Appropriation of Indigenous Culture in the Fashion Industry

Annelise DeRoche
Oct 18, 2016 · 5 min read

The act of cultural appropriation can be found in a variety of popular outlets and mainstream media. One of the most significant examples of this form of cultural exploitation lies within the fashion industry, through its explicit use of Indigenous traditions in commercial clothing design. From Paris Fashion Week, to the interior displays of common retail stores all over the world, the use of traditional Native American stitching, woven patterns, beading, fringing, and feathering, has been a notable and controversial issue throughout the industry and corresponding media coverage.

Appropriation is typically defined as taking an idea or reproducing an artifact for one’s own particular use, altering its original meaning, and doing so without the original producer’s consent. Cultural appropriation is often related to the exploitative and commercial use of traditional and customary elements of long-established cultures. Professor Peter Shand, from the University of Auckland, suggests, “Appropriation as a mode of cultural engagement is dependent on an ability to separate a given object or design from it’s cultural milieu for its purpose of its employment in a different one.” (Shand, 2002)

In an article titled, Scenes from the Colonial Catwalk: Cultural Appropriation, Intellectual Property Rights, and Fashion, Shand explains that cultural appropriation has long been rooted in popular culture, for both political and commercial use. He quotes, “…the initial phase of modern cultural heritage was underscored by the twinned ages of Enlightenment, and Empire, during which all the world was made over to fit the intellectual, economic, and cultural requirements of first Europe, then the United States.” (Shand, 2002) Though Shand primarily discusses the origin of cultural appropriation, the relationship between economic activity and cultural necessity is a strong reflection of how appropriation is used in modern American Society, and more specifically, in the fashion industry.

Shand describes two major factors that play a role in the creation of clothing based on traditionally Indigenous design, “commercial viability and cultural respect”. (Shand, 2002) However, in modern society and economics, the involvement of appropriation for commercial use severely lacks respect toward the cultures in which the industry generously borrows their ideas from. In a recent post on Refinery29 by Connie Wong, the author quotes Karen Kramer of Native Fashion Now, suggesting, “[Designer’s] garments may be handsomely executed; they may raise the profile or prestige of Native Aesthetics. But when symbols of Native culture are deployed by people who don’t understand their meaning, it’s like a game of ‘telephone’, where the message comes garbled”. (Wong, 2015) Wong also responds to quote by Adrienne J. Keene, explaining, “… there is no respect in taking designs or cultural markers from a community, divorcing them from their meaning and context, and selling them for monetary gain.” (Wong, 2015)

In Religion and Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Aprroach by Chris Klassen, the author describes numerous cultural theories involving the commercial use and commodification of religious practices and artifacts. Evidence of exploiting indigenous traditions and spirituality, strictly for commercial profit and capitalist gain, is specifically reflective of Klassen’s explanation for Marxist theory. Klassen states, “[Marxist Theorists] are concerned not only with the buying and selling of religious commodities in the spiritual marketplace, but also with the use of spirituality by corporate capitalism to increase profit.” (Klassen, 2014) In correspondence to Connie Wong, Klassen also suggests that Marxist theory agrees with ideas that commercialization and appropriation of Indigenous culture strips it’s traditions of their true value and original meaning. In referencing Jeffery A. Smith, a critique od Marxist theory, Klassen explains, “While commodification means the transformation of relationships, formally untainted by commerce, into commercial relationships of exchange — buying and selling — according to Smith these commodities are not devoid of moral values”. (Klassen, 2014) However, whatever value may exist within these commodities, it is not of value to the culture whose traditions are being exploited, only to those who profit from the production and distribution of their products.

Examples of high-end designers and corresponding brands displaying true appropriation of indigenous garments exists mainly in American and European societies, but can be found throughout a worldwide fashion industry. Givenchy, Valentino, DSQUARED2, DKNY, and more accessible brands, such as, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, consistently use Native American designs in their featured clothing collections. When public controversy arises along with negative media coverage, designers respond with claims that their work is a type of artistic celebration of Indigenous culture, and dismiss accusations of appropriation. Wong explains that the majority of these designers have little to no collaboration with actual members of Indigenous communities and therefore exploit, appropriate, and profit from their traditions rather than actually commemorating the culture. (Wong, 2015)

Wong explains the importance of carrying on the identity and tradition of Native American cultures, but also suggests that this cultural preservation must be performed by those who actually understand and truly appreciate where the ideas originate. Only those with the right to, and the knowledge of, Indigenous culture should be able to employ their traditions in order to avoid commercial exploitation and cultural appropriation. (Wong, 2015) She references modern clothing designer, Jared Yazzie of OXDX, who challenges popular representation of Indigenous people in American society. For example, his collection features a T-shirt with an animated stereotype of a Native American chief, and the abbreviation “mis-rep” printed beneath the image.

However, Peter Shand presents a more optimistic position toward the issue of appropriation and the new found controversy surrounding the fashion industry’s use of Native American traditional garments. Shand suggests, “… the [Indigenous] mark is being promoted at a time of increasing awareness of the complex issue of intellectual property and at a time when some would argue there is a new growth market in ethical products. It may be that the confluence of indigenous marks and a possible increase in corporate awareness of the issues involved may create and environment for change.” (Shand, 2002)

Works Cited

Klassen, Chris. Religion and Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Oxford University Press Canada, 2014.

Shand, Peter. Scenes from the Colonial Catwalk: Cultural Appropriation, Intellectual Property Rights, and Fashion. The University of California, 2002.

Wang, Connie. Who You’re Insulting When You Buy “Native American”-Inspired Things. Refinery29, 2015.

Annelise DeRoche

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