Cultural Appropriation in fashion

There has been quite a row for a few weeks now on Cultural Appropriation. Most notably here in the UK when popular chef Jamie Oliver called a rice dish Jerk Rice, and was criticised by Dawn Butler an MP of Jamaican heritage. Now as anyone knows Jerk is usually chicken, or other meat, cooked by Jamaicans at home and often served with rice (and peas). It is spicy and, if you are lucky, it is tender, tasty and perfectly seasoned. I have made it myself, having been shown how by several friends over the years. While I like it my favourite Jamaican dish is curried goat – this wonderful, delectable meal was laid on by my daughter’s mother in law Faye at Ted’s Christening party. For my mother (then 84) it was a first taste, and she loved it.

Oliver was criticised for “cashing in” on someone else’s cultural heritage and also getting it wrong – “jerk rice”??! I remember a Peter Kay sketch where an old working class English man says “garlic bread”??! The first time you put two unlikely ingredients together it can sound a bit like a joke (egg and bacon ice cream for example).

Of course in one respect people were amused by the charge. Surely we all take from other cultures when we are cooking or eating. Tea (like many things), for example, does not grow in the UK but it is now regarded as a British staple. We appropriated it from the Chinese in the 17th century. As well as our menu (which might have otherwise been barley, potato and bacon stew three times a day), our language has been brought in from elsewhere. Without the Germans, the French and the Italians our language would be quite different, and certainly we have the benefit of so many words, and so many varieties of meaning, that we owe to settlers, travellers and invaders. Only the other day I found myself using bungalow, guru, karma and yoga in normal conversation – what a delight these words are. Many of you will know they are of Hindi origin, learnt and appropriated by the British when they ruled India. See this nice article.

And then of course we need to consider clothes – starting with the Indian origins of pyjamas, dungarees, bandana, cummerbund, and of course khaki Jodhpurs. French words like pret a porter, a la mode and haute couture are almost everyday, especially when admiring your chic, petite silhouette. Not just language of course but clothing and style. Baseball caps were never worn in the UK when I was growing up – we didn’t have baseball – but now we have the hats without the sport. While complete outfits rarely translate elements seep in – Nehru collars, kimono sleeves, harem pants, French knickers – and so on. In recent years “African prints” – what my friends of Nigerian origin call Ankara – have been widely used by white girls. I have a special Kente scarf, woven in Ghana, that I wear in London. I have been stopped several times by delighted Ghanaians who recognise their fabric and are pleased to see it paired with a very British, purple woollen, winter coat. I thought this yellow jacket which our Prime Minister wore in Nigeria, designed by 27 year old Nigerian designer Emmanuel Okoro, head of EmmyKasbit, was wonderful. (I cannot say that about her dancing, but no one is perfect). I love those military uniforms too, don’t you?

Theresa May in Emmanuel Okoro jacket

In the British Isles we of course have lots of cultural heritage of our own – the Kilt of course is Scottish. Tartan is very popular the world over. English country clothing is very much in evidence in the country – Wellington boots, waxed or tweed jackets, flat caps, brogue shoes, corduroy, checked shirts, headscarves, lots of greens, browns and sludgy shades. Wales has its fabrics – and styles of dress. There was an English lace, silk and leather industry – all producing beautiful items associated with traditional (and more modern) designs. Like all designers I plunder my own history and culture all the time, as well as seeking inspiration from elsewhere. All creativity is to some extent an act of appropriation – you “take” inspiration from whatever is around you, from your travels, from your peers, from seeing films or photographs, from music, from books etc. Clearly all this is not only OK, but absolutely essential.

So what about the issue of people taking something from rare or endangered cultures and making money from them? Here are a few examples that created anxiety or uproar: Sikh turbans at Gucci, native American headdresses at Chanel, sacred Inuit motifs by Kokon to Zai, Cara Delevingne wearing corn rows.

