Cultural appropriation has been a particularly contentious topic in recent years, and a debate that tends to be very polarizing. Some see it as a much needed call to higher standards of representation and transparency, others as needless identity politics. As I talked about in my last blog post, culture is dynamic, and constantly evolving, changing, and mixing. Particular foods, or styles of clothing, or visual motifs (among many many other things) make their way around the world, resulting in new or hybrid cultural expressions. So where is the line between appreciating and appropriating?
I won’t claim to have a 100% foolproof way to judge whether or not something is cultural appropriation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Breaking it down even further, when used as a verb, the word “appropriate” means “to take exclusive possession of” or “to take or make use of without authority or right.” As an academic, I find it helpful to think about cultural appropriation in terms of plagiarism. Has the designer of this product given proper credit to the source of their artistic inspiration? Have the original creators of this technique or style given their permission for their cultural knowledge to be used in this way?
And while this discussion is often framed in terms of intellectual property, I think it’s important to remember that this is about doing harm: cultural appropriation is one of many ways in which the world continues to visit harm on marginalized people. As I’ve discussed in other blog posts about our indigenous connections, the uncomfortable history of our world is one of colonialism and violence: peoples enslaved or eradicated, cultures crushed. Imagine, then, what it might be like for your community to have suffered that history, to be still living with its systemic legacy, and to see your clothing, your creative or spiritual iconography, your techniques or materials, taken and used out of context, or turned into expensive commodities.
Cultural appropriation is certainly not limited to clothing, but since we’re an organization focused on textiles and their makers, here are a few particularly egregious examples from the fashion world to help make the issue more clear:
- In 2019, Gucci issued a public apology and removed a $790 blue turban from their online store1. This style of headwear is an important and highly visible expression of faith for adherents to Sikhism, and Sikhs face religiously motivated hostility and violence, sometimes triggered simply by the presence of their turban. Despite this history and the obviously similar style, Gucci’s turban was marketed as a statement piece for the public at large—one that’s “ready to turn heads.”
- In 2015, UK brand KTZ debuted a runway collection partly based in Inuit designs. One of the items, a black and white sweater, is a near perfect copy of a garment worn generations earlier by Aua, an indigenous shaman (pictured at right). The shaman’s great-granddaughter said that the designs had important spiritual significance—the motifs were intended to protect her great-grandfather from drowning, and the one-of-a-kind design was reused without the family’s consent2.
- Also in 2015, Jennifer Lopez came under fire for her performance at the American Music Awards, where she and other performers wore native-inspired jackets. The collection from Italian brand Dsquared2 was referred to as Dsquaw (“squaw” is a derogatory and harmful term used to refer to indigenous women), and marketed as “The enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes. The confident attitude of the British aristocracy.”3
Andean Textile Arts is an organization dedicated to helping indigenous people revitalize their traditional textile history, so if you’re reading this blog post its likely the issues I’ve discussed will arouse your sense of empathy and frustration just as they do ours. Many of the revitalization projects we support are needed precisely because of cultural loss during the Spanish colonization of the Andes. We come to our work with a deep respect for, and understanding of, that history, and we support Andean weavers in taking back their culture on their own terms.
While exploitation of religious clothing or blatant rip-offs of indigenous designs may seem clear cut, cultural appropriation is a nuanced issue that goes much deeper than the examples I’ve had space to share here. When in doubt, I like to use the “Invaders, Tourists, Guests” distinction described by Diantha Day Sprouse4 (this comes from a discussion at a conference of speculative fiction writers, but I think it’s universally applicable):
“Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance. Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable. Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.“
Try to reflect on your purchases and the way you express yourself to ensure that you are never an Invader—here lies deliberate appropriation and exploitation. Being a Tourist is where the line between appreciation and appropriation gets messy, but luckily, being a Tourist is a curable condition! At least when it comes to an understanding of Andean textiles and the communities with which we work, we hope to provide knowledge, experiences, and connections that can transition you from Tourist to Guest.
Lead image: KTZ sweater with appropriated Inuit design, still from KTZ Autumn Winter 2015 Menswear
5. This image, and more information about Aua, can be found in Northern Voices: Inuit Writing in English, edited by Penny Petrone (University of Toronto Press, 1988).