Cultural theft

Clementine Bastow

Cultural cringe ... the Mulleavy sisters cited Australia as a reference for their latest collection. Even though they have not actually ever visited Australia.

Cultural cringe ... the Mulleavy sisters cited Australia as a reference for their latest collection. Even though they have not actually ever visited Australia.

Once upon a time I studied fashion design; I know it’s hard to tell, given I’m currently writing this in yoga pants, a sloppy joe, and late-‘80s Jonathan Sceats glasses that make Kathleen Turner’s look dainty. However that grounding in the fashion industry means I still like to keep abreast of the latest trends, even if only in passing.

According to NYFW’s A/W 12-13 collections, here’s what’s in: big hats, librarian chic, bonded fabrics, and ... Aboriginal art? That’s right, cultural appropriation is no longer just for Halloween costumes.

Rodarte – Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s ultra-hip label, beloved of the indie red carpet set – sent gowns, jackets and frocks down the runway adorned with printed fabrics that “referenced Aboriginal art”, predominantly featuring dot painting in a contemporary style, a la Papunya Tula, as well as hand stencils and other prints. I say “a la” because the designers themselves just hand-picked whichever forms of traditional and contemporary Indigenous Australian art they thought looked cool.

According to The Daily Beast’s show coverage, the pair’s influence “came out of nowhere” (out of Terra Nullius, perhaps?). As Kate Mulleavy expanded, “The show was based on the rugged outback.” It gets worse; from the coverage (emphasis mine): “Despite being obsessed with Australia, Kate said, the sisters have never been. But no matter their limited geography. Their collection served as proof that sometimes a vivid imagination and hard work are enough to live up to industry hype, critical success and one’s own potential.

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The rugged outback! Out of nowhere! Gee willikers those savage designs sure are chic! (That they mixed the prints with Victorian-inspired silhouettes, recalling the time in Australian history when Indigenous people weren’t actually considered citizens, only increases the ironic sting of the designers’ appropriation.)

It would be nice to think that, in this post-apology era, we Australians are a little more enlightened as to the plight of this country’s Indigenous population; most of us wouldn’t think to race out and buy an “Aboriginal art”-print sun dress just because Vogue says it’s de rigeur.

However, the Mulleavy sisters’ latest collection provides a timely opportunity to discuss the issue of cultural appropriation in fashion.

Read a little further into the current fashion trends and you will likely find mentions of “Navajo” style, usually in reference to silver and turquoise jewellery and colourful fabric prints. The problem of course is that “Navajo” is not an abstract concept: it’s a large (in fact the largest federally recognized) tribe of people from the Southwestern United States.

(Never mind the fact that even a casual knowledge of Navajo weaving techniques would indicate that most fashion tagged as “Navajo” this season is anything but.)

Once again it begs the question: isn’t it time to stop treating living, breathing cultures as little more than trend fodder or a totally cool Halloween costume?

In a terrific essay on the topic, blogger Julia of à l’allure garçonnière succinctly describes the problem at the core of cultural appropriation: "I don't think the issue of institutional racism and discrimination can be completely divorced from the question of cultural appropriation. They feed into one another [...] Reducing an entire culture to a simple ‘inspiration’ for your outfit, art project, fashion collection, or photo-shoot is disrespectful and unhelpful, especially when we look at the bigger picture.”

Inevitably, when questioned about the ethics of their “inspiration”, fashionistas (and the more insensitive Halloween costumers) will bleat something about the “global village” or “political correctness gone mad”. Evidently they are so unable to piece together an outfit without resorting to cultural appropriation that even suggesting it might be hurtful to people of those cultures is too much to bear. How very dare we!

(Perhaps we can mail those people a full set of We’re A Culture, Not A Costume posters.)

However, it can be different; design can be inspired by and work with different cultures in a way that is respectful and supportive. Let’s look at the alternative approach to Rodarte’s.

Romance Was Born designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales collaborated with Bidjigal artist Esme Timbery for their S/S 09-10 range; Timbery created shoes encrusted with shells, glitter and lace that became a focal point of the collection. Likewise, in the 1980s, Linda Jackson worked with a variety of Central Australian communities to create her famed textiles.

