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OFW: the Complexities of Cultural Appropriation

Oxford Fashion Week kicked off last week with a discussion around a topical issue in today's fashion world: cultural appropriation.

On Tuesday, Oxford Fashion Week put on a talk at Oxford Castle Unlocked on cultural appropriation. Their panel was diverse, and consequently gave a varied and interesting discussion. The fashion experts were Dr Natascha Radclyffe, the Inaugural University of the Arts London Teaching Scholar and Course Leader for BA Fashion Marketing, and Pamela Church-Gibson, a reader in Cultural and Historical Studies at the London College of Fashion. Alongside these appeared Professor Constantine Sandis, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, who wrote a book entitled  ‘Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice’, and two students – Christy Chin, pursuing a BA degree in Business and Management at University of Exeter, and Brian Wong, who studies PPE at Oxford.

Discussions were initiated by looking at the problem from a more general and global perspective. Brian Wong brought a colonial aspect to the fore, suggesting that cultural appropriation is rooted in a power dynamic between cultures. Citing historical examples, he convincingly argued that dominant cultures are able to define other cultures, shaping the narratives of authenticity and originality by displacing what is actually the reality. The global economic domination of the West was also highlighted as another key element of the issue. Brian argued that economically speaking, cultural appropriation doesn’t benefit minorities in a vast number of instances. Rather, it displaces them from positions of economic power because revenue and profits largely go into the hands of the white dominant and privileged classes. These classes produce and generate these items without necessarily redistributing the profits into the hands from whom the culture was taken.

(Valentino ‘Africa’ Collection Spring/Summer 2016) ‘Africa as vibrant, as throbbing, as imperfect purity. The analogical, hand-made approach is the antidote to the digital deprivation of individual character in order to maintain authentic individuality.’ (description from Valentino’s website)

Turning to fashion more specifically, Pamela Church-Gibson and Dr Natascha Radclyffe explored many different shocking examples of insensitivity from designers. African themed collections particularly generated objections. Key words such as ‘Wild’ and ‘Tribal’, in fact explicitly used by Valentino for his ‘Africa’ collection in 2016, demonstrate the displaced view of the ‘exotic.’ Pamela highlighted how in many of these collections, Africa, which is an enormous and diverse continent, is bundled together as if it was one simple country.

Junya Watanabe’s 2016 Spring/Summer show similarly mixed African styles together. It did not include a single black model, and most disturbingly portrayed false scarification on their models. The use of Native American clothing in Dsquared2’s ‘Dsquaw’ collection (‘squaw’ is a derogatory term used by English-speakers to slur Native women), similarly generated protest and outrage.

The lack of acknowledgement and appreciation of the significance and meaning behind different people’s cultures was taken as the root of the offense by all of the panelists. The whole panel was firmly in agreement: cultural appropriation is prevalent in the fashion industry and it is fundamentally wrong. Yet, despite unanimous agreement against cultural appropriation, the panel found it difficult to answer straightforwardly when probed with questions as to where to draw the line on appropriation. Two fundamental questions were raised during the discussion. Firstly, micro vs macro – looking at whether an individual can culturally appropriate, compared a trans-national company or brand. Secondly the issue of the subjectivity of offensive behaviour making policing or even defining cultural appropriation a complex issue.

A piece from Junya Watanabe’s 2016 Spring/Summer Collection

All panelists were fully behind multiculturalism, and inspiration coming from different cultures. Jean Paul Gautier’s 1989 show ‘Around the World in 168 outfits’ was praised for celebrating other culture’s handcrafts and textiles.  Yet, when asked by an audience member whether buying a local shawl from street sellers in Bolivia and returning to the UK to wear it was appropriation, there was disagreement- disagreement which seemed to reveal underlying issues within complex attitudes towards cultural appropriation. Pamela, Natascha and Brian all argued that the street sellers were benefitting economically and so in this instance it was fine. However, Professor Constantine contested this, saying that the act of wearing the shall could still be inherently wrong because even if the buyer has the best of intentions the act itself can still be invested with power dynamics. One litmus test for cultural appropriation, suggested by Brian Wong, was to look at ‘who is occupying centre stage and who is getting credit’. But in opposition, Professor Constantine highlighted the inherent problems behind the idea of a ‘giving a green light’ to designers. His response to an audience question on the labelling cultural appropriation I think is the most pertinent to the issues raised:

“I think it’s a mistake to think that we can give a definition of cultural appropriation in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions… morality is just far more complex than that.”

The talk was enlightening and created thought-provoking discussion, but it also highlighted the difficulties of resolving the complexities surrounding the issue of cultural appropriation.

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