Fashion is known to be a copycat industry. Cultural misappropriation in fashion is one form of fashion’s copycat ways.
The #GiveCredit Instagram account — a page asking members of the fashion and design industry to give credit to the cultural communities they draw inspiration from — is filled with posts that illustrate this.
Fashion and culture have always been, and will always be, inseparable. But these countless examples of cultural misappropriation in fashion speak to the continuation of extractive power dynamics that the fashion industry is all too familiar with.
Since sustainable fashion is about justice — for people and the planet — part of the work to create system change in the industry must include addressing and rebalancing these power dynamics.
Addressing cultural misappropriation in fashion — and using fashion as a medium for cultural sustainability instead — is an essential element of this.
What Is Cultural Misappropriation in Fashion?
Have you ever seen a jacket being marketed as a Kimono? Perhaps you’ve watched the runway show where the Sikh turban was a key element at Gucci’s fall 2018 show during Milan Fashion Week? Or seen Carolina Herrera’s use of embroidery techniques and patterns specific to certain Mexican indigenous communities in their 2020 resort collection?
Each of these cases is an example of cultural misappropriation in fashion.
You may have heard the phrase “cultural appropriation in fashion” being used. According to Monica Boța-Moisin, founder of the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI), cultural appropriation in fashion is “qualified as almost any access to and use of cultural expressions by someone who is not part of the source community.”
As she explains in an episode of the Conscious Style Podcast, Boța-Moisin instead uses the term “cultural misappropriation” to emphasize the depth of the injustice, systems of oppression, and power relations that these examples in the fashion industry shed light on.
She defines cultural misappropriation in fashion as: “The harmful act of accessing, and/or using traditional knowledge or traditional cultural expressions from a people, community, tribe, or group that shares a common cultural identity, values, worldviews and history. And using them in a different context for commercial purposes without the authorization, acknowledgment, and compensation to the original custodians.”
Some may dismiss these examples as “drawing inspiration”, but it’s much more complex — and harmful — than that.
More than “inspiration”, these instances of cultural misappropriation in fashion are examples of theft. And there are deep-rooted systemic causes underlying them, which is why they happen so often.
The Systemic Causes of Cultural Misappropriation in Fashion
As is clear from the above examples, cultural misappropriation in fashion involves a historically dominant group extracting aesthetic — and only an aesthetic — value from a historically oppressed group for profit.
In cultural misappropriation in fashion, there is always a power imbalance. These designs are most often used to create profits that do not return to the original community they were extracted from. And in the process, the original community — and the richness of the textile traditions — are erased.
“So many fashion stakeholders, designers, and creatives don’t even think to ask for some sort of consent. But when it comes to a creation of their own, they don’t like it when it’s copied. It’s such a double standard,” says Boța-Moisin.
Sandra Niessen of Fashion Act Now describes the manifestation of colonialism in the fashion industry as fashion sacrifice zones, which are communities and natural systems that are deemed disposable for the sake of growth.
“When people are sacrificed, so are their cultures. Diverse cultures are replaced by the monolithic culture of Fashion. So Fashion depends on, normalizes, and creates sacrifice zones,” says Niessen.
But there are ways to address cultural misappropriation in fashion. This begins with understanding the value of cultural sustainability.
What Is Cultural Sustainability in Fashion?
The Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Institute defines cultural sustainability as: “Acknowledging the sustainability that is culturally embedded within traditional craftsmanship by supporting knowledge transfer to future generations.”
Fashion, as a medium, holds vast potential for helping to achieve this.
Many cultural textile expressions are detailed, time-intensive, and require a lot of skill. Examples include the Oma people’s hand-spun, indigo-dyed clothing decorated with vibrant red embroidery and appliqué and Suzani embroidered textiles made in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian countries. Phulkari traditional embroidery technique from Punjab or the Indonesian Batik are also examples of cultural textile expressions.
Each of these textile practices is layered with heritage, stories, and rituals. “They involve weaving and embroidery techniques, ways of processing raw materials into yarn, different rituals, and practices associated with different types of textiles that bring an emotional connection to the garment,” says Boța-Moisin.
When cultural expressions are misappropriated, these values, meanings, rituals, and practices behind them are left out.
On the other hand, cultural sustainability in fashion acknowledges these rich textile histories and the depth of meaning that they hold. “Cultural sustainability in fashion goes way beyond aesthetics, symbols, and patterns printed on garments,” says Boța-Moisin. It emphasizes the need to sustain these practices and create mediums for them to be transmitted from generation to generation.
“We see cultural sustainability in fashion as nurturing and sustaining the practices of Indigenous people, ethnic groups, and local communities — the practices of creating, consuming, relating to textiles — that are culturally specific. These practices add value to how we understand, create, and consume fashion,” continues Boța-Moisin.
The Connections Between Cultural Sustainability and Other Forms of Sustainability in Fashion
The textile practices belonging to Indigenous people, ethnic groups, and local communities have a lot to teach us about socially and environmentally harmonious practices.
