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Dear Fashion Industry: The World’s Cultures Are Not Yours to Plunder

The fashion industry, like every other cultural industry on the planet, seems to be out of ideas. But since remakes and reboots aren’t really available to it, the primary mode of getting new blood in the clothing veins is to appropriate imagery from other cultures and subcultures. This, they do quite badly. We have had no less than three new examples of that this week. We have Diesel half-assedly incorporating burkas into an ad campaign, and Marc Jacobs using a graphic associated with a skinhead band on a $70 T-shirt in his fall line. In both those cases, the carelessness of the appropriation basically speaks for itself; there’s no way of interpreting this as an attempt to intelligently “remix” anything, just a craven way to use complicated phenomena as grease for the engines of capitalism. Yay.

Over at The Cut, meanwhile, Robin Givhan complains about a somewhat harder case. Laura and Kate Mulleavy’s Rodarte made a misstep in trying to emulate the Chola look with zebra prints and ruffles, she says. She puts it thusly, in typically breathless fashion prose:

Styles that germinate on the street form a protective armor of their own. They bond the wearer to a particular tribe. They communicate a bond across a crowded street corner. They bolster the strut of people who’ve been disenfranchised or ostracized from the Establishment. They impart confidence.

Yet there was little swagger on the Rodarte runway.

I certainly agree with Givhan that the collection doesn’t work. But I don’t think it’s because the models lacked “swagger.” In fact, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a bunch of presumably white models could have pulled that off. In fact, one shudders to think what might happen if a bunch of dimly informed people of any professional stripe were instructed to explicitly mimic the “confidence” of “Cholas.” You’re asking for a caricature, and you will almost certainly get one.

Welcome to the irritating world of cultural appropriation, where yes, sorry, you pretty much can’t win. Artists and free-culture types like to complain that in their business, appropriation is what’s for dinner; the more intellectual among them will whip out a copy of Lawrence Lessig’s theories about remix culture. And they are not totally wrong — there isn’t much by way of new ideas under the sun. But the idea that you can just pick and choose the images you employ in your work gets trickier when the main reason you’re in a position to pick and choose is that you are rich or white or even male. Being an outsider, you have a greater responsibility to make sure you’re representing a thing accurately and fully. And only the greatest of artists can manage it.

The Mulleavys, to be clear, are very good at what they do, and yet they still stumbled. This is only a matter of my humble opinion, but I think it’s fashion that’s the problem here. For one thing, fashion is obsessed with iconography. And the fact is, iconography cuts awfully close to stereotype, most of the time. An icon is a distillation; it preserves only the essentials of someone or something, and cuts out all the mess. But the mess is the part, say, where the outfit the “chola” is wearing doesn’t define her. Her defiance and confidence are not the only things she feels about wearing that outfit on the street. The mess is the part where she’s a full human being, not a stereotype to be manipulated and wielded as a way to sell clothing.

And as another matter, there’s just something about the nature of clothing, I think, that is always going to leave it open to this kind of criticism. Clothing is, by its nature, an ephemeral statement: put it on, take it off, there’s something inherently flippant about it. You can’t make a lasting statement about the long history of a style of dress in something that within 12 hours will be in the laundry hamper, or on someone’s floordrobe.

There is, probably, some way to negotiate this no-win situation. One that leaps to mind is having your models be actual representatives of the culture you want to celebrate, rather than treating their style as something white women can try on for a day or two until the next trend comes along. That would smack much more of actually valuing the look rather than wanting to own it yourself. But that would require fashion folk to be aware in the first place that it is not their god-given right to mindlessly take whatever they’d like from everyone else, and that might just be too tall of an order.

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