Victoria Secret Show 2012
It seems like a week can’t go by without an uproar of social media activist yelling ‘cultural appropriation!’ about some fashion designer, celebrity or festival-goer being accused of some kind of inappropriate misuse of cultural property. It’s become a term that we hear more and more often and in the matrix of 21st century multiculturalism it has got many people asking, “What’s the big deal?”
The answer lies in understanding the context in which cultural appropriation occurs, so let’s begin by trying to describe it. Cultural appropriation can be understood as a scenario when a dominant social group take cultural elements from a marginalised group and remove it from its cultural context without knowing or caring about its historical background.
With that said, you might be thinking, “How harmful can it be? Isn’t it part of how our modern world was created?” – yes, that’s true, the taking and re-contextualising of different cultures to fit a standardised ‘norm’ is synonymous with modern western culture. The problem is it is a trait that’s rooted in an imperial and colonial agenda that historically has been an act of oppression. It’s use as a subversive system of control over minority groups is connected to incredible human suffering and injustice. So, when we talk about cultural appropriation we have to account for one essential characteristic: an oppressive power dynamic between two different groups.
Take the 2012 Victoria Secret Show look that incorporated Native American headdress into the design. In this example the tradition of the Native American headdress as a spiritual emblem that is only to be worn by brave and courageous men as a sign of their conquests, has been fetishized as an accessory. The head piece has been appropriated to fit the agenda of the fashion label to portray an image of the ‘Exotic’ that completely disregards any cultural significance it may have to Native Americans and neglects to reference the traumatic history of genocide and oppression that – during a time – a Native American wearing a similar headdress would have experienced. What is legitimised is the stereotype of the Native American as ‘Other’ to the western-norm, and with this we begin to see how harmful cultural appropriation can be.
It’s important to consider that the context of history and contemporary culture remain very relevant. When indigenous people, immigrants or people of colour conform to a western society ‘norm’ often they are doing so out of necessity. Assimilation into western culture is often a requirement in order to find work and feel safe and in doing so often people have to leave parts of their own culture behind. What’s important is to keep in mind that changing oppressive behaviour isn’t about being responsible for the feelings of others, but rather taking responsibility for our own actions in seeing the harm that these fashion choices can cause others.
McEvilley, T. 1992. Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity. McPherson & Company. New York.
http://fashionista.com/2015/12/cultural-appropriation-in-2015 date viewed: 22/09/16
http://www.businessinsider.com/karlie-kloss-native-american-costume-removed-2012-12?IR=T date viewed: 22/09/16