Does Fashion Need Cultural Appropriation To Work?
A last-minute name-drop or sweeping statement simply does not cut it, when it comes to paying homage to the fashion of a certain group, culture, or individual. This is because the ‘homage’ comes with the expectation of a respectful acknowledgment from one party to another. Ideally, the brand publicly validates, and communicates the origin of their design choices. However, some believe that appropriating fashion without any real knowledge or cultural references, is offensive and should not be worn, as it dishonors the background it originates from.
The lazier cultural references that happen in the fashion industry are something that I have come to question, particularly from powerful multi-million-pound companies. Brands like Valentino have been smeared quite rightfully in past for their lack of narrative, when it comes to providing the essential details to trace their inspirations.
Offhandedly stating that the inspiration for their collection was derived from ‘Wild Africa’ was almost as concerning as it was offensive. To depict Africa as merely a ‘wild’ location with no context to its history, or acknowledgment that Africa is a continent comprised of varied cultures and fashion styles is unsettling for the next generation. Even more unsettling- it's disturbing to witness a collection inspired by African culture, worn by models with no heritage from the appropriated country.
To dismiss one’s culture is to disregard a huge struggle faced by a person, loved ones, and their ancestry. Somehow, it seems that the only thing that cultural appropriation does in fact inspire is a worrying sense of ignorance that manifests (often unintentionally) on the bodies of key figures in pop culture. As the subject becomes more ‘whitewashed’, the credit to the pioneers of the style or trend find themselves lost in translation.
‘As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy. At the same time, the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity.’ — Nadra Kareem Nittle
In the opinion of a person of colour, the answer to cultural appropriation seems obvious to me. I grew up seeing myself scarcely represented in the media, and quickly learned to question what the mainstream-menu was serving. I believe it is important that people maintain a social conscience in order to progress, particularly in highly visible sectors like fashion industries where responsibility to credit can become buried.
At the very least, fashion brands should represent the people of whose culture they are appropriating. Naturally, this can easily improve social awareness and provide a greater visibility to the talent that is often overlooked. At the very best, multinational fashion-businesses could join support schemes that work in communities to put those who are appropriated into a position to represent themselves.
But what is fashion without culture? Without cultural-appropriation, fashion becomes clothes, without any meaning or message. Like fashion, culture is something that is produced by a group of people in reaction to experiences that they share. Culture's come from people that have produced something has not only enabled them to survive in a situation, but allowed them thrive. Throughout history, people have come together, used their imagination, learned to adapt, and built prosperous traditions.
A good example would be black communities that lived in Harlem during the late 80’s. This particular minority group had been deprived of equal opportunities in the past and were experiencing critically low unemployment at the time. Many families suffered as they faced grim finances. Emotionally, this took a toll on those growing up in the ghetto neighbourhoods of Harlem, where people had very little income and were under threat of frequent crime and police violence. Notably, without these experiences, which demanded to be expressed by the youth, entrepreneurs such as Daniel Day a.k.a Dapper Dan, may not have gone out of their way to produce some of the most empowering fashion designs the world was to see— and to a group of people whose lives were greatly marginalised by the political and judicial system during the 80 and 90ss.
Kitting out the locals with knock-off designer logos, he represented the ‘excess, wealth and luxury’ that black people had historically been denied. By using luxury logos such as Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, Dapper Dan was able to represent the imbalance of power at the time. Around him, millions of African-American's began setting the bar for contemporary street-style, and made the traditional combo of a tracksuit and sneakers on the streets the status quo of ‘cool’ around the world. Supported by black celebrities such as LLCoolJ, Run-D.M.C and Olympic gold medalist, Diane Dixon (wearing his popular duffer jacket), the rest of the world began to pay attention to what Dan and the rest of Harlem were doing.
Dapper Dan and his boutique on 125th Street is an excellent reference to the role that cultural appropriation plays in fashion today. Many stores in the richer parts of America, as well as in France, Italy, and England began to produce clothes that heavily resembled the streetwear style found Harlem and Brooklyn. As the iconic looks spread, major fashion companies were credited for their ‘refreshing’ new take on ready-to-wear. Memorable moments include: Spring 1994 Ready-to-Wear by Chanel, Spring 1997 Ready-to-Wear by Tommy Hilfiger and more recently, cruise 2018 by Gucci.
By seeing a new subculture giving birth to a specific style of fashion, it allowed the popular brands to update their look and stay relevant in a new movement. The sharing of ideas, traditions, and material items that truly made opened the ‘New Renaissance’ of Chanel. Bucket hats, gold chain's and baggy denim kept things interesting and helped to reconstruct the definition of mainstream fashion in an era of urban non-conformism.
Dapper Dan strived to rehumanize his clientele by dressing them in the logos paraded by the privileged, in order become outspoken in society. Similarly, other more established brands dressed their clientele in urban-inspired clothing in order to create an escape from their overly- structured and privileged lifestyles, and enabled them to be more outspoken about their place in society also.Looking back, it seems that the fashion world will always be part of a vicious cycle filled with cultural appropriation as style is so difficult to pinpoint and comes from many different sources.
Regardless of how far a designer’s source of inspiration may be, it has an ability to resonate with the others who encounter it. Whether it be political, social or even very personal, the capacity for human beings to relate to one another from such diverse backgrounds is incredible. In the future, discussing culture should bring people together and create grounds for mutual respect. The origins of ideas must be respected.
Written by Clay Grandison
Images Not Owned by ASBO Magazine