A recent New York Times opinion piece by Connie Wang, a senior features writer for Refinery29 and the host of the documentary series “Style Out There,” offers a counterpoint to the often maligned idea of cultural appropriation.
“Finding the Beauty in Cultural Appropriation” takes a look at what Nigeria is doing to introduce their country’s various traditional and ancient clothing styles into high fashion. “A source of pride”1 to the Nigerians, the clothing combines the colors, fabrics and designs of various indigenous groups and repurposes them for the runway, bringing to life an ingenious and wildly inventive concept. Taking her cue from Nigerian haute couture, Wang offers her own take on how borrowing, copying and imitating other cultures can actually be a good thing.
Cultural appropriation is not a modern invention. It finds its roots in our primitive antecedents and the fact we are a species endowed with an affinity for mimicry. In “Mimicry in Social Interaction: Its Effect on Human Judgment and Behavior” published in the European Journal of Social Sciences, authors Nicolas Gueguen, Celine Jacob and Angelique Martin write “…mimicry is associated with the desire to create affiliation and rapport and that automatic mimicry is the result of an evolution process when mimicry was used in social communication between humans.2 In other words, mimicry offered the possibility of connections by promoting the sense of likeness to others.
Through the millennia exploration, trade, travel and migrations due to war and natural disasters caused various groups of people to intermingle and to adapt. Part of this adaptation was an assimilation into other groups by some degree of adoption of others’ cultural attributes. This is a basic survival mechanism from when isolation from the tribe or group meant certain death.
But when did the natural mimicry of humans and their need to adapt become transmogrified into something offensive? In modern history, the rise of advocates for disenfranchised groups have led the charge against any capitalizing on cultural identity through indigenous symbols and images. Colonialism robbed many cultures of their resources and self-determination, and cultural appropriation of any kind became a psychic wound, a generational trauma often triggered unwittingly. Here’s one example of the cognitive dissonance of cultural misperception:
One of the conversations on twitter led to talk about the London-based fashion line, KTZ, which appropriated Native American prints in their clothing during New York Fashion Week in 2015. The designer, Marjan Pejoski discussed the topic and clarified that it was part of the purpose to incorporate indigenous styles with Western cuts, as it was the first time showcasing the clothing in the United States. However, the designer was still criticised as on twitter, writer Lauren Chief Elk stated “This isn’t inspiration…It’s straight up appropriation and theft, of Indigenous people who are CURRENTLY using their own culture in design” (Elk).3
The always imaginative fashion industry has been a steady object of criticism regarding their “borrowing” of cultural symbols. Although Wang has another take on this controversy:
In other words, cultural appropriation might cause outrage, but it will not stop. And so the question is why? What do people get out of adopting aesthetics from other cultures? Through my travels, I’ve come to see appropriation as a form of communication: Sometimes what people are trying to say is trivial, hurtful and condescending — a bindi to proclaim that they’re “exotic” for instance, or cornrows to say they’re “cool.” But other times, what is being said is difficult and important.
…In the end, determining when cultural appropriation is O.K. can feel as if it requires a delicate calculus, more holistic than binary. It’s understandable that as a result, we’ve landed on treating cultural appropriation as a bad habit to be trained out of us; often it feels easier not to engage at all. But this balancing act is worth performing. Because the bad-habit model is not only exhausting; the result is often that people are so afraid of appearing “bad” that they self-censor good-faith impulses to try something new. Ironically, in doing so, they learn less about other cultures.4
So is cultural appropriation always wrong? Is this a conflict born of history and lack of cultural agency that will eventually evolve and be acceptable? Or does it continue a form of alienation of a culture, a diminishing and distortion of its contributions and by default, their status in society?
Read the rest of Connie Wang’s article here and see more of Nigeria’s traditional styles updated for today’s fashion conscious.
Learn about other aspects of cultural appropriation and its history starting from the Dadaists here.