“I call it ‘sustainability by design’. Patterns are designed to minimize waste and use local resources mindfully. When you put so much of yourself and your energy and your soul into producing a piece of textile, you will not cut it in wasteful ways,” explains Boța-Moisin.
This also teaches us about how sustainability can be embedded as part of a culture.
These textile practices also teach us about the value of localizing and decentralizing the way we approach sustainability in the fashion industry. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all with these isolated practices. You can’t extrapolate it across the whole world and assume it’s going to work the same way. We need to localize efforts and tap into practices that are indigenous to the soils that we are on and go from there,” says sustainable fashion advocate and founder of Tega Collective, Niha Elety, on an episode of the Conscious Style Podcast.
Learning from these textile practices is also vital when it comes to degrowth fashion futures. “In terms of cultural sustainability in fashion, what you can scale is the impact. And you scale impact by changing practices that are detrimental to the cultural survival and wellbeing of these custodians. We need this knowledge and these skills if we want to talk about degrowth and creating a healthy society that cares about wellbeing and not just financial riches,” explains Boța-Moisin.
Sustainability is a way of being that comes directly from Indigenous peoples. So there cannot be ecological sustainability without cultural sustainability too. Acknowledging Indigenous people, ethnic groups, and local communities as the owners of these practices is a key first step.
How Can We Use Cultural Intellectual Property To Promote Cultural Sustainability in Fashion?
The idea of intellectual property is common in the law and it aims to protect intangible creations of human intellect and creativity using copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Essentially it’s used to prevent theft and plagiarism.
But traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions have been historically excluded from intellectual property law. This means they are not lawfully protected from theft, misappropriation, and extraction.
This is where Boța-Moisin’s idea of cultural intellectual property comes in.
“Cultural intellectual property is a term I have been using in my work to emphasize the need to design a system tailor-made to traditional cultural expressions and traditional knowledge,” says Boța-Moisin, “Cultural intellectual property catalyzes systemic change in the way we give value to different knowledge systems.”
One framework that the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Institute uses to ensure that cultural intellectual property is respected is known as the 3Cs’ Rule. This framework fosters socially and culturally sustainable collaborations between designers and traditional knowledge custodians.
The 3Cs stand for:
- Consent: Free, Prior, and Informed consent of the craftsperson, Indigenous or local community.
- Credit: Acknowledgement of the source community and inspiration.
- And compensation: monetary or non-monetary compensation or sharing of benefits resulting from the commercialization of the derived work
Boța-Moisin notes that the 3Cs are not a checklist, but rather a process that can be embedded in a business and cultivate long-term connections.
Another example of their work with cultural intellectual property is the Mahila Print Project which was created to ensure the protection of indigenous designs created by women artisans in Bagru, India. “With the Mahila print, we framed every woman as a graphic designer. They had never seen themselves as intellectual property holders and it’s not something they thought they could be,” says Boța-Moisin.
Just as we treat artists and designers as the custodians of their work which allows us to understand that plagiarism and design theft is unethical, it’s important to do the same when it comes to traditional textile expressions in the fashion industry.
Power Dynamics and Cultural Sustainability in Fashion
Rebalancing power dynamics in fashion begins with practicing cultural humility and true co-creation.
“Cultural humility means putting any preconceived notion aside and letting the people of a culture tell their own story and lead the conversation. It encourages us to be the student, holding no assumptions, judgments, or prejudice when interacting with others,” explains Manpreet Kaur Kalra, the founder of Art of Citizenry.
“Fashion brands can begin to practice cultural humility by listening to artisans who hold generational knowledge of techniques and designers who are from communities that offer a source of inspiration,” she adds.
Co-creation and moving toward systemic change in the industry also require us to rethink the way we celebrate and herald the role of fashion designers. Because while their ideas are invaluable, it takes a whole value chain of talented people to make their idea a reality.
“We have to transition to a plurality of right ways to accept the world views of others, to embrace cultural relativism, and to offer tools that these communities can use to be recognized as knowledge partners and not subordinated to the intellectual property holders,” says Boța-Moisin.
Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose challenge us to question in their book “Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change”: What if we extended the role of the designer past their traditional role as a creator and reframed designers as facilitators who work closely with the people who manufacture clothing to move towards equitable and just systems of production?
When working towards cultural sustainability in fashion, based on equity and justice, this leveling of power dynamics is key.
As Elety says on the Conscious Style Podcast, “If brands do want to explore another culture, they need to engage people who are a part of that culture and collaborate with them. Give them the stage and the voice and the design freedom, because only they know what their culture is, right?”
Of course what co-creation looks like in practice will differ from case to case. There is no step-by-step rulebook for exactly what steps to follow and it’s often a slow journey. But if fashion justice is what we are pursuing, it’s a necessary journey to embark on.
“A better future for fashion is built on knowledge partnerships with custodians of Indigenous knowledge systems. To me a better future for fashion means that we dress in our values and we dress as a way of being integrated into the world that we want to live in,” concludes Boța-Moisin.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.