Amidst reports that the U.N. are considering a set of laws that would make cultural appropriation illegal, Kate Devlin argues that the fashion industry has a responsibility to support this proposed legislation and act as an example.
Last month, it was reported that the United Nations were considering a set of laws that would protect the intellectual property of indigenous groups, making cultural appropriation illegal.
A number of delegates from countries around the world gathered in Geneva to work on the legislation as part of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a UN agency which seeks to prevent people profiting from the appropriation of the property of indigenous people.
While this legislation could protect the rights of these groups for numerous different aspects of their culture, art and appearance, it could potentially leave the fashion industry in a difficult situation.
At its core, appropriation happens when an individual takes part in, or uses, an aspect of a culture to which they do not belong, without acknowledging the importance or significance of it.
In other words, simply cherry-picking the aesthetic aspects of a culture while ignoring its real-life context and importance to the people to whom it belongs.
In this way, it is easy to see why the fashion industry has gotten itself into hot water more than a few times thanks to a lack of sensitivity.
The heavy emphasis on physical appearance naturally lends itself to, at times inadvertently, serve as a platform for appropriation, and this is why the fashion industry, more than ever, must be conscious of the responsibility it has in shaping people’s attitudes towards appropriation.
So much of the way in which people present themselves and shape their own identities is through style and physical appearance, but as fashion and culture are widely interlinked, the meaning behind the ‘look’ of people of a particular culture cannot be undermined as simply ‘fashionable’.
One of the culprits singled out by the committee included Urban Outfitters’ “Navajo” line of products, which used the name of alongside patterns of the Navajo tribe without their permission, and were subsequently met with a trademark infringement lawsuit.
They are, of course, not the first high street retailers to suffer the backlash that comes with cultural appropriation, and they join a lengthy list of high-end designers who have made similarly erroneous collections including Dolce & Gabanna, Marc Jacobs and Givenchy, to name a few.
Even individual celebrities are guilty - look at Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, the entire Kardashian-Jenner family and numerous other white celebrities who have so often been praised for their originality and hailed as trendsetters for their cornrows, bindis and even their twerking, when in actual fact, these are all customs that originate in cultures to which they do not belong.
In fact, black women have in the past been labelled ‘ghetto’ for behaving and dressing in the same way that celebrities such as Cyrus or the Jenner sisters are celebrated for.
This is made all the worse when you consider the fact that the Kardashian-Jenners have recently come under fire for stealing and profiting from the designs of black artists in their clothing lines.
Thus, a legal restriction on appropriation must be put in place. Fashion is a notoriously fast and equally as fickle industry, where trends come and go faster than is possible to sustain, and so called ‘trendsetters’ can become a long distant memory depending on their ability to stay relevant.
Important aspects of any culture should not become disposable trends for mass consumption, where the meaning and significance will be lost or ignored, but more importantly, they should not initially become trends simply because a white celebrity has decided to borrow it to take an interesting Instagram.
The performance of culture cannot preside dominant over the authentic use of it.
That said, there is a chance that legislation outlawing cultural appropriation could generate more difficulties than solutions, and even initiate a further segregation of culture, but restrictions must be put in place to prohibit people outside of an indigenous group profiting from it at the expense of those who rightfully ‘own’ it.
Fashion is a business, and this constant cycle of trends can in turn lead to big revenue for designers and retailers.
To appropriate a culture by wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival is by all accounts insensitive, but the process of exploiting the aesthetic aspects of a culture for financial gain starts long before you purchase it.
That's why fashion has a responsibility to support this proposed legislation and act as an example - and this is not just applicable to designers who create appropriative collections or Instagram models who behave insensitively.
Editors, photographers, stylists, make-up artists and countless other professionals in the industry all have the responsibility to make conscious, educated and respectful decisions about the work they produce.
Followers of fashion are easily influenced by what is popular, and if legal barriers are what it takes to correct a trickle-down system of appropriation, then maybe fashion will experience something of an originality renaissance as well as a clearer conscience.