Fashion's Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless

Waves upon waves of backlash haven't stopped Western designers from continuing to swipe recklessly from other cultures. Critics should change the subject by examining the histories of what gets swiped—and more importantly, what doesn't.

Since around 2007, I’ve written about the politics of race, gender, and class in fashion. These writings have been published in scholarly journals and popular media sites, including the research blog I co-founded called Threadbared. As a result, a regular and happy feature of my everyday life involves responding to media and public inquiries about fashion trends, events, or news items that have a distinct racial dimension.

But I have to admit: I’m getting tired of fashion criticism.

This is not because I’ve grown tired of thinking and writing about fashion. And it’s certainly not because I no longer think fashion is an important cultural and social activity.

What I’m weary of is the predictable, limited, and unhelpful manner in which people talk about race in fashion.

Typically, it begins with a fashion event that raises issues of race, gender, or class: a new designer collection in the genre of “exploitation chic,” a blackface/yellowface/redface magazine spread, the use of people of color as props on the runway, etc. This event, which is almost immediately shared widely online, typically elicits two major responses. Critics bring charges of “cultural appropriation” and implicitly or explicitly suggest that racism is part of why the event happened and is being paid attention to.  Defenders, in increasingly strained tones, take the position of “cultural appreciation.” They say that drawing inspiration from the bodies, cultural practices, and cultural objects of people of color are acts of appreciating, admiring, even loving racial difference and diversity.

The popular chorus of cultural appropriation! cultural appreciation! quickly becomes a performance, in which neither side misses a cue nor forgets a well-learned line. This continues for several days and maybe weeks until it peters out or until the next racist fashion event crops up—whichever comes first. The debate around the event often gets more press and social-media attention than the event did itself, and nobody seems to change opinions for the next go-round.

Of course, I’ve contributed to this cycle. On Threadbared, the term “cultural appropriation” appears 142 times. That’s because critiques of cultural appropriation do have their use. They have been an important strategy, in Richard Fung’s words, “to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.” Acts of cultural appropriation often deepen existing divides between haves and have-nots, who’s in and who’s out, who has power and who doesn’t. Commenting on the appropriation of Native voices by white Canadian novelists, M.T. Kelly has poignantly observed, “Again and again, papers have been written, careers built, tenure granted, royalties issued, and yet the people upon whom this is based are left behind on the reserves with nothing.”

Cultural appropriation controversies happen outside of fashion, as well. Debates similar to those I’ve just described have sprung up in recent days around the likes of the Flaming Lips, Miley Cyrus, and the Coachella crowd. Grantland went so far as to name “cultural appropriation” as the pop-culture phenomenon that “won” 2013.

But there’s a big problem with critiques of cultural appropriation.  They reaffirm the very thing they intend to oppose: white Western domination over and exploitation of culture at the expense of everyone else.

For an example of what I mean, let’s look at a fashion trend that fashion bloggers, journalists, and others unofficially dubbed “Chinatown chic” and, alternatively, “migrant worker chic.” The trend emerged about a year ago during the Céline and Stella McCartney Fall 2013 ready-to-wear shows in New York City. Both collections included looks featuring bright, graphic plaid prints reminiscent of the large plastic woven tote bags that you see all over Canal Street. (It should be noted that Marc Jacobs presented a near-exact precursor to the trend in the Louis Vuitton Spring 2007 ready-to-wear collection, featuring $1,900 tote bags.)

Not long after, the same garments appeared on the bodies and feet of the fashion elite. A series of photographs posted to Phil Oh’s highly celebrated blog Street Peeper showed members of the New York and Paris fashion glitterati wearing the conspicuous design pattern on their skirts, sneakers, tops, and coats. The trend reached peak ubiquity when more affordable versions of the luxury garments appeared on the shop floors of mass market retailers Zara and TopShop—all featuring the print design that Oh nicknamed, “‘Chinatown bag’ plaid.”

