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Fashion or Foul? - Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry

As part of the Spring-Summer 2017 collection, fashion house Chanel sold a $1,325 boomerang. Many consumers felt this was a direct appropriation of Indigenous Australian culture (Roberts, 2017). And the brand’s response? Chanel told CNN, “"Chanel is extremely committed to respecting all cultures, and deeply regrets that some may have felt offended… The inspiration was taken from leisure activities from other parts of the world, and it was not our intention to disrespect the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and their significance to the boomerang as a cultural object. As such, this object was included into a sportswear range" (Roberts, 2017, n.p.). The item remained for sale on the Chanel website. And more recently, designer Isabel Marant apologized after Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, Mexico’s Minister of Culture, said Marant used a pattern unique to the Purepecha community of northwestern Michoacan state on a cape without acknowledgment (BBC News, 2020). The cape was sold on the designer’s website for $582 (BBC News, 2020). The concern with this apology? It was not the first time Marant was accused of cultural appropriation. In 2015, Marant was accused by the indigenous Mixe community in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, of copying their traditional styles of dress for pieces in her Spring-Summer 2015 Étoile collection (Conlon, 2015). 

Why is Cultural Appropriation a Problem?

Cultural appropriation is a form of exploitative borrowing from another culture (Nittle, 2021). And while fashion often deems this borrowing as “inspiration,” a line is crossed when the culture from which was borrowed does not receive the credit, or capital, that is owed to them. As a result, these items and trends are often labeled as innovative or edgy, while the fact that it is borrowed from another culture remains hidden.

Dior vs Bihor - Cultural Appropriation

Băroiu, C. (n.d.). [Web graphic featuring two photographs comparing a Pre-Fall 2017 Dior coat to the
traditional Romanian Bihor sheepskin vest]. Ammalya. https://www.ammalya.com/blog/2019/3/8/
folk-accents-in-fashion-the-fine-line-between-inspiration-and-imitation

An example of this was the Dior 2017 Pre-Fall Collection, which featured designs with traditional Romanian motifs and styles. The most notable similarity was between a coat being offered by Dior for over $40,000 and the traditional Bihor coat, a small community of Romania known for their traditional clothing designs (Băroiu, n.d.). Dior never publicly acknowledged the origins of the design, nor did they offer any proceeds to the Bihor community (Băroiu, n.d.). It was not until the Bihor community partnered with Romanian fashion magazine Beau Monde and the McCann Advertising Agency to create a new fashion line, Bihor Couture, which sold the authentic Bihor coat handcrafted by local artisans, that the industry took note (Băroiu, n.d.). It took the Bihor people responding for others to notice the appropriation, rather than Dior directly addressing the origin of their designs.

Now, there may certainly be instances where a fashion house truly does not realize they are pulling inspiration from another culture. There are times when designers remember a piece from their travels, pull that inspiration, then realize they have appropriated the design unknowingly. If that designer makes it aware that the item or trend was adapted from another culture, while also providing credit and capital for the design, seeking to understand and learn from that culture, then we can move from appropriation to appreciation.


A Call Upon the Industry – Appreciation Over Appropriation

This topic often draws attention and criticism for one main reason: Where is the line between inspiration and copying? Fashion is never evolutionary, as every fashion today is borrowed from another idea, be it a past style or a culture not your own. So how can the fashion industry create new pieces without crossing the line of cultural appropriation?

The answer could be with adopting a cultural appreciation mindset. Cultural appreciation seeks to understand and learn about cultures in an effort to broaden perspectives and connect with others cross-culturally (Holmes, 2016). You learn, you listen, you honor beliefs and traditions - you honor the culture and the people. In the fashion industry, simply giving credit to a culture for its ideas is not enough.

We need to move beyond simply giving credit to a culture and instead involve the culture in the full conversation. A fashion house can dedicate a collection, however, that does not appreciate the culture. To appreciate the culture from which inspiration stemmed, that fashion house needs to include them in the process – consulting artisans and designers from that culture to interpret designs, casting models from that culture for fashion shows, and using publicity to share the stories and experiences of this group. Culture should be conscious and intentional, never borrowed from something that we do not understand.


Share Your Story!

Cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation often come down to intention. And for many fashion houses, the intention is skewed more toward personal gain than appreciation. The differences between the two ideas are fine and can often lead to misinterpretation. What begins as a celebration could turn to appropriation, if for the wrong reasons. We live in a beautiful, diverse world, where culture can, and should, be celebrated. Engaging with pieces of a culture not your own can add beautiful creativity and enlightenment to our world, if done for the right intentions. Let’s all seek to learn, gain understanding, and show honor and value to any culture not our own!


References

Băroiu, C. (n.d.). Folk accents in fashion - The fine line between inspiration and imitation. https://www.ammalya.com/blog/2019/3/8/folk-accents-in-fashion-the-fine-line-between-inspiration-and-imitation

BBC News. (2020, November 17). Isabel Marant: Designer apologizes for Mexican appropriation. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-54971582

Conlon, S. (2015, June 19). Isabel Marant accused of plagiarism. https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/isabel-marant-plagiarism-claim-santa-maria-tlahuitoltepec-oaxaca

Holmes, K. (2016). Cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation: Why it matters. https://greenheart.org/blog/greenheart-international/cultural-appreciation-vs-cultural-appropriation-why-it-matters/

Nittle, N.K. (2021, February 4). A guide to understanding and avoiding cultural appropriation. https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-appropriation-and-why-iits-wrong-2834561

Roberts, E. (2017, May 16). Chanel’s $1,325 boomerang condemned as ‘cultural appropriation.’ https://www.cnn.com/style/article/chanel-boomerang/index.html

 

This piece is the first in a series of exhibits on cultural appropriation in fashion, through a partnership between Merchandising & Design and The Center Stage Series at Tennessee Tech University. Keep up to date with Tech Times and The Center Stage Series webpage for information about an exhibition to be hosted this Fall 2021 Semester regarding cultural appropriation, which will feature guest speakers and pieces from the Historic Costume Collection!

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