Dress and Cultural Appropriation

Earlier this year, French fashion designer Isabel Marant was accused of plagiarism, a frequent occurrence in the fashion industry where designers take their inspiration from museum exhibitions, films, the street, the color of a mud hut, and, in this case, from the indigenous Mixe women of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec in Oaxaca, México.  Yet what makes this story unique is its 21st century flavor. Musician Susana Harp sent the tweet about Marant that was heard round the world.  Or perhaps seen round the world is putting it more aptly.  So much of our 21st century technologically driven news culture is communicated via images that trump words.  As Susan Sontag observed in On Photography, “Photographs furnish evidence.”   

Musician Susana Harp's Twitter images

The tweet in question consisted of two images.  In one photograph Susana Harp, a Mexican singer from Oaxaca, stands among a group of smiling women from Santa María Tlahuitoltepec wearing blouses associated with their Mixe culture.  Though Harp has no known overtly indigenous ancestry, she shows her appreciation for indigenous Mesoamerican culture by singing in several different indigenous languages.  The nature of her pop persona paired with the photo positions her as a knowledgeable ambassador of indigenous culture if not an insider representative.  The second tweeted image is a close-up photo Harp took while shopping in Las Vegas:  the blouse and price tag from Marant’s Etoile Collection.  #miblusadetlahui

According to a June 17, 2015 article in The Guardian, the Mixe women are seeking reparation damages and considering legal action.  They have stated that they want the blouse removed from the collection and for the group’s cultural heritage to be recognized.  Says the article, the women want the designer to “recognise the imitation of the traditional pattern, and invite her to meet the artisans to ‘appreciate how the blouse is shared in the everyday.’”

Miley Cyrus at MTV Video Music Awards
Miley Cyrus' blonde dreadlocks at the MTV Video Music Awards

One of the issues at stake is the matter of cultural appropriation, which has lately received a good deal of attention in social and news media.  White appropriation of African American culture, for example, is a pop culture lightning rod.  Consider the summer Hair Gate that put white pop singer Miley Cyrus at the epicenter with her corn rows and her dreadlocks.  Her first transgression in Hair Gate—the corn rows—might be chalked up to an innocent, ignorant style faux or perhaps even a throwback to 70s sex symbol Bo Derek.  It wasn’t long, however, before she appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards sporting dreadlocks.  Deliberately provocative?  Probably.  Ms. Cyrus’ clever grown-up media persona shift from lovable Hannah Montana to would-be transgressive sex pot is just that, a clever media persona shift.  No doubt this savvy young person who came of age in the public eye knows precisely what she is doing.  Do these hairdos constitute a cultural parody?  Or perhaps she is guilty of cultural appropriation, donning black cultural accouterments when it suits the situation? 

While Hair Gate’s meaning is difficult to parse out, the Isabel Marant/Mixe blouse scandal is a bit more straightforward. 

Western fashion is a commercial endeavor and as such deliberately transgressive hijinks are not necessarily moneymakers.  We can safely assume that Isabel Marant did not intend to parody the Mixe blouse.  Moreover, a true parody requires a noticeable distancing between the original and the copy.  It is the slippage in difference that elicits laughter.  In the Isabel Marant case, there is little noticeable difference, at least as represented in the controversial tweet. 

The Guardian contacted Isabel Marant’s offices earlier this summer and the reporter was told:

Before the district court of Paris, Isabel Marant is fighting to set the record straight: she has presented submissions which expressly point out that these designs come from the village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec in the province of Oaxaca, in Mexico … Moreover, Ms Isabel Marant, after tracing the true origin of these clothes, officially informed the court: ‘For her part, Ms Isabel Marrant does not claim to be the author of this tunic and these designs’

The statement acknowledges the design’s source and relinquishes claims to authorship.  To my knowledge Marant has not taken up the Mixe women on their offer to teach her appreciation for how the blouse is used in everyday life. 

Western fashion labels, particularly at the higher end, delight in framing designers as artists. Certainly there are designers, past and present, who fit that description.  Yet ultimately the fashion industry is a commercial endeavor—a point the Mixe women understand quite well—and the Marant label’s issued statement reflects this.  “For her part, Ms. Isable Marant does not claim to be the author of this tunic and these designs.”  And yet she is able to claim designer purview over the garment and sell it with her name on it.  Such is the nature of the fashion industry, which wants to have it both ways: all the freedom of artistic license to steal as if one were Pablo Picasso and all the entitlement of commerce to make money from such shameless design theft. 

DVF/Forever 21
The DVF dress is nearly indistinguishable from the Forever 21 knockoff

The issue of copyright in the fashion industry has been a particularly sticky one with the rise in the past two decades or so of “fast fashion.”  Fast fashion is essentially the low-budget knocking off of high end designs and selling such garments for shockingly low prices.  Retailer giants associated with the concept include H&M and Forever 21.  In 2007, designer Diane Von Furstenberg, the creator of the legendary wrap dress, filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against Forever 21 claiming it willfully copied one of her designs.  Forever 21 successfully settled out of court with Von Furstenberg and other designers who filed suit.  The settlements tell us two things.  First, it is far more lucrative for Forever 21 to occasionally pay off a designer than it is for them to cease making cheap knock-offs.  Second, Diane Von Furstenberg and other designers filing suit would seem to be less concerned with cheap knock-offs being sold than with being compensated for said cheap knock-offs.  Clearly artistic integrity is not the driving force. 

The DVF-Forever 21 example represents a fair match between participants of the same fashion culture.  The Isabel Marant-Mixe example does not.  Indigenous populations in Mexico regularly experience racism that manifests itself in myriad ways.  Because of different historical circumstances including geography, a number of indigenous people in Oaxaca have managed to preserve elements of their culture, including dress aspects, that pre-date the Spanish Conquest.  Yet the blouse in question is by no means part of some unchanging tradition—cut and constructed tailored blouses were introduced from Europe during Spanish colonization.  Nonetheless the blouse has become a contemporary signifier of Mixe culture.

So is Marant guilty of cultural appropriation?

Check back soon for part two of the discussion about dress and cultural appropriation.

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