How to talk about fashion history without Paul Poiret’s “Orientalist” approach; Yves Saint Laurent’s landmark collections inspired by China and Africa, or John Galliano, who threw countless cross-cultural references into a blender, producing memorable runway fireworks?
Academics and curators are navigating a sea change in thinking and public opinion, particularly in North America, over the borrowing of material culture, particularly from disenfranchised parts of the world. Untangling exactly when and why thinking changed is a complex matter, and they contend that solutions are still coming into focus.
“Cultural appropriation began to be seen in a negative light in the second half of the 20th century with the final end of empires along with the culmination of the struggle by colonies for independence and with the advent of post-colonial theory that set out to re-evaluate the causes and consequences of this imbalance of power and dominance,” said Cally Blackman, who teaches fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins in London. “The globalized Western-European fashion industry can be seen almost as a microcosm of this imbalance of power — a dominant force that shows little regard to the cultures and communities it holds sway over. The Internet has enabled the articulation of the complex discourse that surrounds this topic.”
Kirsten Scott, program leader in M.A. and B.A. fashion design at Istituto Marangoni in London, pointed to a growing awareness of fashion’s transgressions as an industry, cultural appropriation being the latest after a surge of concern about the sector’s damage to the environment.
She said increased travel, the Internet and burgeoning media consumption have all contributed to awareness of other cultures and “far too often, this inspiration has led to the theft of culturally significant aesthetic characteristics from their communities of origin and a resultant exoticizing, stereotyping and diminishing of richly diverse continents, countries and societies.”
In her view, educators and curators “must represent the material culture of others in a respectful way and discuss the work of designers that culturally appropriate,” Scott said. “Education is key in this — whether that is in schools and colleges or through exhibitions in galleries and museums.”
“The callouts [on cultural appropriation] are fairly recent,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT in New York. “I can’t remember anything happening earlier than about 2000. Prior to that, you had pretty much a free pass to do that.”
When Steele unveiled her “China Chic: East Meets West” exhibition in 1999, for example, “the press didn’t call it out. In fact, the press made what now would be heinous, very, very racist references [to describe the fashions], something that would be completely unacceptable now.”
Fast-forward to 2015 and outrage exploded on social media when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts displayed a famous painting by Claude Monet of his wife wearing a kimono alongside a replica guests could try on for photos.
“There were so many complaints that it was cultural imperialism that the whole program was stopped,” Steele said. “And yet, if you go to Japan, they’ll have kimono out so that tourists as well as Japanese are encouraged to try and get pictures of themselves. So there seem to be different attitudes often from country to country and charges of cultural appropriation seem to have originated in the U.S.
“It came out of academia and a kind of more generalized woke culture, about more subtle forms of racism and prejudice,” she added.
Asked why fashion in particular might be attracting so many accusations of appropriation, Steele noted that clothes are “such a close part of one’s personal identity. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge or hardly anybody has said anything good about white chefs cooking Chinese food, for example,” she said. “But it’s frequently said that white designers shouldn’t be borrowing things from non-European cultures.”
Blackman agreed that the fashion industry is “hyper-sensitive about these accusations now and this is because it is eternally having to counter the perception that it is superficial at best and exploitative at worst,” she said, suggesting fashion might be more highly regarded if it were seen as a manufacturing industry, like automotive. “Nearly all aspects of our social and cultural life, from food to fashion, are the product of cross-cultural exchange and hybridity. We need to be careful not to overreact — as long as informed, due consideration is taken over the design choices and decisions that are made.”
Even the music used at fashion shows is scrutinized: Rihanna apologized after using a controversial song containing a Muslim text at her latest Savage x Fenty fashion show.
Teleica Kirkland, associate lecturer in cultural and historical studies at London College of Fashion, noted that “call-out culture” has become “more vociferous” in the last five to 10 years.
“This is because Millennials and Gen Z[ers] of color, who have grown up in the Internet age and use social media as their main form of communication, are not seeing themselves adequately or reasonably represented and want to know why,” she said in an interview. “And then they see an artifact or item of material culture from their own cultures being used by someone who doesn’t represent them and it feels like an affront.”
In Kirkland’s view, the fashion industry must change “drastically” but is resisting because “quite frankly, it requires forethought and work and not relying on the same tried and tested methods as before, as this ultimately requires financial expenditure,” she said.