Of course it is perfectly understandable that Sikhs find the use of their style of turban as a fashion item disturbing or offensive. Seeing a non-Sikh in a turban has a jarring and slightly shocking effect and this is what fashion often aspires to achieve. Something with religious or sacred meaning is often protected by believers, although the widespread use of crucifixes is tolerated by the Christian church as generally harmless – but then they probably feel secure and protected in most Western settings. Context is everything. The British were the first and most successful imperialists – dominating, appropriating (stealing), desecrating, enslaving, annexing, and extracting. Is it surprising that people whose families and Peoples were turned into commodities occasionally take offence?

Oppressed and marginalised groups can often feel angry by their culture being taken and commercialised. Unlike the big companies they don’t have trademarks or intellectual property lawyers to protect their culture and creativity.

I understand why Dawn got cross and I welcome the discussion. But as people who make our own wardrobes, without commercial considerations, let’s not get paranoid. Seek inspiration everywhere – Russian military wear, Chinese New Year, Arctic fishermen, American sports, Mexican colour palettes, Indian bandanas, French fishermen, Inuit anoraks, cooks trousers, sports wear, 1960s Italian films, Beethoven and Welsh dancers. Whatever you see or love is something to be inspired by. take it and to make it your own. As an artist or a designer we need to push our own creativity and style. But always do it respectfully with a learning attitude and a sense of fun.

Welsh Morris dancers

Here is a useful article from The Week.

What do you think?

19 Responses

  1. eimear greaney

    its a tricky one – especially when you wish to live in a pluralist society. Personally I could not see cooking being fully part of the cultural appropriation as cooking is done with respect and is vital to our being.
    As an irish catholic in the 80s I used be rather amused by Madonna and her crucifixes (as old Irish nuns wore them around their waists) – and while Madonna came from a catholic tradition, her use of the crucifix as a fashion statement I found curious, as to me the politics of religion were more questionable, but then again by doing so it also opened up its own dialogue.
    Coachella style use of Native American head-dress I do find sad in it symbolises the cheap and meaningless, throwaway aspect of fast fashion with little respect for craft and cultural history.

    • Linde

      I wonder what you would think of my daughter who wears her rosary round her knock. I found it a bit off putting at first but I am used to it now.

  2. Claire Cooper

    Totally agree. I think that taking ideas as inspiration because you love them is great, whether food, art, fashion, style. I really want my hair in dreadlocks. I love how they can look and am growing my hair so I can try it out. It may not work, but I really don’t see the arm in using other cultures as inspiration as long as it’s done respectfully. I’ve recently introduced my year 8 art students to the idea. We ended up with some amazing collaged pieces of work.

  3. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    A thorny subject, and an informed and thoughtful article. Thanks for this Kate. I love to use ‘African’ cloth in quirky and anachronistic ways. Religious wear is a very thorny subject, but cultural influences always affect fashion and style [and it works in both directions of course- didn’t we all recently discuss a fascinating article about an African culture where the women wear a sort of bustle dress adopted from Western styles 100 years back?]
    My interpretation of cultural appropriation is both obvious [blackface or fancy dress versions of ‘red indians’ etc, especially in ‘sexy’ versions] and more subtle- as you said, Burning Man/Coachella head dresses and so on which may be meant as a tribute but can be seen as exceedingly patronising and naive.
    Great stuff, nice and chewy

