Is Fashion Finally Turning the Page on Cultural Appropriation?

Model Manya Mitra wears a blouse, skirt, and jewelry from Dior’s fall 2023 collection, inspired by Indian textiles and shown in Mumbai. Styled by Samar Rajput for Vogue India. Photographed by Ethan Hart for Vogue India, April 2023.

Model Manya Mitra wears a blouse, skirt, and jewelry from Dior’s fall 2023 collection, inspired by Indian textiles and shown in Mumbai. Styled by Samar Rajput for Vogue India. Photographed by Ethan Hart for Vogue India, April 2023.

One night a few months ago, I was scouring my usual list of secondhand websites—The RealReal, eBay, Grailed—when I spotted it: a vintage Jean Paul Gaultier top plastered with imagery of cowboys and Native Americans. Sigh. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen my Indigenous culture reduced to a kind of gimmick. Growing up Ojibwe on the Nipissing First Nation reservation in northern Ontario, only rarely did I see the beauty of our people and their designs authentically reflected in the fashion world; all too often, we were reduced to caricatures instead.

But I bought that shirt, which now rests in my growing collection of fashion pieces that feature various elements of cultural appropriation. Of course, this isn’t a new concept: Appropriation—in this case, using style cues and motifs from cultures that aren’t one’s own, often without credit and in stereotypical or racist ways—has a long history in fashion. Far more than simply drawing inspiration, designers—often from white or Eurocentric backgrounds—have long mined from minority groups, adopting their underrepresented craftwork or techniques before passing them off as their own. It’s something that can be seen at least as far back as the 18th century with the chinoiserie movement, when European designers became fascinated with the motifs found in traditional Chinese dress.

“Appropriation is when you turn something into a costume—like wearing a qipao with chopsticks in your hair,” says Chinese American designer Kim Shui, who incorporates qipao-style collars into her own pieces but has seen other designers plagiarize the style—as well as larger brands pigeonhole entire vast, kaleidoscopic cultures into one specific look and co-opting it. “It’s not coming from a genuine place.”

About a year ago, after seeing more and more harmful interpretations of my own Indigenous culture resurface on the resale market, I made it my new hobby to collect these pieces. My archive includes a gold cocktail ring from an Italian luxury label in the shape of a cartoonish headdress, as well as a vintage sports tee with the derogatory term “Squaw” written on it. (My most recent acquisition: a strapless Jean-Charles de Castelbajac dress printed with headdress-wearing stick figures bearing savage grimaces.)

Why would I willingly spend money on items that I have no intention of wearing? It’s simple: Because purchasing them takes them off the market. They also—by spotlighting an era in fashion that left a lot to be desired in terms of inclusivity—have a historical value. “Back in the day, there were so many Chinese-inspired collections or geisha costumes,” says Shui, nodding to the 1990s and 2000s, when the runways were particularly rife with appropriation. “It’s almost like we had to get to that place to be able to bring more awareness to things now.”

More recently, thanks largely to social movements such as Black Lives Matter, there’s been a major shift in public consciousness around racism and matters of cultural sensitivity. By connecting directly with artisans from various communities to spotlight their unique beauty—from the point of view of those communities’ members—designers are able to reflect a more thoughtful appreciation of cultures that inspire their work without merely appropriating them.

Through her accessories label Brother Vellies, for instance, Aurora James is collaborating directly with artisans in Africa to produce shoes and handbags. “We need to celebrate artisans doing this traditional work so they can create a living for themselves and continue preserving their craft,” says James. “I want people to consider working with these artisans instead of just putting them on their mood boards.”

Christian Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri has also been working fiercely at overturning the tides of appropriation via her splashy runway shows. In a space where so few designers have been uplighting different cultures, Chiuri has not only made doing so an intentional mandate of the brand—she’s put it front and center. “This is my obsession,” says Chiuri. “It’s the most important thing for the future of fashion. There is a lot of knowledge, culture, and history [to preserve].”

The designer has recently traveled everywhere from Mumbai to Mexico City in search of new artisans to partner with. “I like to work in a way that recognizes the quality and capacity that exists in other parts of the world,” says Chiuri. “It’s very important to have points of view from different backgrounds.” For Dior’s recent pre-fall 2023 collection, Chiuri worked closely with Karishma Swali, the director of Mumbai’s Chanakya School of Craft, on the collection’s ornate embroideries. For the house’s resort 2024 show, presented in Mexico City, Chiuri collaborated with Mexican artisans from different regions on her shirts and huipils. “In each region, there are different techniques,” explains Chiuri. “Some techniques are specific to Oaxaca, or Chiapas—different communities use different crafts as a language.”

Increasingly, cultural knowledge keepers are being given a voice both through collaborations and through control over the work—such as when Gabriela Hearst enlisted Diné artist Naiomi Glasses to make chic trench coats and tops with Native American weavers. “It was part of the first step in nudging other designers to work with Indigenous creatives—and for us to be the ones behind the designs,” says Glasses. “Fashion is moving in a better direction.”

James, for her part, wants to ensure that this type of true collaboration is a continuous cycle—not just a one-off season trend—through Brother Vellies’s recently launched Something Special program, in which artisans from Africa and elsewhere will create special, limited-edition items for the brand every single month. “It’s about creating systems,” says James. “You can’t take inspiration from a group of people and not involve them in any way.”

Of course, fashion’s new cultural awakening doesn’t come without a few kinks to work out. As consumers begin to see more authentic options come to market—made by artists who are actually from the communities where these new designs originated—there’s still much confusion around who is allowed to wear what. When James released a collection inspired by Negril, Jamaica, a few years back, certain retailers were uncomfortable about selling the items. “There was a lot of red, gold, and green—colors that are typically associated with Jamaica—and they were like, Who gets to wear this?” James says.

Shui, who has faced consumer skepticism around her qipao-style collars, says that while rising awareness around cultural appropriation is much needed, embracing culturally inspired clothing shouldn’t be seen as some sort of scary proposal laden with potential pitfalls. “Don’t we want to appreciate and understand each other’s cultures,” she asks, “and not create barriers?”

Slipping into these designs simply comes with a little added homework. Understanding the context of a piece—who created it, what the history of the garment or print is, and when it’s appropriate to wear it—is an easy first step. James advises learning such things as “if the item was made by people who are part of the origination of that design—and if they are benefiting and feeling empowered by the purchase in some way.” Indigenous designer Jamie Okuma—who often incorporates traditional motifs into her work, and is the first Native designer inducted into the CFDA—adds that most artisans working in this space are creating pieces that are available for any and all to wear. “Appreciation for culturally beautiful things is absolutely welcomed,” says Okuma. “Myself and my peers who make contemporary Native design do this for everyone to enjoy.”

In our current moment, most fashion labels are, thankfully, much more wary of being culture vultures—and if they do appropriate, they are more readily called out on social media. At least for now, though, my archive from the resale market continues to grow. In my shopping cart currently: a ’90s runway piece from an Italian fashion label that features Native warriors and an image of Buffalo Bill—the American soldier, showman, and so-called Indian fighter.

Perhaps someday soon the market for appropriative options in fashion will dry up entirely. My own hope is for such pieces to become as rare as Tom Ford–era Gucci—and that my own archive becomes a kind of fashion myth—mere relics of outdated attitudes. 

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