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Rishika Parakh

Mario A. Caro


June 5, 2018

Amidst Appreciation is Appropriation

I first came across cultural appropriation in 2014, when I saw a picture of Kendall Jenner

donning a “nose ring” and “bindis” at Coachella, the holy grail of all things in trend and

fashionable. 15 year old me was torn, undecided about what she felt. On one hand, I felt proud

and happy that the Indian culture was being not only accepted but made “trendy” too. On the

other, why did it take a westerner or American to do this, why couldn’t people appreciate it’s

aesthetic when worn by the people of the culture it belongs to? In addition, nowhere did she or

her stylists mention and give credit to the Indian culture, from whom they got “inspiration” for the

look. I faced this predicament again when Beyonce, who is worshipped across the globe, wore

traditional Indian attire and henna while dancing in and around religious places. I later learned

about the appropriation of cultures through my sister who studied Fashion Management. But, it

was only after I came to study in this country did I realize how important it was to address

appropriation. In relation to this class, I am going to discuss the appropriation of Native

American cultures in the fashion industry.

Cultural Appropriation in the fashion industry is a gray and controversial area. It is the

adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to

that culture. But, if done strategically and correctly, fashion can act as a robust cultural

integrator. What makes “taking inspiration” from a different culture so ethically wrong? And in

this diverse age where cultures are ever evolving and constantly drawing from one another, how

can one do so without being ignorant and offensive?

Often people who participate in the appropriation of other cultures argue that this their

way of showing “respect and honor.” But from the popular perspective of the natives, there is

little respect in taking elements from their culture and designs, divorcing them from their true

significance and selling them to benefit oneself. One can show their respect by supporting the

native community itself. They can achieve this by buying from native designers. A great

example of a platform where people can do so is, Beyond Buckskin. This company operates

online and allows customers to purchase indigenous good directly from Native designers,

artists, and jewelers. “Diversity, beauty, utility and tradition come together in the garments and

accessories we share with the world - from our hands to yours.” (Metcalfe) By doing so, one can

help their businesses, and since these designers also understand “boundaries” we can avoid

“misappropriation,” as they are aware of what is appropriate to incorporate in clothing or articles

that may be sold commercially.

This takes me to what exactly is cultural appropriation, and the reason it came about.

Cultural appropriation is a result of the oppression of minority cultures and white privilege. In my

opinion, it often comes across as a show of power that the white has over another’s ways. Even

in today’s world where we boast of acceptance and diversity we see that people are shunned for

demonstrating their culture. More often than not white culture is widely accepted as

“pop-culture” or popular culture and trendy.

At the end of the day, it feels like the culture being appropriated is mocked. It’s a huge

slap on the face for that community when, people appropriate the same culture that they

suppressed not too long ago on the basis of their speech, behavior and most of all the way they

dress. For example, through the boarding schools where they tried to make the Natives more

“western” in terms of behavior and clothing. The goal of the non-natives was to “Kill the Indian,

Save the Man” (Ojibwa). Yet, now they are copying their regalia and culturally significant

patterns and reducing them to mere fashion statements. An example of this is the Navajo

collection that Urban Outfitters released recently. The company illegally used the term for a

collection of underwear. When a case was filed against them by the tribe they claimed that “The

term ‘Navajo’ is a common, generic term widely used in the industry and by customers to

describe a design/style or feature of clothing and clothing accessories, and therefore, is

incapable of trademark protection,” (Landry). The outcome of the legal battle feels unfair. The

Navajo tribe should have complete control over their culture, and their name should not be used

by big brands to earn profits. That is the epitome of unethical business as, before the legal

battle Urban Outfitters gave no credit or share of the profit to the tribe. The outcome, however,

has made it relatively better for the tribe, as they now have entered into an agreement and will

collaborate in the future as opposed to having no say in what is put out for the public.
Businesses must learn that it is impertinent to channel someone else’s culture and that they

must learn boundaries.

