In Fashion: Cultural Appropriation vs Inspiration
(This post & the one on Wicked Whimsy are a dual effort and meant to be read together, so go there and read hers too!)
So, a few days ago, we were talking about the directions our styles are moving in (which seems to be a similar place!). To describe her style direction, Michelle used the phrase “steampunk Norse shaman” & I felt inspired by the phrase “modern vintage Voodoo Queen”. We found ourselves discussing the use of different cultures as inspiration for fashion, and where we need to draw the line between inspiration and cultural appropriation.
This is a recurring problem in fashion and one of my pet peeves. I’ll never forget reading a blog entry (this was the last one I ever read on that blog!) where a non-native blogger gushed about how beautiful Navajo ceremonial dresses were and then said she’d love to own one and would pair it with moccasins for “that Indian look”. I don’t even think I need to snark on that, really…
“Voodoo Queen” is a bit more complicated. After thinking about it, the reason it doesn’t strike me as offensive is because it’s so fictionalized. I would hope most people would realize the myriad of differences between the sort of image that the phrase “Voodoo Queen” brings to mind, and an actual Voudou practitioner. One could argue that it being such a fictionalized stereotype makes it even more offensive (and it is important to note that the phrase has actually been used), but for some reason that’s not how it strikes me.
The line seems to be in using a phrase like “Voodoo Queen” (a stylized image based on a culture) as a jumping off point for inspiration, vs., say, going to a Voudou ritual and deciding that their sacred dress would be awesome to wear every day (cultural theft). One is okay, the other is definitely not.
I think there’s a definite line between cultural appropriation and using cultural inspiration. While I don’t find most cultural inspiration in fashion offensive because it’s expanding the borders of a country’s cultural fashion influence, it needs to be done with tact and a sort of honor. There’s a difference between wearing culturally inspired bangles with a summer maxi skirt and saying “I want to appropriate the ‘Indian’ feel, so I’m going to take your SACRED CEREMONIAL COSTUME and wear it with moccasins for an every-day look.” As a friend said to me, “You wouldn’t wear 16th century French dresses, either. Don’t be a douche. You know where the line is.”
There’s research, thinking that a culture is fascinating, and wanting to honor that through your look and then there’s not thinking and taking a cultural symbol outside it’s often “sacred” or respected realm. There’s appropriation and there’s inspiration.
In the sense of Voodoo Queen, I’ve done a lot of reading on Haiti in my French studies, and a lot of reading on New Orleans and it’s roots. In that, I’ve read quite a bit on Voudou/Voodoo – I think Marie Laveau was fascinating and the Haitian practice often combines and old cultural belief with the new Christian values that were taught to inhabitants. For me, it’s been a study of cultural belief, BUT as Michelle noted, it’s often a depiction of a practice and is widely used in popular culture. Disney’s Frog Prince featured voodoo as an explanation for why the prince was a frog; David Bowie sings “The babe with the power/ (what power?)/ The power of voodoo…” in Labyrinth; it’s featured in Interview with a Vampire as a practice among the household staff. It’s not often obvious whether or not these depictions are respectfully and tastefully done.
My inspiration builds more on my love of things macabre and strange, little rituals, a culmination of beliefs, mystery – including the mystery of being, celebration of an exceptional life, the collection and adornment of found trinkets, and the words “Voodoo Queen” as inspiration instead of “Voudou Priestess”. In that last part, especially, I feel like I would devalue their cultural experience by appropriating the priestess title, or any tenet of being that title. Context is everything and my inspiration is going to be tastefully portrayed…
A well done inspiration pays a sort of homage to something fascinating, instead of just saying “it’s pretty and I want to wear it to school tomorrow.” As Racialicious notes,
“I think it is wonderful to find inspiration in various cultures’ customs and traditions, especially when it comes to fashion, but there are far better ways to discuss said inspiration without patronizing, belittling, or oversimplifying said cultures.”
“It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.”
Racialicious’s articles have a point – it’s the heady notion of borrowing this culture, if even “just for a day” without truly noting the significance of that culture. On Voodoo they say,
What’s so wrong with being inspired by another culture? I’m not sure how to answer, because borrowing from a historically oppressed culture is not as simple as some would want it to be. Fair or not, there are hundreds of years of meaning behind that faux African print dress, that Motown-inspired tune and the silent Harajuku posse. I haven’t even touched on the stickiness of appropriating religious items and culture. (With Halloween on the way, we’ll all have a great opportunity to witness all the ways Americans “pay homage to” the West African religion of Voudou.) For many people of color, it’s nearly impossible to unhook what the mainstream believes is harmless cultural borrowing from the broader experience and history of our people. “Harmless” is really in the eye of the beholder.
I think it’s important to stop and ask a few questions: Am I inspired? Or am I appropriating? Am I picking and choosing parts of a culture to honor, or am I respecting the people as a whole? In what context are you portraying these symbols?
On the other hand, in a world where globalization and cultural recognition are so important, why is there such a taboo on wanting inspiration from other cultures? As globalization meshes our cultural identities in a big “melting pot” scenario, there will be bands and designers who see what they do as an homage to a culture. Bellydance, for instance, is no longer just a sacred woman-centric power practice – women take bellydance workouts (in my experience, where you’re taught about the power behind dance). I think it boils down to your individual context and representation – but it’s important to know and respect the basis for your cultural borrowing.
I’d add that if you’re going to be buying something particular to a culture, you should be buying it direct from the source. The money goes back into the community and you’re supporting independent craftspeople, all at the same time…
Of course, I’m not an expert and I’d love to hear your take on things – what do you think? Where’s the line?
And it’s a question that needs to be addressed in the fashion world. Is it going too far for designers to paint models in blackface? What if they’re borrowing ideas from cultural identity? Should a designer then ensure that their models include representation of the culture they borrow from? What are your thoughts?