the question of authenticity. The West has one picture of Africa, and the modern African narrative differs greatly from this. Even though we might mean well, we end up accidentally owning and recategorizing cultural heritage, re-enforcing uneven power distribution, even neocolonial relations, in the process. Participation and inclusion really are the two key words when it comes to having a relationship with our fellow human beings. Especially when we are in a position where we hold the power to represent them as a whole, we should be conscious of appropriating culturally sensible design, and exercise the respect warranted in such relationships. 

As a final note, we stress that we do not mean we should advocate a paternalistic industry hitting people over the head with a politically correct baseball bat – the issue is not about stepping lightly through the fashion landscape. The issue concerns ignoring the people whose culture we are “borrowing” or “feel inspired by”. But to reiterate Tracy B. Strong: “I have appropriated something when I have made it mine, in a manner that I feel comfortable with, that is in a manner to which the challenges of others will carry little or no significance.” There is no such thing as merely borrowing in this case – for better or for worse. When you appropriate something, you have taken ownership of it. When you appropriate a culture for the purpose of a costume, it is not a costume you should wear lightly.