Designers, like the in the Dsquaw collection that I delve into further below, today

heedlessly swipe from Indigenous cultures, it is more than just appropriation, it can be labeled

as blatant thievery and exploitation. The fashion industry must move beyond this fetish of

poaching native communities. Designers must be made aware of the fine line between creative

liberty and pilfering especially if they make a profit off it and those that they are stealing from are

struggling for survival and, land rights amongst other basic facilities which may serve as “basics”

for the common white man.

One of the first outcries of appropriation at Coachella began with the native headdress.

These headdresses are traditionally called war bonnets, they are feathered and traditionally

worn by male leaders of a few Native American communities who have earned a place of great

respect. Originally worn into battles, they are now used during ceremonies. The feathers are

that of eagles and are earned through acts of courage and honor or acts that have helped their

communities, and traditionally women did not wear these. Due to the history and importance

pertaining to this piece of regalia, Natives consider the wearing of this an affront to their culture

and traditions, and it leads to controversy. This is partly due to a larger effort by activists to bring

attention to the cultural genocide. But, we cannot only blame the festival goers for this offense

against the indigenous communities. These pieces of regalia became a “statement pieces” after

they were worn by and modeled by celebrities. Although it does not justify the fact the public is

ignorant, it is common knowledge that in the fashion world too, people move in herds. Everyone

is there to follow the leader, or in this case, the new cool trend.

Several brands and magazines have recently come under fire for cultural appropriation.

A few of the incidences are the 2015 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show where world-famous
model Karlie Kloss strutted on the runway wearing a headdress, and Pharrell Williams who wore

it on the cover of Elle Magazine which is again sold worldwide in 2014 amongst other

incidences. It isn’t the fault of just the brands, the celebrities are the ones who are putting

themselves on a public platform, and they must be held accountable as well. Celebrities are

aware of their influence and power they hold, they often take advantage of this through

advertisements and endorsements deals. They along with with their team must be more aware

of their actions and the impact it has.

Victoria’s Secret released a public apology stating, “We sincerely apologize as we

absolutely had no intention to offend anyone” but it was ineffective. Their representation of the

headdress had done the damage. A native representative in the same article said, “Any

mockery, whether it's Halloween, Victoria's Secret -- they are spitting on us. They are spitting on

our culture, and it's upsetting” (Fox News). The ignorance of the world famous brand and Kloss,

a renowned model who is highly looked up to by girls with her initiative “Kode with Klossy”

where she helps young girls to learn how to code, came as a shock. After the backlash faced by

Gwen Stefani’s video of the song “Looking Hot” a little before the show, it came as a surprise

that the brand went on with Klosses’ “costume.” Stefani was accused of “debasing all Native

American women" and perpetuating the colonial image of the "Savage Indian” (Elan). It came to

light that Headdresses are not to be worn as a “statement” or for the sake of fashion. A study

revealed that 1 out of every 3 Native American women has been raped or experienced

attempted rape, and the rate of sexual assault against Native American women is more than

twice the national average. And by dressing as a "sexy Indian," Victoria’s Secret and the

models, were sexualizing a group of women who are victims of sex crimes and already

devastatingly sexualized. Pharrell, on the other hand, released a public apology in an interview
with Buzzfeed. And, although that he has ties to the Native American heritage he acknowledges

why the photograph is still offensive.

Another brand that was quick to face backlash was Dsquared2 with their 2015 Fall

Collection which was showcased at Milan Fashion Week. They called their collection “Dsquaw”

which is an offensive term for American Indian women or wives.

