Saturday, September 17, 2016

Is It Okay to Wear a Pope Hat or Not? Cultural Appropriation


Fashion has always been one of the most fluid and readily adopted forms of culture. Taking into account what we consider casual and tailored menswear today, men across the world dress remarkably similarly for that reason. You can see the impact of adopted style and cultural appropriation in the remarkable shift in fashion in Asian countries over the last century, for example.

After WWII, the Japan started studying and importing American style from anything they could get their hands on. Eventually, though, what Japan distilled from the Western world was nurtured into its own distinct style, as evidenced today in brands like Visvim and Kapital. What you see coming out of those labels clearly has roots in classic Americana, but is unequivocally not American.

I would wager that most, if not every modern style of clothing, has been adopted and developed further by a new audience at some point - usually to its benefit. And while trying to develop a more personal style, it's only natural we look outside our familiar borders for new ideas.

But cultural appropriation is not always benign. In recent memory there have been several high profile incidents where sacred or very meaningful designs were either copied outright and sold as frivolity or exploited at the expense of their originating cultures.
Gaultier's "Rabbi Chic" campaign, 1993
Determining what is okay in cultural appropriation is a difficult subject, and one that's not confined to fashion. It can also go too far. In late 2015, students at Oberlin University protested the appropriation of Asian cuisines in the school cafeteria, upset that the Banh Mi and sushi served were disrespectful to their respective cultures of origin because the ingredients of the sandwich weren't as expected and the sushi was not up to standards that you would expect from a Japanese sushi chef. It should be noted that Banh Mi is itself an appropriation of French cuisine fused with Vietnamese flavors and ingredients, and that virtually every culture's cuisine in the history of the world was adopted and further developed at some point by others, which is why we have things we like to eat.
Design copied from an Inuit Shaman's religious parka by label Kokon To Zai

Usually the situation is not as clearly offensive as flagrantly reproducing the design of a sacred garment, or as obviously stupid as a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals complaining that the quality of raw fish and sandwiches in their school cafeteria amounts to the the culinary exploitation of Asia. It's usually somewhere in the grey, which is where I've struggled myself.
Pendleton Native American-Inspired Ranch Coat

I was reading an editorial on Time about the subject of cultural appropriation in fashion, written by Susan Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, who had this to say:

"Staying on the right side of the inspiration/appropriation divide requires individual awareness and attention to three S’s: significance (or sacredness), source and similarity. What’s the significance of the necklace you’re about to put on: is it just jewelry or a set of prayer beads? Did the source community invite you to wear that traditional robe, perhaps via voluntary sale, and does the community still suffer from a history of exploitation, discrimination or oppression? And how similar is that designer adaptation to the original: a head-to-toe copy, or just a nod in the direction of silhouette or pattern?
...
In the ideal case of transformative inspiration, both sides benefit...On the source side, a community can profit economically from increased demand for its original designs and textiles, and culturally from a raised profile. Participation in a global society calls for cultural contribution, an identity tax that both identifies a distinct community and is a positive influence on the overall evolution of style – so long as it’s voluntary and doesn’t trample on the community’s values or cross legal lines."

These ideas strike at the heart of what most of us likely feel, even if we don't think about it often. Cultural appropriation at its worst can be incredibly insensitive, plagiaristic, and exploitative. But at its best, it's inspired by the sharing and exchanging of ideas while often creating something altogether new and exciting. Restricting ideas, styles, and practices to their strictist forms and peoples of their origins is the type of isolationism that stops progress dead in its tracks, but it's important to keep in mind the heritage, beliefs, and due respect from which our inspiration is drawn.

I've been thinking about this a lot since I pushed a little outside my comfort zone and picked up a pair of Yuketen boots recently, a variation of their classic Maine Guide boot called the Native Maine Guide boot in black (loden green shown below). More on that soon.

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