Yet she is unequivocal that “if someone in a position of power is using the materiality of another culture for profit and gain without benefiting that culture or community in any way, then it is appropriation and heinous in the extreme.”
“Many non-Western cultures are being utilized and exploited in various ways by Western designers, but particularly Native American material cultures are constantly appropriated and disrespected,” she continued. “The appropriation gets called out but their heritage and material culture have been disrespected for so long I don’t know if anyone is listening when they cry anymore.”
English designer Matthew Williamson angered the Ethiopian government and sparked Facebook protest groups when he showed two versions of the country’s traditional dress as part of his spring 2008 collection. “There was no acknowledgement and this is the real problem,” Kirkland said.
So what constitutes sufficient acknowledgment?
“I think there’s an argument for saying he shouldn’t have done it at all,” Kirkland said. “Designers have gone around the world cherry-picking from other country’s’ material cultures, and then using it as if that’s exactly what other cultures are there for. And it feels quite disrespectful to these other cultures. Because there’s no discussion. There’s no benefit. There’s no acknowledgment.”
She said acknowledgment could be a collaborative endeavor, something that “benefits the community in some way or benefits elements of the community or benefit organizations that work with the community.”
“The problem is that oftentimes these communities are suffering in whatever ways they’re suffering, whether it is through economic disenfranchisement, or whether it’s political disenfranchisement, or whatever the disadvantage is, these communities tend to be suffering,” she explained. “And even if they’re not suffering, the fact designers are using other cultures’ materiality and making large sums of money that is not being redistributed back to the community in any way is part of the issue.”
To be sure, material culture has flowed freely in multiple directions for almost a millennia, gaining momentum from the 15th century when colonial powers established commercial trading companies in the East Indies, according to fashion historian and curator Pamela Golbin.
“What was once considered an important commercial tool by all countries no longer corresponds with our contemporary values. It wasn’t that way 400 years ago,” she said, noting that at the time, India made fabrics especially for the European market, for example.
“They used the craft skills of a given country, in line with European tastes,” she explained. “There is always a search for the new in fashion, and what’s new is what’s not in our backyard.”
“The search for novelty has always driven fashion’s changes, whether the adoption of the Spanish farthingale at court in mid-16th-century England, the adaptation of 17th-century French floral embroidery motifs on Native American beadwork moccasins, or the vogue for wearing Turkish dress at masquerades and in portraiture in the 18th century,” Blackman agreed.
The origins of fashion items and fabrics are often circuitous, she noted. For example, the Kashmir shawls that were the height of fashion at the beginning of the 18th century often featured abstract pine cone motifs that “became known as paisley after the town in Scotland where the shawls were reproduced.”
Blackman also cited the complex origins of certain plaids, which came from southern India, where it’s known as Madras cotton. Exported to Africa, it was adopted by the Maasai people. It is also a feature of Ivy League style in the U.S., and is used by Jamaica for its national costume, she said. Likewise chintz, associated with Fifties America and British decorating, with its Persian-style floral motifs, originated in Mughal.
In the 19th century, so-called “exoticism” took hold in the applied and fine arts, and “in every creative field you saw the inspiration of faraway places,” according to Golbin. Impressionists brought Japanese influences into their paintings, Charlotte Perriand into her interior and furniture designs, while designers like Poiret created harem pants and loose opera coats at a time of corsets. Madeleine Vionnet also studied kimonos for the construction of her gowns.
In Golbin’s estimation, fashion absorbed various influences into its vocabulary, just as languages like English incorporate words from other languages, with the origins and connections often forgotten along the way.
In 1998, she co-curated an exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris called “Touche d’Exotisme,” tracing cross-cultural references in fashion across the 19th and 20th centuries, including so-called “ethnic trends” in the Nineties. That’s the wording in the original press materials, along with the observation that in that decade, “the melting pot approach has no limits, especially when it blends exotic inspirations with authentic or imagined roots.”
Asked if the showcase, which included designs by Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix, raised any eyebrows at the time, Golbin shook her head.
“It seems that they were genuinely interested in other cultures when they were inspired by them,” she said of the fashion designers in the vast exhibition, which included Poiret, the Callot sisters, Saint Laurent, Kenzo and Jeanne Lanvin. “Fashion was always about showcasing; it wasn’t about shaming.…Most of the designers are searching for beauty.”
In the past, fashion has often served as an entryway to discover and learn more about another country and its culture. “I think it’s wonderful, especially if it’s done with respect, honor and creativity,” Golbin said, calling fashion something of a “gateway to the world” that not only gave access to cultures many could not visit but also could “open up the imagination.”