But U.S. Chinatowns are far from the only places where these bags circulate. Manufactured in China and sold for as little as a dollar each, their cheap price tag and their high durability make them popular carryalls for poor migrants around the world. In China, they’re colloquially referred to as “mingong” bags, named after the migrant workers who tote the shiny, bright carryalls on their long journeys between home and work. In Germany, they’re called “Türkenkoffer” or Turkish suitcases, while in Trinidad they’re known as “Guyanese Samsonite.” In Nigeria, Ghana, and across West Africa, the same bags are called “Ghana Must Go bags,” a moniker rooted in the mid 1980s when the 1983 Expulsion Order in Nigeria gave Ghanaian immigrants 14 days to flee with whatever belongings they could carry. In England, they’re simply “Bangladeshi bags” or “refugee bags,” and in South Africa, where they’re most strongly associated with internal migrants, the bags are known as either “Unomgcana” (literally, the one with lines) in Xhosa or “China bag” in English. A journalist for the British newspaper The Telegraph insists that the sobriquets are “telling” of a plural yet shared experience of being from and wanting to get out of, in her words, “some poverty-stricken hell hole.” But, as I’ll explain, the various names given to these bags conceal more than they tell about the complex mix of sources that make up the so-called migrant-worker-plaid trend.

Public reactions to the Céline and Stella McCartney collections were largely mixed. A writer for Vogue UK cheered Phoebe Philo (creative director of the Céline house) for “reinventing” the laundry bag in ways that were “insanely elegant and very clever.” Hamish Bowles, European editor-at-large for the US edition of Vogue, concurred, calling the collection “supremely elegant.” Likewise, Radar magazine commended the designer for giving the “refugee bag pattern” “a 180 … metamorphosis to high-end.”

But many others saw it as a continuation of the fashion industry’s long history of poaching from marginalized peoples. Diana of the blog Hanger Hiatus views the Céline pieces as an “inevitable” occurrence given fashion’s “rampant culture-sampling.” In a blog post examining street-inspired fashion including the Céline and Louis Vuitton pieces, editors of the academic journal Vestoj: The Journal of Sartorial Matters describe appropriation practices in terms of “smuggling.” They note later on in the blog post that fashion’s appropriations depend on a one-way power flow from the top down: “While fashion corporations are keen to crack down on illegal copying, it’s interesting to note that the ever-fine line between appropriation and copying in high fashion continues to be toed for effect.”

None of the critics leveling charges of appropriation, though, questioned the basic premise that the collections exemplified a high-low cultural fusion—high culture being Euro-American fashion design, and low culture being Asian street culture. But the truth is that the plaid originates not in Chinatowns, or even in China, or even in street culture. Rather, the design comes from the elite and, indeed, fashionable culture of Indonesian public life where it has been produced, consumed, traded, and sold for centuries.

As early as the 16th century, the Bugis coastal plains people (from the southern peninsula of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi) were weaving, trading, and selling silk sarongs with the plaid motif for indigenous and international consumption. Today, as before, the plaid designs are invested with considerable symbolic meaning for Sulawesians. Elizabeth Morrell’s extensive research shows that the size of the plaid indicates the social and political status of the individual while its simple, open, and repeating pattern is expressive of Islamic principles of “geometry, rhythm, and light.” Often reserved for formal and celebratory occasions, the textiles represent both secular and spiritual forms of Indonesian culture.

Various different plaids being worn by guests and officials at the arrival of the South Sulawesi province governor to the town of Sengkang in 1994. (Elizabeth Morrell)

The textiles were so much coveted worldwide that knockoffs were rampant, Morrell writes in Securing a Place: Small-scale Artisans in Modern Indonesia:

From at least the mid-seventeenth century, plaids were produced in India for European merchants to sell in direct competition with the Indonesian weaving trade, perpetuating the Indian textile producer’s practice of imitating the indigenous styles—including Javanese batik motifs—preferred by specific target export markets … [the red and blue checkered design] was imitated by weavers on the Indian Coromandel coast, in cloth which was “not so well wove, but of brighter colors.”