  4. Jules

    Living in America, I find I’ve had to give the concept of cultural appropriation inordinate thought. I firmly believe that it’s ridiculous to cry wolf over “cultural appropriation” in cooking, the whole point of creative cooking being to take a known method or ingredient, and twist it into something new, but the concept of cultural appropriation within fashion has gained enormous traction here, to the point where a person may be defined as being a “good person”, based on how aggressively they eschew it. I find it irksome, because our cultural histories are so interwoven and intertwined that a garment that is completely identifiable as being from *this culture* turns out to have been borrowed/thieved from *that culture* a millennium ago (hello, Ankara!). Not to mention the fact that art, in all of its myriad forms, is influenced by the world around the artist, and particularly by the new and exciting things they see and are thrilled by-I often find myself thinking that we would all be happier if we regarded each other as artistic collaborators, instead of thieves and bandits (this is something that comes up a lot in conversations about music and race here-how white folk “stole” rock and roll and jazz, and attempted to do the same with blues and rap). I’m not sure there’s a valid argument that allows for the wholesale pillaging of sacred or culturally sanctified regalia, especially of vulnerable cultures, but I would like for there be a way for people to incorporate small pieces of meaningful attire in a way of honouring the culture, instead of “appropriating” it. It’s a delicate line that has been obfuscated, I feel, by American sensibilities that are overly finely tuned to outrage.

    • Lisa G

      Very well written, Jules! This American frequently hangs her head in shame at those “American sensibilities that are overly finely tuned to outrage.”

      Last year we went to a dear friend’s daughter’s wedding, and the bride and groom wanted to do a candle-thing that they read about and fell in love with. The wedding planner said they couldn’t because it would be “cultural appropriation.” Thankfully they disregarded her advice, and it was a sweet and sentimental part of the ceremony.

      Specifically here in America, where people want total equality and race-blindness on one hand, they like to scream about how people can’t “culturally appropriate” on the other. It’s frustrating and embarrassing!!

      • Katrina B

        Jules and Lisa, it’s great to see other Americans who are bemused by this hypersensitivity trend. As a product of the mid century when we were taught to be color blind and that everyone was exactly the same kind of American (i.e., the melting pot theory), it’s been an amazing thing for me to watch the slow turn to the opposite extreme where everyone is as different as possible and must be recognized for those differences. Now to learn that all the strands of American culture that were woven together in the melting pot years have to be unraveled and parceled out to certain groups? Here – you can wear these earrings. You there can wear this print. You over there – you can wear this style of coat. The rest of you will have to — what? — go get your DNA tested to determine whether you’re allowed to wear cotton or silk? How far does it go?

        It’s not that people don’t have a right to be sensitive about their own cultures; they do. What I don’t get is why people who have nothing to do with the cultures being appropriated feel it’s their duty to become offended on their behalf. To see a bunch of white European Americans arguing about it is just embarrassing.

        My hope is that this is the natural pendulum swing of a social movement and we are nearing the extreme amplitude before the pendulum turns back in the other direction. Maybe in another few generations we will find a new normal where people can both be more aware of what cultural appropriation really is, and have more rational conversations about it.

        • KS Sews

          It’s easy to call it hypersensitivity when you aren’t on the receiving end.
          It’s easy to believe in “colorblindness” when you aren’t judged/mistreated based on the color of your skin.
          It’s easy to believe that things are “changing” (most black and brown people will happily inform that uhmmm, not much has changed).

          I don’t know that anyone can decide what’s offensive to someone else. It becomes especially offensive when it’s the majority dictating what the minority should/can be offended by…or not.

    • Becky

      I, too, am American, and for the majority of complaints, I think this is ridiculous. There are very few original ideas, as Jules has stated so well. Should I be offended when I see someone who is not American wearing blue jeans? After all, blue jeans are a garment that originated in the states, but they are made and worn all over the world. It would be silly to be offended. I think we really have bigger problems that this to become outraged about every day. What happened to the belief that imitation is the highest form of flattery? Once a garment, recipe, or idea is out in the world, it is the world’s to do with as it pleases. No one culture owns it.

