Fashion and controversy have long been bedfellows. This year’s hot-button issue: culturally insensitive designs that catapulted some runway shows from provocative to maligned faster than you can tweet #fashionfail. In March, Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared2 were slammed for unveiling a fall ’15 collection that featured—among other questionable looks—a blonde-haired, green-eyed Caroline Trentini as an Inuit bride draped in military regalia. The show was accompanied by the hashtag #Dsquaw, a thoughtless reference to a derogatory word early colonialists used for native women. The following week, Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci described the models in his show—heavily bejewelled, with baby curls plastered to their foreheads—as “chola Victorian,” using a slangy term rooted in anti-Mexican sentiment.
These kinds of cultural oversights make for some serious head scratching. But controversy, by definition, isn’t always black and white. A few months later, the Twittersphere was quick to criticize Valentino for an Africa-inspired spring ’16 offering, described in the show notes as “primitive” and “tribal,” and modelled on mostly white women styled with cornrows and dreadlocks. Some media (Vogue Runway, The Telegraph, WWD), however, lauded Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli for their “respectful” celebration of African craftsmanship and artistry via raffia-and suede-fringed separates, and beaded patchwork details. And therein lies the struggle: how do you know if you’re inadvertently stomping over the line of appreciation into appropriation—particularly in a world where social media can take even a minor misstep from negligible to nuclear in 140 characters or less?
“It’s a tricky topic, because ‘culture’ becomes somewhat fluid over time, when groups of people interconnect and borrow symbols from each other,” says Waneek Horn-Miller, a Mohawk woman and brand ambassador for Manitobah Mukluks, a Canadian aboriginal footwear and accessories label. “The important questions to ask in relation to fashion are: when is a specific symbol considered sacred, and when does adoption of a symbol flippantly negate or revive a historical trauma?”
There’s a world of difference, for example, between hanging a dream catcher in your bedroom and wearing a feathered headdress to a music festival. Dream catchers have largely been commodified by native tribes and are sold to the general public; headdresses, however, are sacred. “Someone who puts up a dream catcher understands its significance [according to Ojibwa legend, it filters out bad dreams],” says Bruce Sinclair, fashion management program coordinator at Humber Institute of Technology. “Headdresses, on the other hand, are used in traditional ceremonies and hold significant meaning and power. To relegate them to costumes or fashion accessories shows a lack of knowledge and sensitivity to Native American culture.” Horn-Miller made headlines in October when she openly criticized a woman in an Ottawa mall dressed as Pocahontas for Halloween. “It was illegal for our ancestors to practise our culture as part of our systematic oppression, so it’s painful when someone plays dress-up with those symbols,” she says.
Avoiding racist pitfalls like cultural markings or religious iconography may seem like a no-brainer for some, but political and socio-economic issues further blur the line between right and wrong. “Designers are always borrowing images and ideas that represent the new, the distant and the exotic, but this borrowing can become a negative cultural force when it occurs amid dramatic power imbalances or when it misrepresents or exoticizes a culture,” says Victoria L. Rovine, author of 2014’s African Fashion, Global Style. Caroline Cox, a fashion historian and author of 2013’s Luxe Fashion, agrees: “If a dominant culture appropriates from a marginalized one, it gives rise to the notion of colonialism,” she says, pointing out, on the flip side, that we generally have no problem with crucifixes in fashion.
All hope is not lost, however. There are brands out there that are taking precautions before wading into murky cultural waters. A few months before its Africa collection, Valentino got it right for resort ’16 by partnering with Canadian Metis artist Christi Belcourt to use her paintings, which channel the traditional beadwork of Metis women, as inspiration on a series of shorts, tops and dresses. “The piece we chose is called Water Song and is about the sacredness of water, so I couldn’t allow it to be used by a company that didn’t take an environmentally conscious approach to its work,” Belcourt says. In addition to the brand’s industry-leading sustainability policies, she says the designers were very respectful of her work, and she encourages other fashion houses to take a similar approach to cultural inspiration. “The most important thing to know is that indigenous peoples have been designing clothing for thousands of years, and we still are,” she says.
Major retailers like Holt Renfrew are helping consumers shop consciously through initiatives such as H Project, an in-store retail space that sources much of its apparel, accessories, home decor and beauty products directly from craftspeople around the world. “For us, the height of luxury is in high-quality items that nurture community,” says Alexandra Weston, director of brand and creative strategy for Holt Renfrew. “These products are extraordinary because of the artisanal method with which they are made, the unique materials used and the way they celebrate a culture.” Best of all, the money generated from H Project sales goes right back to the people who created the products.
And therein lies the crux of appropriation versus appreciation. When white designers use an ethnic symbol for their own personal profit, they are essentially plundering a culture of its identity and heritage. If, however, an artisan is hired to craft or at least consult on the use of an ethnic symbol—and is credited and remunerated for it—that’s fair game.
Another way to be sure you’re not buying a product that piggybacks on the pain and suffering of a marginalized group is to buy directly from its own designers and artisans. Otherwise, use common sense. “Consider place, power and privilege,” says Tasha Spillett, an indigenous educator based in Winnipeg. “Who made the product? What is the cultural context? And is it appropriate to wear as fashion?” If you’re still not sure, just say no, says Sinclair. “If it can be construed as insensitive or you don’t understand the meaning, leave it be.”