Inspiration or cultural appropriation?
The textile piece discussed in this essay is a small embroidery I made a couple of years ago. It’s stitched on a piece of cotton fabric hand dyed in indigo with a small mirror in the middle surrounded by a row of pearl blue glass beads and circled by stripes embroidered with cotton threads in turquoise, magenta and orange colour, finished by a dark blue border in chain stitch. (Fig.1)
This piece was inspired by traditional Indian mirror embroidery and is a celebration of not only the aesthetics but also of craftsmanship and skill. It was made as a free-hand embroidery, without any template or particular pattern to follow, in an attempt to visualise my take on this rich textile tradition and celebrate slow fashion movement, hand making and traditional crafts. I’d like this piece to become a starting point for a wider discussion about textiles in a context of cultural appropriation.
Mirror work in textile tradition
Incorporating mirrors and other light reflective elements into textiles is believed to have stemmed from the belief that it could ward off the ‘evil eye’. Mirror work, or shisha (Persian for ‘glass’), as a style of decorating textiles, is known to have originated in 17th century Iran but really took off and become popular under the Mughal rule in northern India, however Mughals used it to embellish their decor rather than their clothing. Originally, the reflective pieces were made of mica, a silicate rock that flakes off in thin sheets and gives a shiny spark when applied to a textile. It was later replaced by thin silver or tin coins or even beetle wings before the modern use of glass mirrors in the 20th century. (Chopra, 2019) The use of mica on textiles was however not restricted to Persia or India. A similar tradition is also found amongst the Sami, indigenous people of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, who refer to it as kråkesølv (crow’s silver or fool’s gold).
It’s quite interesting to see this technique being used in two such different and far away textile traditions as Persia/India and northern Scandinavia, and although the expression is similar their application technique differs. Sami people apply it by punching small holes into felted wool fabric and inserting the mica flakes underneath so they shine through the holes. In Persia and India, it was placed on top of a textile and secured by embroidered stitches. This is also the technique I used in my piece, but instead of circular stitches around the edges of the mirror, I used a singular thread stitched in a geometric pattern on the surface of the mirror. This adds another decorative element while also being utilised for the practical purpose of holding the mirror in place.
Cultural appropriation: inspiration or plagiarism?
Reflecting on my piece made me think of the origin of its inspiration and I asked myself whether I have the right to borrow inspiration from India and use it in my own way. Therefore, I wanted to touch upon the topic of cultural appropriation and look at my piece critically.
The most basic definition of cultural appropriation is when ‘somebody adopts aspect/s of a culture that’s not their own’. A deeper view into understanding cultural appropriation refers to it as a manifestation of imbalanced power dynamics, often rooted in colonialism when a dominant culture takes elements from a minority culture that has been in some way oppressed.
Cultures across the world have been exchanging inspiration, ideas and traditions for centuries and in today’s global society the exchanges have only increased in scope. This has both positive and negative aspects to it. Cultural exchange, as the word itself suggests, means mutually sharing with each other with both sides benefiting from the exchange. It lacks the power dynamic present in cultural appropriation. The line between appreciation and appropriation is a sensitive one and can vary in each instance, therefore context is key when arguing for or against cultural appropriation.
One of the biggest conversations on cultural appropriation often happens in connection to the fashion industry. It has become a widely discussed topic in recent years due to the scandals of several designers and fashion houses getting influenced by different textile traditions from around the world, and while implementing these into their designs is not a problem in itself, it commonly becomes one when this inspiration is taken out of context.
Victoria Secrets’ 2017 show Nomadic Adventures featuring looks inspired by tribal and Native American dress, Valentino’s Spring 2016 Wild Africa collection with white models wearing cornrows in their hair, Gucci’s A/W 2018 runway showing white models wearing Sikh turbans traditionally symbolising piety, honour and spirituality, or Urban Outfitters’ 2011 Navajo-themed clothing and accessories line which some members of the indigenous community found to be culturally offensive - these are only few examples of the spread and complexity of cultural appropriation in fashion, however there are many more examples that illustrate the thin line between appreciation and appropriation.
Many designers claim that it’s a mix of different styles, ideas and cultures what makes today’s fashion scene interesting and that they don’t deliberately copy different cultures and their traditions. In 2016, designer Marc Jacobs even defended his choice to style white models with dreadlocks by saying ‘Funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair’. This statement perfectly encapsulates the power imbalance of cultural appropriation in fashion and the prevalence of privilege and ignorance existing within the industry.
While writing this essay I was reminded of a case from 2017 when Romanian designers from the rural Bihor region accused fashion house Dior of plagiarising their traditional vest in their pre-fall collection and selling it for €30.000. (Euronews, 2018) The accusation caused a reaction from a Romanian fashion group La Blouse Roumaine who demanded that Dior give credit to their traditional designs. Their response was a launch of Bihor Couture, a humorous campaign of artisans themselves criticising the replica and even appearing on Paris Fashion Week that year. Their fight against cultural appropriation and to help give credit where it is due - to the original designers and dressmakers - was supported by an online shop selling authentic Romanian designs the profit of which would return back to the local communities thus supporting the continuation of their textile tradition.
Another case that sparked controversy was when French designer Isabel Marant was accused of plagiarising the traditional huipil blouse of the Mexican indigenous community Mixe in her S/S 2015 line Étoile. She apparently didn’t seek Mixe community’s permission to use the patterns nor did she outsource the manufacture of the blouse to Mexico - it was instead produced in India and sold for $365 each. People on social media demanded her to remove the dress from the collection, acknowledge that the patterns were stolen and pay reparation damages to the original community.
These two cases have a lot of similarities. Both communities have strong textile heritage, continuation of which is viewed as inherent to their identity. Both cultures could also be considered ‘minority’ from a western point of view and in my opinion this fact could be a reason that their response was still somewhat mild - launching a campaign and online shop in Bihor case, inviting Isabel Marant to visit Mixe artisans in Mexico in huipil case - when considering others have stolen and profited from their culture without giving them any credit or adding any economic value to the creators of the original designs. Both Dior and Marant were called out on the issue, but to my knowledge neither have acknowledged it nor responded to any of the comments.
These disputes highlight a specific kind of cultural appropriation where the issue is not in who can wear the design but who gets credit and who profits from it. While this could be well-intentioned, the danger lays in a possibility that a cultural product might one day become completely disassociated from its source community and even help to erase its cultural identity.
Fashion today is changing at an unprecedented speed and it could be argued, in favour of the designers and fashion houses, that they are struggling not only to find new inspiration rather quickly but also to do a proper research on the origins of a technique, craft or element they are intending to use. Yet the power imbalance and privilege here is undeniable. Cultural appropriation is a deeply rooted issue within fashion industry that can’t be solved overnight, therefore it’s important to keep the conversation and education on the topic ongoing.