I recently read an internet article “A much needed primer on cultural appropriation”.
So, what does “appropriate” mean? According to the dictionary the word appropriate means to take as ones own, to take for ones own: hence to steal. We are all familiar that taking an invention protected by patent is fraudulent. Using another’s words either orally or in print is plagiarism. However, it becomes more murky when we speak of intellectual properties or cultural values. The reason I was intrigued by this article is that it addressed the issue of fashion and designers that have (and are) using cultural references in their designs with little appreciation to their true significance.
There has always been the idea that design (in whatever form) is derivative, that is, it is based upon previous concepts , sometimes very explicit references, sometimes only a vague hint of a precursor. In Textile Designs (Meller and Elffers, Abrams, 1991) the authors state “…the recycling wheel, which sets the motif of textile designs on a circular road of eternal return. Nothing disappears, and nothing appears out of nowhere.” This might be taken to imply certain permission to copy. But this is not what I am talking about in appropriation of culture. Certainly we are seeing in the past few years a return to mid-century style, design and color patterns.
Cultural appropriation is very different. It is taking the values and beliefs of a people, their physical characteristics and/or lifestyle. It is removing these symbols from their original context and using them in fashion , let’s be real here, for a profit. The meaning of these cultural references is nowhere addressed, and, indeed often far, far removed from any original significance. This is not a new problem. In the 1950’s there was great interest in so-called “ethnic” designs. Yards of printed fabric presented Mexican senores in sombreros asleep beneath palms or with burros and senoritas with baskets of flowers. There were “Little Black Sambo” pajamas and “Aunt Jemima” aprons. Today this is not only considered sooo politically incorrect, but down-right inflammatory. And yet today it continues with many ethnic groups.
The problem is, I think, the consumer sees a pleasing, or intriguing design, either in the print of the fabric or the construction of the final product. Perhaps the offense lies in the glossy advertising. Because the real symbolism is unfamiliar the consumer is unaware that this is perhaps offensive and derogatory to some. Is there a solution? Of course, but it may be a complicated one. The onus is on both the consumer and the producer. We must be more aware and receptive to the idea that everyone does not live, think and believe as we do. If there is no market, there will be no further production. Fashion manufacturers must be held accountable. Apologies after the fact should not be the final word.. If there is an instance of such breach of good faith the public should make their voices heard. Afterall everyone is entitled to their heritage and beliefs