Likewise, fashion can open up dialogue on sensitive or even taboo subjects, Golbin noted, citing Alexander McQueen’s “Voss” show for spring 2001, in which the designer addressed mental illness, the models meandering in a glass box clad with padding.
“Aren’t artists supposed to question and bring forth a new conversation?” she asked, also stressing the distinction between national costumes and fashion, which involves design elements and creativity.
Echoing other observers, Golbin noted the lion’s share of callouts about cultural appropriation have originated in America, which has filters that may differ from other parts of the world.
“That by no means means that the colonial past of European countries doesn’t need to be questioned or to be discussed or to be dealt with,” she said. “At least in the past, fashion designers, or fashion in general, brought forth decorative elements that allowed the greater public to feel comfortable about newness and about a culture they did not know.”
Citing a historical example of how inspiration can flow both ways, Blackman noted that during the Meiji period in Japan, from about 1868 to 1912, the emperor decreed that the court should wear European-stye dress. It was ultimately rejected amid nationalist sentiments and “the kimono was taken up again.” Often a source of inspiration in the West, the kimono has been interpreted by many fashion designers, including Nigerian-born British fashion designer Duro Oluwu.
In the Sixties and Seventies, Saint Laurent won wide acclaim for collections inspired by faraway places.
“In 1967, his ‘Bambara’ collection was based on the intricate dress of indigenous people in Mali, a French colony until 1960,” Golbin said. “As a member of the French colonial classes of Algeria himself, [Saint Laurent] probably would not have perceived his use of this source material as problematic.”
“In the past, it was more acceptable to just say ‘African inspiration,’” Steele agreed. “Now a lot of Africans just say, ‘You know, we’re a whole continent. It’s not just one country, there are lots of different cultures within it.’”
Drawing an example from “the old days,” circa 1997, she cited Galliano’s famous beaded corsets for Dior couture that he said were inspired by the Maasai. In fact, that beading is from Dinka, Steele said.
But how are designers, curators and educators to proceed in the face of an academic world and public on the lookout for cultural appropriation?
According to Blackman, “it is when designers use indigenous dress without any regard to its potential cultural or religious significance that appropriation becomes inappropriate, as was the case with Kokon To Zai’s 2015 copy of Shaman Awa’s parka decorated with symbolic motifs deeply rooted in his culture’s religious beliefs and personally significant to him.”
“I think that you have to figure who’s being stolen from, and what are the circumstances before you start throwing around terms like cultural appropriation,” the Museum at FIT’s Steele agreed. “For example, Native Americans have made it quite clear that they don’t appreciate having things like feathered headdress worn by non-Indians. In the same way, Australian Aboriginals have had things appropriated that are quite sacred to their culture. And they’re still so impoverished compared to other Australians that it seems like a real kick in the teeth to have these things continue to be appropriated by other people.”
Kirkland stressed that acknowledgment, dialogue, education and engagement are essential.
“A lot of European designers like to borrow aspects of African cultures, whether it’s beaded decoration or certain kind of printed fabric,” she said. “If they made some kind of an alliance with people and acquired embroidery or fabrics from actual African producers and promoted the collaboration, they would undercut the idea that they were just exploiting and appropriating.”
A good example would be Dior’s cruise 2020 collection, paraded in Marrakech, for which women’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri collaborated with a host of guest designers from the African continent and beyond in a shared tribute to craftsmanship.
“Who is having conversations with people?” Kirkland asked. “This is what needs to change. Speak to the people, pay respect to the people in these places, talk to teachers, the designers, the artists, talk to the people who are actually in these places and say, ‘Look, I’m finding it really interesting. And I’m thinking about making a collection about this, what do you think?’ Acknowledge what’s happening for them in their environments, don’t just grab interesting ephemera and run!”
She described a bad example: Say an English designer goes on holiday in Spain and decides they like the flamenco dress and style and bases a collection off that.
“Okay, great. Do you know any Spanish people? Do you know anything about the history of flamenco? Did you speak to any Spanish people or flamenco dancers when you went out there? Did you actually do any flamenco dancing yourself? Did you learn anything about the culture?” Kirkland said. “No, they didn’t. They just saw something. They thought it was pretty. So I’m gonna put that into my line. That is how a lot of designers operate. And what I’m saying needs to change is the work in engaging people from the culture. Respect needs to be given and it’s not being given enough at the moment.”