The Canadian designer duo Dean and Dan Caten appropriated the Inuit culture, and

described their collection as “a captivating play on contrasts: an ode to America's native tribes

meets the noble spirit of Old Europe.” (Hartford) But, to make patterns and designs that have

major cultural significance important part of a person's culture and describe it as "an ethnic

makeover" and "a folkloristic feel" (Hartford) is to reduce these things it to a gimmick, and thus

devalue the culture reducing its complexity to something that can be made an accessory, put on
and tossed off. Through this collection the duo has disrespectfully lumped all indigenous people

together into one group, robbing them of their individuality and uniqueness. Dsquared2

addressed this issue by releasing a letter addressed to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada

publically apologizing for their ignorance. They also mention that they hope that through their

mistake they have brought attention to the issue and as a result, other designers can learn more

about this topic too.

In the images below, we can see that designer Kokon To Zai has used an identical

design and prints without giving any credit or taking permission from the concerned tribe. This

was pointed out by the granddaughter of the “Inuit shaman” to whom the original garment

belonged. This piece held a special place in her family and tribe as the piece was designed by

the Inuit himself for protection. We see designers belittle regalia to a “trendy parka.” The work of

designers is to be creative and produce fresh designers. Here To Zai is not only plagiarizing the

design, but also gaining profits off of this design. The granddaughter made the following

statement, “These are sacred images that they are using. They are breaking the Inuit sacred

laws of duplicating someone else's shaman clothing . . . and for a profit of all things” (CBC


The family rightfully dismisses the company’s argument that the parka was a form of

showing tribute. This is a question that remains unanswered by designers themselves. Where

are they ready to draw the line? Where does their moral compass lie in terms of when to give

credit and give back to the community they are capitalizing off of. One way to combat this is to

include members of these tribes in the process and collaborate with them. By doing so,

designers can kill two birds with one stone. They can diversify their collection and styles with the

help of these native designers while being mindful of the designs and patterns they use. On the
other hand, they can give back to the community and expose these natives to a wider customer


One of the first initiatives of a collaboration that comes to mind is that of Valentino, a

high-end Italian brand and Metis Artist Christi Belcourt. The products of this collaboration were

called “a breath of fresh air” (Jacobs). This 2016 Resort Collection seemed to be the perfect

example of a joint effort and one that other designers would hopefully follow. The following were

the words of an employee that worked closely with the designers, “There should be an

exchange of ideas that can produce garments that are authentic and thoroughly thought through

in order to avoid the common pitfalls of contributing to offensive stereotypes that already exist in

the marketplace” (Jacobs). Several native artists and designers supported this too as this

collection was released not too long after the fiascos in 2015 which have been discussed

earlier. Belcourt also served the environment with this collection as they were very careful with

the materials they gathered for the production of the garments. She also seems to make a

statement with her work as she uses medicinal plants in her designs, thereby signifying the

relation of natives with their land and the environment. Belcourt’s collection came across as a

win-win situation at first.

Belcourt realized a little later that, Valentino had simultaneously released another

collection that was inspired by other Native communities without any consultation with the

concerned tribes. Belcourt had done her research before collaborating with Valentino to make

sure their record of appropriation was clean. The reason she didn’t come across this was that

the collections were in motion at the same time. Valentino was also accused of theft of these

designs and faced severe criticism, which as a result reduced the credit they received for their

collaboration with Belcourt. This situation seemed like the perfect example to me of how a brand

can advance and harm itself depending on how they chose to delve into a new realm. The

outcomes of both approaches are apparent. Being moral definitely boosted the brands’ public

image which could help them gain more collaborations with artists of other cultures.

As explained earlier, Beyond Buckskin is an online platform for natives to sell their

products. This website has been gaining popularity in the last few reasons and this article, “Oh

No, Valentino | Appropriation and the Case of the Stolen Beadwork” (Metcalfe) proves to us

why. Metcalfe successfully covers the entire situation and also provides readers with further

insight. She talks about the economic aspect and how Native artists suffer because their

designs are “stolen”, and communities suffer because this leads to stereotypes on the basis of

designs. She also addresses where one must draw the line for appropriation and how

companies and brands can participate in the ethical appropriation of the “tribal trend.”

