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November 24, 2017
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Karlie Kloss at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012. Source: cbc.ca.

Fashion is all about co-opting ideas. Designers are inspired by so many things, from art to architecture to animals, and when they reinterpret these things, something new and beautiful often results. But where should the line be drawn when it comes to appropriating things that are sacred to a particular culture, often with ignorance on the part of the appropriator?

Karlie Kloss for Victoria's Secret.

Source: nativeappropriations.com.

Last year, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show had a segment that featured models dressed in looks each inspired by a month of the year. February was decked out in hearts, July wore stars and stripes, and December had candy canes for wings. But only 11 girls walked the runway, and it seemed that Victoria's Secret made a miscount.

This was not the case. The un-televised version of the show included the missing November model, Karlie Kloss, wearing little but a feathered headdress that dragged like a train behind her – a look that sparked outrage for a culture that's no stranger to this kind of offensive stereotyping.

"Cultural appropriation is taking an idea, concept or a design without giving credit to the cultural source of that idea or image or pattern, and the question of who is profiting from it," says Susan B. Kaiser, author of Fashion and Cultural Studies, and professor in the textiles and clothing department at the University of California, Davis.

Kaiser credits the prevalence of brands, designers and consumers co-opting things like "Navajo" patterns and bindis to the break-neck speed that fashion is distributed through our culture. The most recent fast fashion chain guilty of this is H&M, who was forced to take faux-feather headdresses off the Canadian shelves following complaints from First Nations people.

Kim Wheeler, an Ojibwa-Mohawk from Winnipeg, wrote an email to H&M after she saw the headdresses in a Vancouver store.

"Headdresses are worn by chiefs in some of our communities," wrote Wheeler. "It is a symbol of respect and honour and should not be for sale as some sort of cute accessory. It is not honourable nor flattering. People in my community have kind of been fighting that whole 'hipster headdressing' for a while now."

While H&M responded with the usual sentiment of never intending to offend anyone, the fact is that the retailer co-opted a piece of clothing reserved for someone in a position of power within a culture that they clearly did not understand.

H&M Headdress. Source: vogue.co.uk.

James Young wrote Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, and his current research continues to focus on aesthetic and moral issues raised by cultural appropriation.

"You have to take the intent into account," says Young. "Is someone intending to do something complimentary, or offer an affront? There will be some cases where one didn't intended to be offensive, but should have been able to perceive that one's actions were offensive. It seems to me that cultural appropriation is often intended as a kind of compliment to the other culture from which you're borrowing."

This idea of intention is, of course, problematic. A person wearing a bindi or a headdress can have the best intentions, but no idea what it means, where it came from, or why they probably shouldn't be wearing it.

Young also discusses Urban Outfitters' 2012 misstep involving "Navajo" printed underwear and flasks. But Young wonders, when so many things are passed between cultures and proceed to evolve over time, where can we draw the line of differentiation and ownership?

It is "difficult to identify the original origins of styles and motifs," says Young. "And it's for that reason that I don't think they are ownable. If you look carefully into the history of Navajo styles, they actually appropriate a lot from other aboriginal groups. Certain Mexican First Nations have as much claim on some things that the Navajo claim to be their own."

The Navajo Nation, a Native American tribe, didn't see it that way. They sued Urban Outfitters for trademark violations on the word "Navajo." But it was not only the name that caused offense; like the Victoria's Secret case, the products perpetuated First Nations stereotypes.

In response to Kloss' apology for her Victoria's Secret Fashion Show outfit, The Cut referenced a website called Native Appropriations: "Examining Representations of Indigenous Peoples." In this case, they drew attention to the hyper-sexualization of First Nations women, how a third of these women are victims of rape, and how the last thing they need is to have that stereotype perpetuated.

"If people from the culture that's being appropriated or appreciated feel really hurt by it or that their culture is being undermined, that's a really horrible part of it," says Kaiser. "If they're not hurt and if they even feel somewhat positive, then I think the appreciation can come in."

Sometimes when people complain about cultural appropriation, they complain that indigenous artisans or artists are being denied a market.

In 1986, Paul Simon released Graceland, an album met with both critical acclaim and controversy. Simon made several trips to South Africa while producing the album, and took heavy inspiration from the music of that country. It has been called a pivotal moment in global culture, and the popularity of South African music after its release skyrocketed. It paved the way for groups like Ladysmith Black Mombazo, as listeners became more and more interested in the origins of Simon's inspiration.

This is something that can happen in fashion, too. In Australia, aboriginal motifs are hugely popular, but few will buy anything decorated in those motifs without proof that an aboriginal artisan created it. This is so important to consumers that the some Australians who produce these garments will often pass themselves off as aboriginal to make a sale.

"Sometimes when people complain about cultural appropriation, they complain that indigenous artisans or artists are being denied a market," said Young. "And I don't think that's an argument that works very well. If a fashion company starts producing aboriginal-style stuff, the consequence of that is that people are going to want the genuine article."

Whether or not that is always the case is debatable, but the power truly lies in the hands of the consumer. Wearing things like bindis, which have an important religious and intellectual significance in Indian culture, or even crosses that indicate an association with Christianity can easily offend if the wearer does not identify with that culture. It is up to the supplier and the consumer to decide whether or not what they sell or buy is offensive.

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