The Colonial Catwalk
The Western fashion industry has had a long history of using other cultures in inappropriate and exploitative ways. The networks of material sourcing that undergird the modern fashion industry are largely predicated on pre-existing imperial systems. For example, Britain’s colonisation of the Indian subcontinent from 1612-1947 entailed a ruthless extraction of Indian textile materials for Britain’s own economic gain. Similarly, when the Silk Road was in operation – one of the earliest periods of international trade – the Roman Empire had already begun establishing plenty of shamelessly unequal trade agreements with China for their silks. To this day, we see a similar sentiment of exploitation carry on in the form of sweatshops in Southeast Asian Countries which are sustained by large Western brands like H&M and GAP.
Not to mention, many prominent Western labels also have a longstanding habit of profiting off of designs that incorporate racist imaginings and misappropriated styles. Note that, herein lies the key difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation; cultural exchange occurs when there is mutual respect, understanding, and both parties gain equal benefits, whereas cultural appropriation occurs when members from a dominant culture use particular elements from a systematically oppressed culture for their own benefit, and without permission. A prime example of this is when, in 2017, Chanel released a $1,930 designer boomerang which was listed under ‘Other Accessories’ on their website beside items like a tennis racquet and surfboard. Putting aside the utter misappropriation of the Indigenous Australian hunting weapon which is traditionally inscribed or painted with designs holding particular significance for the crafter and their tribe, the Chanel-stamped ‘accessory’ costs roughly $200 more than the average monthly income of Indigenous Australians. Along a similar vein, in 2012, Louis Vuitton released a range of hats, shirts, and scarves inspired by the Maasai Shuka (a special fabric used to protect the Massai from the harsh weather and terrain of the savannah) in a bid to weave an exotic flair into their commercial products and increase sales. The Massai people attempted but failed to obtain copyright royalties from Louis Vuitton for capitalising on their cultural heritage, and, until this day, the multibillion dollar brand is still reaping profits from this collection without having offered any recompense or reparations.
When these brands are caught under fire by the public for being culprits of cultural appropriation, the most they offer is a removal of the particular items from sale and a haphazard apology for the unintended offense – if that. Again and again, we see no monetary compensation or tangible reparations offered to the communities which own the designs. This is particularly problematic because, by displacing the sale of culturally authentic pieces, cultural appropriation can wield a hefty economic blow to Indigenous peoples and local communities who make a living by selling traditional clothes.
Traditional cultural expressions are currently unprotected under Intellectual Property laws, and are instead relegated to the public domain. The negative implications of this are significant – traditional cultural expressions not only become vulnerable to various forms of appropriation which undermine their sacred or customary purposes, but the communities who identify with these cultural expressions are also stripped of any legal means to exercise their ownership over or rights to these important elements of their culture. Protecting cultural expressions under Intellectual Property laws is an important first step to ensuring that cultural appropriation does continue scot-free.
Considering that the cultures which face cultural appropriation have traditionally been denied, interrupted, and unacknowledged, it is of utmost importance that we do not continue to perpetuate neoliberal forms of colonial oppression through what we choose to wear – and by extension, how we choose to present ourselves to the world.