Why can't the fashion world still properly talk about cultural appropriation? We look at recent New York Times, Business of Fashion and Quartz articles to find out how they're getting it wrong.
Vanessa Friedman recently wrote a piece for The New York Times headlined, "Should Fashion be Politically Correct?" Before we even go into the article, let’s dissect that headline (note: there's a chance the writer didn’t write the headline). First, let’s start with the Oxford dictionary definition of "politically correct":
"the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against"
So, using the dictionary definition of politically correct, you already have an article questioning whether fashion should exclude, marginalise, or insult disadvantaged groups. From the very beginning of this article, it’s asking the wrong question. It then talks about the shows of the season that received the most negative press -- Junya Watanabe (oh, how we miss the days when Junya was just a harmless fishing-obsessed workwear designer) and Valentino. The article notes that there was “a flurry of outrage on social media (some of it legitimate, some less so) that itself becomes a story.” The idea that everything said on social media is said in outrage, is an insidious way to dismiss criticism without engaging it. Friedman goes on to ask, “But what is the alternative: not to engage at all?”
This is where this argument loses its standing. To act as if the only choices for fashion designers is to either offend everyone at will or not engage at all is disingenuous. It’s perfectly possible to strike a middle ground, as Dries Van Noten said in his interview with the Independent a few months back. “When it's sacred, when it's religious, you have to be careful. You can't just do whatever you want. It's not just an object; it's not just a thing.” It’s that simple. To act as if it’s black or white in a world filled with grey is willfully obtuse.
This argument was most offensive because it came from Friedman, who has spoken with so much nuance about fashion’s importance before. In an interview with the NY Times from June 2014, she notes “that fashion is really about identity — social, political, cultural — as it is expressed at a specific moment in time, and because it changes every three months it creates a constantly evolving, very useful prism for looking at these issues.” So surely, using Friedman’s own words, we can extrapolate the tone-deafness of the Valentino and Watanabe shows to discuss how fashion is behind the times and out of touch with the current cultural landscape?
While Friedman’s article is a gentler example, the general tone of the piece, and of other articles we mention later, is one of hyper-defensiveness. To try and find out why this is so, we spoke with Laura Harris, professor of English and World Literature and Africana Studies at Pitzer College. “I think they are embarrassed about being called out on the manner that white supremacy is at work in their ‘fashion’ statement” says Harris. “They likely had not critically examined the power dynamics of reproducing/representing (allegedly) cultural practices, which may have deeper socio-political meaning and history than as a fashion commodity upon which to capitalize.”
This statement goes some way to explaining Lisa Armstrong’s Valentino review for The Telegraph. It starts out noting that the writer visited the Valentino office and saw that it was “piled high with books on Africa.” No country is noted, just Africa -- that tiny place that’s the size of the United States, China, India, Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, most of Eastern Europe, Japan, Switzerland and the UK combined. (We always feel the need to mention Africa’s vastness just to bring the offensiveness into context). The kicker of the review comes in this amazing paragraph:
"Some might bridle at what they see as cultural appropriation – mainly white models with cornrows and voodoo jewellery – and a few in the audience did. Most accepted it as cultural celebration (and anyway, what about Saint Laurent’s cultural appropriation of Glasto-glamping?)"
There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph, but the part that should receive the most ire is comparing Slimane’s Topshop-pillaging Glastonbury love-ins to actual cultural appropriation; this shows a profound lack of understanding. And the flippant tone of it also shows a lack of willingness to understand or even give a cursory listen to people who bring up appropriation. It’s a statement so profoundly tone-deaf it’s difficult to respond to. The fact that the writer would even think the two were comparable is stunning in the worst kind of way.
Tim Blanks echoed this tone of flippancy with his opening statement on his Valentino review, “Junya Watanabe learned the other day that referencing Africa can open a can of worms — post-colonial cultural appropriation, or something like that.” The key words are "or something like that"; as if cultural appropriation was some pesky topic he couldn’t wait to ignore. In the Junya review, he says, “One thing that came to mind was Picasso and Braque finding ultimate modernism in the primal forms of African art.” We’re aware it’s very common to talk about things being from Africa as "primal," but it is a direct holdover from the language of slavery, when African people had to be dehumanized in order to be sold without affecting people’s conscience. To refer to something African as primal is to call it inherently lesser than. And we’re aware that people might say that bringing up slavery isn’t necessary, but when so much of our language and thinking is a direct holdover from that period, it’s still needed as a reminder.
This is all the more confusing as The Business of Fashion has recently published several articles promoting diversity. So you end up with a site that is simultaneously endlessly worrying about the racial makeup of fashion while publishing articles that, at their core, just remind anyone who isn’t white that their culture is ultimately only seen as worthy when it’s being "elevated."
The most recent and offensive example of fashion failing to be able to truly talk about appropriation is a recently published piece by Jenni Avins on Quartz titled “In Fashion, Cultural Appropriation is Either Very Wrong or Very Right.” The article starts off by noting that the writer admired big gold door knocker earrings that she’d seen on black girls. She then goes onto to say that “while it certainly may have occurred to me that I — a semi-preppy dresser — couldn’t pull them off, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.” And, apparently, this isn’t an insight into her own ignorance or privilege, but a sign that everyone else is just too damn sensitive these days. She then lists several notable pop culture appropriation moments and then notes that “In the 21st-century, cultural appropriation — like globalization — isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive.” Now, appropriation when both sides benefit is positive. But the reason it’s called appropriation is because only one side benefits, and this is why people aren’t such fans of it. And having your work called "primal" while praising a designer for "elevating" it, isn’t both sides gaining something. To be fair, the second half of the feature does run through helpful tips such as “Blackface is never cool.” Thanks for letting us know!
The similarity in Blanks', Friedman’s and Avins’ pieces is that every time, the responses to shows are labelled as outrage, and every time, we see very little to none of the outrage. When we asked about why reactions to cultural appropriation were so badly received, Harris reframed the question, noting that critiques of cultural appropriation shouldn’t be labelled as reactions. “It actually foregrounds a certain critical perspective already present while appearing to ask an innocent question -- it isn't a ‘reaction’ to think critically about cultural representations, especially in an industry such as the fashion world historically driven by certain modes of truth, beauty, and profit.”
Another common charge is that people who critique appropriation simply aren’t thinking things through. Friedman called it a “rush to judgement"; Blanks called it “knee-jerk negativism”; and Avins called it “Internet outrage and oversensitivity.” This appears to be a popular charge, which, on every occasion, was offered without any examples of people not thinking things through.
But how should writers talk about cultural appropriation? “A first step may be understanding there is not really an 'other' culture, it is only ‘other’ in relation to Eurocentrism” says Harris. “And a few other critical ideas such as sacred contexts versus capitalist exploitation.”
A bigger issue is that none of the articles consider the idea that the underlying issues behind the problems with cultural appropriation and the discussion around it aren’t new at all, just that the people with “ever more diverse personal politics” formerly had no way of response. Now, with social media and new media outlets, there’s a way to respond and this new world (which is the same as the old world, but with more than one type of person being allowed to speak) frightens some people. And until they question their thinking instead of just questioning whether the appropriation police will come and get them, their articles will continue to be tone-deaf.
Even the cultural appropriation debate in fashion isn’t really about cultural appropriation; it’s about writers now having to acknowledge cultural appropriation. And, as you can see from the words of Lisa Armstrong, Jenni Avins and Tim Blanks, some writers are taking this sea change better than others. Or something like that.