Another example of such a brand is Nike, that is collaborating with community experts and tribal

leaders to create shoes especially for the Indigenous communities called Nike Air Native N7

which was started to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. Through this, they hope to

support health promotion and disease prevention programs. They have also mentioned that all

of the proceeds of the shoes sold through Native American community centers and tribes are

given back to youth sport and physical activity programs across North America through the N7
Fund. Nike has also used Native sportspeople as their ambassadors on their website giving

them a platform and representing them.

In a video documentary review of these shoes, the verdict was mixed. While there were

some Natives that supported the initiative and admit that the shoe is helpful since they have

wider feet that are usually not accommodated by other shoes. Others waved it off as a

corporate manipulation, and a publicity stunt and laughed it off saying, next the brand will come

out with a cap to accommodate the feathers on their head. Critics also call the name N7 a

heritage callout as it refers to the Seven Generations. “The 7th generation principle taught by

Native Americans says that in every decision, be it personal, governmental or corporate, we

must consider how it will affect our descendants seven generations into the future.”(Larkin) This

concept is a part of tribal wisdom and planning. But, in the brands' defense, the shoes are

scientifically made to better fit the feet of Natives amongst others and are sold at a wholesale

price to make them more affordable.

What I find interesting is that someone called the “chunky” and “grandpa shoes,” this

video is from 2010. Nike seems ahead of the game. In 2018, in an age where being a

“sneakerhead’ is considered “cool” these shoes would be cherished. The current trend in

sneakers is chunky shoes with some pairs selling for as high as $900. Beyond the aesthetic and

style quotient, Nike does seem to be doing a good job of giving back to the community and
being ethical. The secret to success in business is to cater to consumers’ needs. I have learned

over and over that “Consumer is King.” By catering to this niche market, they have opened up

avenues that were unexplored by their competitors and it might benefit them in the long run by

encouraging brand loyalty. How can one take credit away from Nike when they are one of the

first few brands to be inclusive and bring in Natives in a positive light? Like any other initiative,

they did face some criticism for including symbols of sunrises, sunsets, feathers, and

arrowheads. But, in the long run, I think Nike has had a positive impact.

To avoid appropriation one must understand both, the concept of appropriation and of

borrowing in the legal and business sense along with the cultural sense. It is important for us to

be aware of this issue at a global level. The following is a quote by Sam White seems fitting,

“Just because something isn’t happening to you, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

One may notice that even though there is an increase in awareness, discussion about

cultural appropriation is not common in society unless an issue arises. The main problem arises

when the dominant group readily takes and borrows certain aspects of minority cultures while

refusing to experience or understand other aspects. The true problem is when the dominant

culture refuses to acknowledge the discrimination and mistreating of that community. One

cannot claim to respect and appreciate a culture if they do not even attempt to understand it.

Pertaining to the fashion world, designers should be entitled to drawing inspiration from other

cultures, if they didn’t we would reach a global stage of cultural stagnation. Mixing of cultures

can incite cross-cultural communication and learning. The key to this is that they simply take

inspiration rather than mimic the culture, as with the access to information and research there is

no excuse for them reducing these minority cultures to a one-dimensional stereotype.

Annotated Bibliography

1. Adamfilmmaker. "A Documentary on the Nike Air Native N7 Shoe." YouTube. June 23,

2010. Accessed June 05, 2018.

This video is a documentary on the review of the Air Native N7 shoe. It provides mixed and

honest reviews about the shoes. This video provides perspective on Native collaborations with

big brands.

2. Banks, Alec. "Fashion & Music Should ALSO Stop its Native American Cultural

Appropriation." Highsnobiety. Accessed February 13, 2018.

Banks' article talks about how we must stop Native American Cultural Appropriation in not just

fashion, but also music. He touches on its use in mascots and music festivals amongst others.

3.Benesh-Liu, Patrick R. “Native Fashion Now.” Ornament 40, no. 1 (July 2017): 54-57.

Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed February 13, 2018)

This article is a review of “Native Fashion Now”, an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Cantley, Janet. “from New to Now.” Native Peoples Magazine 27, no.1 (January 2014):

36-41. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed February 13, 2018)

Janet’s article discusses the fashion designs of American Indian fashion designers and artists of

2014. She focuses on the native elements in their designs. She includes the works of various

designers like Pilar Agoyo and Orlando Dugi.

3. DeRoche, Annelise. "Appropriation of Indigenous Culture in the Fashion Industry." Medium.

October 17, 2016. Accessed February 15, 2018.

This article connects the misappropriation in the fashion world and the media coverage as a

result. A brief history of appropriation is provided too. According to her, “commercial viability and

cultural respect” are two aspects that one must keep in mind, and in today’s world, only the first

is considered. It is the view that this form of "cultural preservation" must be done only by those

who truly respect and understand the culture.

4.Elan, Priya. "No Doubt's Native American Video: Why It Wasn't Looking Hot." The

Guardian. November 05, 2012. Accessed June 05, 2018.

I have used Elan's article on Gwen Stefani's video as an example of the ignorance of celebrities

and the effect it has on pop culture and their audience in terms of appropriation of the Native



FASHION OR TRADITION'S SAKE?." Native Peoples Magazine, July 2015, 88-91.

Gatewood's article tells us about the Native American Clothing Contest. She focuses on the

history of the contest itself and her experience there.

6. Grinberg, Emanuella. "Why Native American designers are not OK with fashion

headdresses." CNN. June 04, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2018. appropriation/index.html.

This article covers certain appropriations done by famous celebrities and brands. it covers

Victoria's Secret scandal where they use the culture to gain profits and that the Native

community should play a larger role in media representations of their culture.

7. Jacobs, Alex. "High Fashion Uses Native Artist's Work - the Right Way!" Indian Country
Today. July 18, 2015. Accessed June 05, 2018.


Jacobs' article talks about Valentino's collaboration with Metis artist. I use this as an example to

show how collaborations can have positive effects if done right but can backfire as soon as the

brand works without the approval and guidance of their Native partner.

8. K, Adrienne. "But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?" Native Appropriations. April 27,

2010. Accessed February 14, 2018. headdress.html.

This article talks about using the headdress as a piece of fashion or an accessory. These have

been worn mainly at music concerts as statement pieces without any regard to it's true

significance. The author discusses how this use is popularly but wrongly justified, and why it is

wrong to be using the Native American regalia without acknowledging its true meaning.

9. Landry, Alysa. "Navajo Nation and Urban Outfitters Reach Agreement on


Indian Country Today. November 22, 2016. Accessed June 05, 2018.


Landry's article gives us details about the legal controversy Urban Outfitters was involved in

regarding their "Navajo" collection. They also reference their other garments that have been

deemed inappropriate to be sold commercially.

10. Lanphier, DJ. "The Awful History Behind Why Hipsters Think It's OK to Wear

Headdresses." Mic. October 25, 2015. Accessed February 13, 2018.


This article focuses on how the appropriation of the Native American culture started. He

discusses it's used in comics, movies, music, and fashion.

11. Metcalfe, Jessica. "Native Americans know that cultural misappropriation is a land of

darkness | Jessica Metcalfe." The Guardian. May 18, 2012. Accessed February 13, 2018.


The author of this article wishes to provide a method to bring the work of Native artists to the

attention of people by giving them an opportunity. To say, "This is Native fashion." He

wishes to give a face to the history and people behind these trends. He believes this

appropriation is a "dark place" as people who are not authorized are taking over one and other's


12. Metcalfe, Jessica. "BEYOND BUCKSKIN." BEYOND BUCKSKIN. 2009. Accessed

February 14, 2018.

