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.


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.