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Tribal prints and native headbands: Fashion's great cultural appropriation controversy


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What would the fashion industry be without a bit of controversy every now and then? If it’s not John Galliano spouting a drunken anti-Semitic rant or Vogue Italia running a trend feature on ‘Slave Earrings’, it’s Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries being openly size-ist. 

While sometimes unintentional, on occasion designers do deliberately offend, shock or rebel. But while the industry is used to all manner of new and exciting scandals cropping up season upon season, there is one contentious issue that continues to be brought to the fashion forefront.

Cultural appropriation (often misreported as alleged racism in fashion; see Vogue’s article ‘Nike Reacts to Racism Claims’) is something that the fashion industry is inarguably guilty of, and the recent example of Nike being chastised for the design of its Pro Tattoo Tech Tights has once again hauled the topic into the headlines, and into debate.  The garment in question features a monochrome print which, apparently, bears stark similarity to the traditional Samoan Pe’a male tattoo. 

Nike swiftly withdrew the item following a petition which described the leggings as a ‘direct violation of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, and is furthermore in violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ was signed by 750 people, apologising for any accidental offense caused.

This case is just one of many; most notably, native headdresses (a festival style favourite) have, in the past few months, been at the centre of scandals involving companies such as H&M and Victoria’s Secret.  H&M was forced to pull said headdresses from the shelves of its Canada stores following complaints that the items were offensive to the nation’s aboriginal people, while Victoria’s Secret caused outrage when it sent model Karlie Kloss down the catwalk in November 2012 wearing leopard print lingerie, heels and a floor-length feathered Native American-inspired headdress.

Many dismissed the uproar, claiming that people were being ‘oversensitive’ and citing it as yet another example of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and, until looking further into the issue and hearing the opinions of those directly affected, I myself was of the same opinion.  Now, while my mind is still not entirely made up on the matter, I have to admit that I feel the fashion industry is perhaps too frivolous when it comes to such potentially sensitive subjects; but, ultimately, where do you draw the line?

There are so many threads that could be woven into this complex debate; if the use of headdresses and tribal prints in fashion is apparently offensive, then surely kimonos (an item of traditional Japanese descent), Aztec prints (originating from a Mexican tribal group), Indian-inspired jewellery, ear-stretching, even military-style items, should come under the same considerations? 

Similarly, the appropriation of religious imagery in fashion has been commonplace for some time, particularly evident in the popular trend for garments and accessories adorned with crosses.  Are such symbols becoming more of a fashion statement than a religious icon?  Why was there not as huge an outcry over Karla Spetic’s ‘sassy Jesus prints’ as there was for the Nike leggings currently in question? Or, on the flipside, why is a cross on a Topshop t-shirt seemingly sanctioned, while a middle-aged Christian woman working in an airport is ordered to remove her small cross necklace or hide it from view, in case she offends persons of other religions?

As I said, you could pursue tangents aplenty on this topic but, the fundamental question is this; how much attention should the fashion world pay to potential offense that some items can cause?  While the fashion of the original Punk movement, the style once again making the rounds for Autumn/Winter 2013, intended to offend – clothes emblazoned with curses and defaced, er, faces of political members were the order of the day – in an extension of the rebellious spirit it encapsulated, it is fairly certain that Nike did not mean to piss off the Samoans in similar fashion. Should they have perhaps done a bit more research into the origins of this particular print? Is it simply a case of people reading too much into things, or indeed of the Daily Mail’s favourite ‘political correctness gone mad’?

People need to accept that fashion will continue to be permeated by the influence of other cultures, as it has done for centuries – just look at the oriental-inspired fabrics and cuts of the 1920’s, or the admiration we still have for French fashion houses; how else would it possibly be able to offer new trends?  It just as often turns to tradition, to film costume, or to the natural world for inspiration. Perhaps this is where the problem stems from, the fine line between appropriation and inspiration; who decides when creative imagination becomes cultural insensitivity? And how can we ever tell where the line truly lies?

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