Does fashion stand to lose or win anything if designers limit themselves to their own cultures, and avoid cross-cultural referencing?
“In my opinion this would be a great shame. The more insular, insulated and blinkered we become, the poorer we will be,” Blackman said. “Surely in our globalized, multicultural world, the more we exchange and communicate ideas and information, the more knowledge we gain about each other, the more we benefit. Perhaps the way to approach inspiration and influence from other cultures within a Western context is through co-operation, collaboration, respect and mutual benefit.”
“In some ways fashion will lose if designers must limit themselves to their own culture for inspiration, but every constraint presents a new opportunity for creativity and perhaps this is the way ahead,” Scott concurred. “Instead of a facile, ‘We’re doing an Eskimo inspiration this season’ approach, we need to be thinking more deeply about design anyway and moving away from these patterns of seasonal trend. Cultural appropriation has been very much part of this now outdated approach. We need to be designing less and better anyway.”
Kirkland disagreed sharply that fashion might lose something if it can’t look across borders.
“How can fashion become less creative? Is the ability to use other cultures’ materiality the only place creativity comes from? I find this question a bit irritating, to be honest, as it suggests that the only purpose for the existence of non-Western cultures is to provide an exciting cultural dressing up box for the West,” she said. “This is such an incredibly old-fashioned and narrow-minded way of thinking. Why aren’t designers exploring more of their own heritage and using their own backgrounds as foundations for their work? The question must always be asked, what is so fascinating about someone else’s culture? This requires introspection, knowing yourself very well, and moving forward with positive intention.”
Professors agreed educational approaches are changing to reflect new thinking about cross-cultural referencing.
“It is vital that we de-center and decolonize our curricula to take into account other histories of fashion as well as those Western-centric ones traditionally taught hitherto,” Blackman said. “This has to happen in conjunction with similar initiatives by museums, galleries and libraries that support our learning and teaching.”
Scott described a conceptual scale where you can measure where an idea from another culture starts and at which point it becomes your own.
“All ideas have a starting point somewhere, but the more you draw from this, extending and evolving it to make it your own, the less likely you are to superficially appropriate someone else’s cultural property,” also suggesting consultation and acknowledgement, so as not to offend anyone. “I am still navigating this in my own work and still don’t feel I have all the answers.”
Scott works with Ugandan bark cloth in consultation with a community of makers with full acknowledgement of them, their history and skill. “Ultimately I am hoping the work will contribute to sustaining an important cultural craft,” she said.
In her view, brands that collaborate with artists and designers from another culture seem to be showing the way forward, such as Carla Fernandez, a Mexican designer who acknowledges the sources of all the ideas in her collections.
“There are small, independent designers that are doing much better than the better-known ones,” Scott said. “For example, B.Yellowtail, an indigenous Crow, North American designer. If you are interpreting your own rather than others’ culture through design, you are more likely to be aware of issues around ownership and respect.”
Observers agreed that the rise of designers from non-Western countries will help change the conversation, and slowly tilt the balance of power away from the main capitals of New York, London, Milan and Paris.
“There are thriving fashion capitals all over the world now from Dakar to Mumbai, as well as Paris, New York, London and Milan. This will hopefully contribute to more balanced perceptions of what is and what is not appropriate or otherwise, as well as promoting a rich diversity in global fashion, ” Blackman said. “We see a lot of non-European students now who leave and want to go back to their country of origin and set up business and we are already getting exciting results.”
“There is so much innovation happening, with designers finding inspiration from within their own cultures and interpreting this for a global audience,” Scott agreed. “I particularly love Maxhosa Africa from South Africa and Qiu Hao from China, but also an emerging group of small antifashion practitioners that don’t buy into the whole fashion system but operate very differently, working within planetary boundaries.”
These include brands and designers such as Oma Space, Tabrik, Soma Folk, Marcella Echavarria and Daniel Olatunji, she said.
Echavarria, whose brand Noir Handmade exalts mud silk from Southeast Asia, argues that “cultural collaboration” should be at the root of fashion, including its raw materials.
“Fashion should follow the food industry in its respect for the ingredients, the origin and the producers,” she said. “I think one of the biggest problems of the fashion world is the disconnect of fashion with textiles, specifically with heritage textiles. It is equivalent to being a chef who is not in sync with the ingredients of a recipe. This provides a type of cut-and-paste creativity with disregard for the origin.”