See, that’s the great thing about fashion: those of us who love it know it doesn’t have to be shallow, culturally insensitive or offensive. Involve yourself in cultural appropriation for the sake of being on-trend and you make yourself all of those things.

15 comments

  • Cultural appropriation has been rampant in music for decades as well. Are you equally disappointed in artists like the Rolling Stones and Amy Winehouse?

    Commenter
    jess1029
    Date and time
    March 02, 2012, 8:23AM
    • Good commentary Clem. I know that I am sick to death of our ip being misappropriated in the name of fashion trends.The other issue is when culture is appropriated in this way the non Indigenous fashion designers have no idea what the significance of the artwork means. This type of theft is totally different to so called 'musical styles'.

      Commenter
      Maarama
      Date and time
      March 02, 2012, 10:07AM
      • You are absolutely wonderful to point this out Clem. It's refreshing to see conscious, sophisticated and aware people in the facile and amoral industry of fashion. This industry is made-up of objectification (models), sweatshops (factory workers), downright theft (design thiefs), pornography (open-leg model poses and tight fitting clothes), followers (the zombies that keep the industry afloat) and the of course bullshit. It also contributes to society's wave of mental diseases including anorexia.

        Commenter
        Vocal Artist
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 02, 2012, 10:52AM
        • And where will you draw the line? Do we have to surrender everything appropriated from US pop culture? What about tattoos and piercings? They have cultural roots.Everything is appropriated and wrapped in plastic and the fashion industry does it more openly and shamelessly than most. It can be appropriation or influence depending what side of it you're on. It's so parochial and insular to claim you own an art style, especially when it's already being mass produced and sold at every tourist trap in the country.And simply spending some time with the natives or kicking a litlle cash back to communities is just another feeble attempt to assuage middle class guilt.

          Commenter
          JDG
          Date and time
          March 02, 2012, 11:11AM
          • Well it is not as simple as you claim.

            Being inspired by cultures brings those cultures to the fore front, often having flow on benefits for that culture. When Paul Simon went to South Africa to record with black musicians he was accused to ripping off another culture, but since then Lady Smith Black Mombassa (the artists he recorded with) has had success on the world front.

            We must though be careful of rules of the culture we are being inspired by. Dot paintings for example and certain aboriginal symbols have rules (or better said, laws) related to who and when they can be used. Which basically means not anyone can use these.

            When designers work will local artists, respect their rules and culture, then this is great. If traditional aboriginal designs become popular again (as they were in the 1990s) then we hope local artists will also benefit financially.

            When big names simply take inspiration from other cultures, without respect or making sure they work with local artists then there is more of a problem.

            Commenter
            Flingebunt
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            March 02, 2012, 12:06PM
            • And therein lies the problem. Claiming that you're 'inspired' by a culture means nothing if you don't know what you're working with. Think of how many stupid people are walking around with a tribal tatoo they think means 'harmony' or 'brave' or symbolises their trip to NZ/US/Thailand etc. Or scarification or piercings.

              Commenter
              Maarama
              Date and time
              March 02, 2012, 1:52PM
            • You can be inspired by something in a split second. You don't have to do homework or pay dues to be inspired.

              Commenter
              JDG
              Date and time
              March 02, 2012, 3:14PM
          • 'Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!'

            Whenever I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my Browning.

            Commenter
            Bob
            Location
            Carlton
            Date and time
            March 02, 2012, 12:30PM
            • So its only meaningful if a 'culture' expresses itself (via art, fashion, design, piercing, scarification etc)? And we (white, western folk) are not part of one? Us poor sods can only look on in envy and wanly 'imitate'-nothing we do has anything authentic about it...Some of the greatest and most influential artists of the western world were heavily influenced by other cultures. Picasso was inspired by African masks. Van Gogh was inspired by Japanese art. It's silly, ignorant and precious to argue that the style of art adopted by indigenous cultures should be copyrighted by them and a complex set of rules applied to those choosing to work in their style.

              Commenter
              M!
              Location
              3000
              Date and time
              March 02, 2012, 10:06PM
              • Great article! I will admit that I don't keep my finger of the fashion pulse, as it were, so had no previous idea about this collection. Also, seeing Julia quoted made me happy as she's one of my favourite people I know online (& an eloquent and thoughtful writer, too).

                Commenter
                andibgoode
                Date and time
                March 03, 2012, 1:03AM

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