It has been said before and it will be said again, now is a time of cultural cooperation, of cultural exchange, and cultural exposure. At a time, where the world is connected through the TikTok algorithm (RIP) and Tinder passport, individuals and communities are exposed to cultural traditions from the world over. However, when ideologies, music, and fashion enter an international playground, they are inevitably (intentionally or otherwise) distorted by the ignorant or misinformed minority that can turn the sacred into the profane.
‘Cultural appropriation’ has quickly become a buzzword, thrown around during Twitter debates. What does it actually mean? To paraphrase Wikipedia, cultural appropriation (or misappropriation) is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another. While appropriation or adoption isn’t itself problematic, when members of a dominant or majority culture appropriate disadvantaged minority cultures or pose them as their own, that’s misappropriation.
You may recall misappropriation from SheIn’s Muslim prayer mats sold as ‘Greek rugs’ or their saris often rebranded as ethnic maxi dresses. It can be Sabya’s Kashmiri Teela pheran or the Naga outfits on Flipkart. But more on this later.
There is, however, a stark difference between appropriation and appreciation. As mentioned above, culture is at a crossroads. We wouldn’t have Indo-Chinese street food, momos, or Arash’s smash-hit Boro Boro if we didn’t value the exchange of cultural ideas. However, if living in a modern world is an act of cultural appropriation, it is important to recognise and value the stewards of minority cultures. Within India, minority cultures from across the country, have unique histories and traditions and it is not justified to misappropriate these ideas by turning markers of identity into a ‘trend’.
The Politics of Cultural Appropriation in Fashion
Much like other acts of suppression and oppression, power politics are responsible for outright cultural appropriation in fashion. When minority groups are not given the opportunity to defend or preserve their communal identity, fashion becomes exploitative, ignorant and tone deaf.
In this piece by Vogue Arabia, Brigitte Vézina, intellectual property and cultural heritage law and policy advisor, outlines four key elements of cultural appropriation: using a cultural element in a different context from the customary context; magnifying a power imbalance, where one group is dominant in relation to the other; alienating the source culture by offering no retribution or allowing any contribution; and finally, causing economic, social, and cultural harm to the source culture.
For appropriators, cultural objects merely act as ‘costumes‘ that they can use to adorn themselves with. They fail to acknowledge the ostracisation or censure that marginalised groups are exposed to when the latter choose to embrace their own culture. Appropriators do not have to carry the weight of having to defend the markers of their oppressed identities. Put simply, appropriation is theft of property. The idea of intellectual property in a cultural landscape is hard to swallow, but a lesson we need to begin learning.
During our #FIIChats conversation, many of our colleagues echoed our disdain for cultural appropriation. Frustrated at the many sari-turned-maxi dresses, we agreed that there is a stark difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation that begins with education.
The Hypocrisy of Indian Savarnas
From the marketing of ‘Brahmin’ handbags to SheIn’s ‘Greek’ rugs which suspiciously mimic traditional Muslim prayer mats, Indian fashion and related industries are neck deep in cultural appropriation. This, however, exists in tandem with a peculiar sort of woke-posturing on the part of Savarna Indians.
Brahmin Handbags (@brahmin on Instagram) frustrated us as Indians—yet another example of mindless borrowing that neither considers the cultural consequences nor the inequalities it is reproducing. Furthermore, one of our colleagues, Anusha, pointed out that there are often covert islamophobic sentiments lurking in the fashion industry.
Upper-caste Hindu folks often exhibit a distinct tendency to play the victim card in the diaspora while simultaneously engaging in the cultural exploitation of Adivasi, Dalit and Muslim communities in the homeland. They fail to concede that they possess the Indian equivalent of white privilege. Their stark hypocrisy arguably reflects itself best in instances wherein they call out white people for their misappropriation of the bindi and the sari and yet reproduce identical acts of exploitation directed at India’s subaltern communities.
It is tremendously common in the Indian mainland to see privileged savarnas sporting cultural markers of tribal and Adivasi in the name of “experimental fashion”. This is especially problematic in our current socio-political atmosphere owing to the fact that it trivialises the historic oppression of the aforementioned communities. Recently, Flipkart was under fire for its problematic marketing of traditional Naga attire. “From leopard print to weird fancy dresses for children, e-commerce sites selling their vision of “Naga traditional attire” incurs ire from netizens”, writes Along H Phom.
The harm caused by the cultural appropriation of marginalised cultures in India is multifaceted. It perpetuates racist, casteist and Islamophobic stereotypes. It gives a free pass to the privileged lot to adorn themselves with the same cultural markers that marginalised groups were actively punished for wearing. Finally, it also allows big brands to profit off of the oppression and fetishisation of a variety of aspects pertaining to subaltern groups.
What Can Brands Do About The Problem?
The advent of social media has led to the democratisation of digital media spaces to a significant extent. More and more individuals belonging to subaltern communities are taking to these spaces to inform and educate the world about the nuances of their oppression. Subsequently, the discriminatory practice of cultural appropriation has gradually entered public discourse and leading brands/designers must participate in this dialogue too.
It is exceedingly important for brands to take cognisance of the fact that the “edgy” apparel and accessories they market do not exist in a sociopolitical vacuum. By capitalising off of cultural elements from marginalised groups, they are simply perpetuating systems of oppression. Where individuals from historically disenfranchised communities may not be in a position to generate revenue with their culturally specific tools, top fashion brands feel entitled to profit from oppressed peoples’ labour.
Brands must hence take into account that cultural appropriation is an insidious practice and must not defend it under the pretext of “borrowing from” or “celebrating” cultures that have been otherised.
Designers can go a long way if they pause to listen with all their senses and drop their agendas before they market their oh-so “exotic” products. Ethical fashion practices must centre the needs of marginalised groups as opposed to catering to the whims of the privileged.
A starting point towards eradicating misappropriation would be to acknowledge the power dynamic that lurks in the fashion industry (as it does everywhere else) and identify the biases that excused this practice in the past. Further, a culturally sensitive approach towards fashion must be adopted by hiring a diverse team of designers, executives and models, and by engaging in discussions with the original stakeholders of a particular set of cultural markers. Inclusion officers must be included at all levels of the organisation.
After a Valentino collection that was a supposed tribute to Africa featured majorly white models and clothes made in France, the designer took it upon herself to work with local artists and curators to genuinely educate herself about the culture. Indian designers can learn from this example. After all, we are all bound to collectively benefit if we learn how to appreciate other cultures without giving in to the urge to claim them.
Featured Image Source: India.com