It is a website that promotes and showcases the works of Native American designers and

artists. a few years later they added an online store to their websites. They have several blogs

on new artists and designers, and topics like Native Representation and "How to Wear..."

without being offensive.

13. Metcalfe, Dr. Jessica R. "Oh No, Valentino | Appropriation and the Case of the Stolen

Beadwork." BEYOND BUCKSKIN. April 25, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2018.
Metcalfe's article addresses the controversial collaboration between Metis artist and Valentino. It

appropriately depicts how a brand can further itself through collaborations and harm its

reputation by improper appropriation

14. “Native Haute Couture.” Native Peoples Magazine 28, no.5 (September 2015): 20-21. Art

Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (Accessed February 13, 2018).

This article was written prior to a fashion show. The show was to showcase the designs of

Patricia Michaels in Chicago on October 4, 2015. It was in concurrence with the “Native Haute

Couture” exhibit.

15. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Understanding Why Cultural Appropriation Is Wrong." ThoughtCo.

October 11, 2017. Accessed February 13, 2018.

Nittle's article discusses what appropriation is. It's various forms and examples of appropriation.

She has also devoted a section of her piece to why it is a problem and how one can avoid it.

16, "Nunavut Family Outraged after Fashion Label Copies Sacred Inuit Design | CBC


CBCnews. November 27, 2015. Accessed June 05, 2018.


KTZ is year another example of companies that "steal" from Native cultures in the name of

appreciation for profit. This brand seems to surpass all boundaries as they copy an exact Native

design. The designer and this brand have not been accused of appropriation for the first time in

this case.

17. Ojibwa. "From Boarding School to University." Native American Netroots. April 1,

2013. Accessed June 05, 2018. Http:// Schools.

This article covers the description and history of the Indian Boarding schools that were set up by

Christian missionaries to civilize the Indians. I use this information in my essay to contrast how

the Westerners first tried to transform the Indian only to emulate them later.

18. Pacholik, Devin. "This Is What Indigenous Artists Think of Your Hipster Headdress."

Noisey. August 28, 2015. Accessed February 16, 2018.


This article focuses on the Natives perspective on "others" taking over or using their regalia. The

headdresses are earned and can be misinterpreted as mocking their culture when someone

else wears it. These must not be worn as costumes and doing so takes away from "real Indian


19. Parezo, Nancy J. “Indian chic: the Denver Art Museum’s Indian style show.” American

Indian Art Magazine 23, (Winter97 1997): 44-55. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson),

EBSCOhost (Accessed February 13, 2018).

The exhibit of, “The Indian Style Show” was one of Native American women’s regalia that

toured in the 1940s and 50s. it was designed by the curator of the

Denver Art Museum, Frederic Douglas. It was one of the most successful anthropological

outreach programs at the time. The aim of this show was to create understanding by showing

the similarities between different races. He felt that this understanding would be best achieved

through women.

20. Scafidi, Susan. "Pharrell Apologizes for Wearing Native American Headdress." Time.

June 6, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2018.

This article focuses on Pharrell William's picture in Elle magazine. He wears a Native

American headdress in the cover photo of the magazine. This article also covers his apology for

disregard of the culture, examples of other celebrities practicing the same ignorance as well as

when it is appropriate to appropriate the Native American culture.

21. "Victoria's Secret Apologizes after Use of Native American Headdress in Fashion Show

Draws Outrage." Fox News. November 13, 2012. Accessed June 05, 2018.


Fox News' article covers Victoria's Secrets' public apology for using the Native headdress as an


22. Wang, Connie. "Whom You're Insulting When You Buy "Native American"-Inspired

Things." Native American Fashion Designers-Cultural Appropriation. November 25, 2015.

Accessed February 14, 2018. American-fashion.

This article talks about the illegal aspect of appropriation, as well as how big-name designers

capitalize on these designs. They do so while being unintentionally disrespectful and using

certain symbols and motifs which may not be appropriate. There is special attention on


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