PLAID WEIGHS IN ON FASHION’S APPROPRIATION OF TRADITIONAL CULTURAL GARMENTS
Story by Maya Hamovitch
Photographed by Mark Binks
Styling: Elaina Michelis & Odessa Paloma Parker
Makeup & hair: Lauryn Hopwood
Models: Julia E. & Skylar D. (both at Elite Models)
While watching Monsoon Wedding recently, I reveled not only in the film’s noisy and delightful spirit, but in its sensual colours and fashions. The many visual and cultural pleasures of the Indian wedding cultivated a certain desire for such splendour. My own clean style suddenly seemed lacking, and I thought about how I could offset it with a more exotic and interesting one. I imagine others must be experiencing this desire as well, as the trend to borrow from diverse countries and cultures is growing rapidly within today’s fashions.
Now, more than ever, North American fashionistas are saluting global and indigenous identities, and incorporating elements of diverse cultures and contexts to achieve a heightened sense of intrigue. From hipster headdresses to moccasin mania, a new sartorial sensibility has arrived.
Designers – like artists, writers and filmmakers – are inspired by the mysterious. At the same time, their quest for innovation often leads them to take an old idea and transform it into something new and modern. These motivations are shaping current fashion trends. The “urban turban”, for example, originates from religious Afghani headwear that, when worn by elites, symbolized nobility, honour and respect. Now, we’re seeing it on the streets and on our favorite fashion blogs.
The process of “borrowing” for fashion’s sake may be a natural consequence to an increasingly globalized world. Elaina Michelis, a Ryerson University student who recently wrote a thesis on cultural appropriation of traditional garments, notes that “those who travel and explore other cultures often find beauty in things that aren’t available at home. This may cause them to adopt or imitate styles, which they perceive to be foreign to their own experience.”
Jillian Wood, founder of Headmistress, a fashion-forward company focusing on headwear (including a wide selection of turbans) agrees. “As we are able to easily access and view what each other are wearing every day, new fashions and ideas are increasingly visible and therefore gain influence, whether it is a conscious decision or not ,” she says.
But behind the harem pants, veils and keffiyeh scarves lies an interesting debate: When designers and the style savvy adopt these details, do they do an injustice to the original traditions and cultures? Should there be any boundaries as to who may borrow what? While designers may believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, these questions may be lingering in people’s minds as they decide whether to fully adopt these trends.
Exchanging cultural fashions may actually allow for a greater understanding and acceptance of different cultures. Fashion blogger Kimberlee Postell (Naturally Fashionable) believes that such borrowing allows us to support and connect with one another’s cultures. She offers the example of the dashiki, a traditional garment of West Africa: “It was brought into the forefront due to the cultural and political struggles of the African-American community in the 1960s. Many people became interested in this type of clothing to embrace a culture that they wanted to connect with. So we began to see everyday Americans wearing dashikis.”
Michelis, however, points out that there are concerns about cultural appropriation. “Some may feel that once a garment is taken out of its indigenous context that its true meaning is lost. Others argue that it is exploitative when cultural dress is taken from a non-dominant society by a dominant society,” she says. Online forums and chats reflect this concern. On The Fashion Spot forum, one anonymous follower states: “I think culture, religion and society are very personal elements…they form the basis of our identities. Often, when we feel these things assimilated… we feel threatened. We feel under-represented…. Who should have the right to represent a certain culture/religion/society?”
Such concerns are not restricted to debate and discussion; they have made their way into the courts, resulting in new trademark laws. When Urban Outfitters Inc. adopted the Navajo design in 2009, they may have influenced consumers into believing the company was selling genuine handcrafted items. In order to protect the authenticity of their artistic creations, The Navajo Nation filed a trademark infringement complaint against Urban Outfitters, who may now be saying Nava-no to this print.
To me, the adoption of culturally-based fashion seems to reinforce its cultural significance at the same time that it offers an outlet for self-expression and creativity. Adopting cultural fashions is not unlike experimenting with international foods – both command respect for the history and meanings attached to them. Just as the North American culinary scene has benefited from diverse cultural influences, so too has the fashion world. The commercialization of culturally specific clothing has street looks changing, designers innovating, and people expressing themselves in new and interesting ways. And at the same time, Westerners continue to be mindful of relationships between imperialism, freedom of expression and representation.