  5. Dagmar

    Fascinating conversation and post. Jules certainly did put it very well and as a glass half full sort of person, I often notice what other people are wearing and assume that they are trying to incorporate an idea borrowed from another culture in a way that honours the beauty of globalization. As our world becomes smaller and smaller through the strength of our instant connectivity, I believe that the importance of communication as a tool for dealing with one another is ever more important, yet sadly, it is disappearing. Instead of speaking to one another as we stand cheek by jowl in commuter trains or in grocery lines, we observe and make assumptions about the lives of others and their intent which can lead to disastrous consequences. I really believe that people generally mean no ill when they borrow an idea from another culture and try to make it their own. Given the opportunity, I will often ask someone about what they are wearing which gives rise to wonderful conversations. I think not speaking, retreating into silos and treating ideas of culture, whether expressed visually in fashion, in food, in music, or anywhere else as intellectual property that can be owned will lead to a dangerous form of exclusionary society. Using the Japanese example described in one of your articles, if culture isn’t shared, how will people ever understand or be curious or want to get to know you. On the flip side, it must be said that respect is also an important part of this equation. When money/commerce enters into the expression of an idea, often, it seems disrespectful. The example of the turban is useful here as I recall my mother wearing stylish turbans in the 60’s as a type of hat to deal with bad hair days, yet when a designer used this idea as a part of a commercial fashion show it seemed disrespectful. Perhaps again, communication about the use of the idea of the turban in a note to the fashion show program would have alleviated the concerns of religious Sikhs who found offence in the interpretation of their traditional costume. As Demented Fairy put it – a very thorny question indeed.

  6. Katrina B

    This is such an interesting topic, and I’m happy whenever another blogger addresses it thoughtfully. Jerk rice! A trap that any one of us well-meaning, completely oblivious people could have fallen into. Most of us (here in the US) are familiar with jerk chicken, but because it is so popular, there are many variations. In restaurants, you can get jerk shrimp, jerk pork, jerk tofu, etc. In the store, you can buy jars of jerk spice. And with that you can make anything, including jerk rice.

    Here in Arizona, the history of abuse and destruction of native cultures is deplorable and well-documented, yet much of our aesthetic is based in Native American designs. A large part of our population is white people wearing silver Navajo belt buckles and bracelets, living in homes with Hopi architectural designs and filled with Pueblo pottery. This is a living definition of cultural appropriation. But the builders call it an homage, and the buyers of the goods say it supports the tribes.

    I have been a little surprised, with the proliferation of kimono patterns in the last couple of years, that no one has mentioned the cultural aspect. Is it because we (the world at large) are used to saying the word “kimono”? Or used to wearing them? We don’t think of them as Japanese any longer? I’m not suggesting that we should become outraged at the number of non-Japanese wearing kimono. God forbid we should add fuel to the fire. I just wondered why.

  7. Blanca

    Fascinating and timely subject and this is a wonderful post. So much to consider when presenting ourselves to others. This week our U.S. First Lady toured a country in couture outfits that could be construed as either wanting to reflect what others wore yrs ago when visiting that region, or just simply a fashion opportunity. It is so important to respect all cultures but very difficult to get it right all the time.

  8. ceci

    So much to think about here. I try hard to avoid wearing anything with religious/spiritual significance; that is my particular bright line. I also would feel inappropriate wearing a sari, for example, but my jacket made of recycled sari fabric seems ok. Its confusing. I’m saddened by the hostile tenor of some discussions of cultural appropriation in clothing (not here in this blog, but in other commentary); surely in most cases offense is not intended by the wearer.


  9. KS Sews

    There are lines for me and sometimes it’s difficult to really hone in on.

    For example, the Kylie Jenners and whoever else who get their hair cornrowed and now they’re “boxer braids” and they are chic and stylish. When black women, who depend on cornrows to keep their hair maintained or as protective styles, are mistreated for wearing cornrows. Told they look unprofessional or ‘ghetto’. And yet the style is celebrated when a white person wears it.

    And as I posted above, in response:
    It’s easy to call it hypersensitivity when you aren’t on the receiving end.
    It’s easy to believe in “colorblindness” when you aren’t judged/mistreated based on the color of your skin.
    It’s easy to believe that things are “changing back” (most black and brown people in America will happily inform that not much has changed).

    I don’t know that anyone can decide what’s offensive to someone else. It becomes especially offensive when it’s the majority dictating what the minority should/can be offended by…or not.

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