Fashion Has Found Beauty in Other Cultures for Centuries — but Has It Given Due Credit?

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?

Carefully.

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.”

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“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.”

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.” 

“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.”

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