To compete against the more powerful English and Dutch trading companies (who traded in Indian copies of the textiles), indigenous textile artisans expanded their production to include cheaper and faster versions made of a coarser cotton “polish[ed] with shells and rice starch to recreate the [silky] sheen.” Today, manufacturers of the tote bags recreate the signature sheen of this textile using plastic polymer-based materials.

This rich aesthetic and social history of the plaid design is entirely left out of the discussions about its appropriation. That’s because the terms of the appropriation debate block this history from view. Responding to Jacobs’s 2006 collection, a blogger critical of fashion’s appropriations resignedly described the Louis Vuitton replica bags as just another example of the industry’s practice of “slumming”: “This is nothing new in fashion; slumming is a trope in the rarefied heights of haute couture. In recent years we have seen much appropriation of the sort.” Note that while he questions the ethics of the fashion industry’s appropriation of others’ cultural artifacts, he doesn’t question the idea that that artifact originated in a slum. His critique of cultural appropriation proceeds as if there are only two places in the world: “Western capitalist institution” and “slum.” Which, of course, reaffirms the very geocultural power relations he’s trying to critique.

This is the problem with cultural-appropriation critiques. They depend on reductive binaries—“high culture” and “low culture,” and oftentimes, “first world” and “third world”—that preserve the hierarchical relations between the fashion industry and the cultures being appropriated. This is related to the problem with cultural-appreciation defenses. Producers and consumers of culturally appropriated objects often present them as examples of healthy cosmopolitanism, of an openness to diverse global sources of inspiration. But the Indonesian plaid example shows that such production and consumption of “diversity” can often—intentionally or accidentally—obscure the actual diversity and complexity of the cultural object being copied.

Instead of the appropriation discourse, I suggest that critics and designers engage in an “inappropriate” discourse, one that reframes the debate to include all the things that are not carried over when white Western creators swipe from elsewhere. Rather than obsess over whether certain practices and forms of cultural appropriation are “good” or “bad,” “racist” or “post-racial,” respectful or not, inappropriate discourse asks what is not appropriate-able, what cannot be integrated into and continue to maintain the existing power structure of the high fashion system, and why. In doing so, we truly challenge the idea of the absolute power and authority of the West to control how the world sees, knows, and talks about fashion.

The idea that an Asian country like Indonesia might be the deliberate, self-aware originator of a fashion trend, rather than simply the third-world site for manufacturing cheap commodities, is an “inappropriate” one: It doesn’t correspond with the binary of high and low culture at the heart of cultural appropriation critiques. An “inappropriate” critique would point out that Western fashion designers are not only extraordinarily late to this plaid trend, they are following the followers of the trend. By locating the source of their inspiration in the Chinese-made bags (which are themselves based on cheap copies of the Bugis textiles), Philo, McCartney, and Jacobs are following in the tradition of earlier European and Asian trading companies who were already copying this textile. These illustrious Western fashion designers are, in effect, knocking off knock offs. The only thing “reinvented” by the Céline, Stella McCartney, and Louis Vuitton pieces is the notion of the Western fashion industry as the most important site of design innovation—an idea that is itself an invention.

Even without knowing the textile history of the Céline, Stella McCartney, and Louis Vuitton pieces—in fact, taking for granted the Chinatown origins of the prints—an inappropriate critic might ask how Chinatown residents benefit financially and socially from a high-fashion craze that references their cultural practices, everyday lives, and bodies. Does that craze afford them new opportunities to actively and genuinely participate in the fashion system (as designers, consultants, consumers, or in some other capacity)? Or does it only worsen their historical exclusion? In other words, how deep does the ballyhooed “cultural appreciation” run?

A favorite cliché among fashion elites is that commercialism is a bad word. The idea is that fashion is, first and foremost, art. Questions and critiques that follow the economic bottom line of fashion companies—who profits, how, and how much—are inappropriate. Yet since trying to parse out what is an appropriate trend or not hasn't seemed to help anyone, the inappropriate is exactly what we need right now.