Monday, February 20, 2017

Can we still speak of cultural appropriation?

Not a week goes by without another "cultural appropriation" scandal.
Marc Jacobs does Afro?
Supreme does an Obama collection inspired by African visuals?
Karlie Kloss goes geisha for Vogue?
The list goes on and on.
Well, Vetements is doing hoodies and I see no one reminding us that the hoodie originated from the US (in the company that is now Champion). It is to note that Vetements is essentially a European design collaborative.
Algeria-born French couturier Yves Saint Laurent had a very famous take on the safari jacket which was invented (with not so specific origins) for tropical climates and made popular by the British elites.
How about this? The suit as we know it today is a British invention. Yet, tailors all over the world made it.
Bandanas as a tool we know them for stared with Martha Washington (yes wife of George) even if their name came from Sanskrit and their dot-design from Persia, and now French luxury house Hermes did a collection of high end silk bandanas.
Now let's go for the most known cultural appropriation ever - no, not the French fries which to begin with originate from Belgium - but rather... The croissant.
The croissant is what the Austrian baked to commemorate the victory over the Turks in 1683, it was called the "kipferl" - German for "crescent" which was the symbol of the Turks! When Austrian princess Marie Antoinette married the king of France Louix XV, the pastry got imported to her adopted land and got its current name. If this is not cultural appropriation, I don't know what is!
Interestingly, I see no one up in arms when formerly colonial cultures diffuse their culture(s) by osmosis to other (colonized?) nations. Women in Africa have been known to put powders (with very bad side effects) to bleach their skins and therefore become more "white".
It seems that "educating the savages" and therefore cultural norms' transmission to them is quite acceptable, But borrowing signals and codes the "locals' culture" is not permitted. Let us examine some cases of spreading Euro-American social norms, or making other cultures look pitiful and ignorant by going through examples of racism in children-related materials (going back to an article published on 14/11/2013):

"When racism is talked about in cartoons the most famous example is usually Tintin au Congo. Here Tintin, like a good colonialist teaches the children about their country... "Belgium!.

Or Tom and Jerry in black face....
But it is interesting, the ubiquitous oh-so-innocent Martine gets left out of it. When for once a black character made an appearance, it was "Cacao" her doll, who throughout the story "Martine en voyage" actually kept carrying Martine's luggage and so forth.
In later editions Cacao was renamed Annie, but how much can you change a book? After all, Cacao/Annie was still "left holding the bag"... Or the luggage in this case."
What the above examples shows, is that non-white cultures are there either to be educated/socially improved (example 1), berated/derided/laughed at (example 2), or eventually to serve and attend to the needs of the Caucasian character (example 3).
Cultural appropriation is seen as the reverse side of the coin for racism. You hate the others, or you outright steal them ("we should have kept the oil" anyone?). Whereas I am not denying this theory, in today's world, where boundaries (if not geographical, at least theoretical) are in flux, can we still talk of cultural appropriation?
Raf Simons - a Belgian designer - just took the helms of Calvin Klein and aside from the Americana-filled CK show, his own eponymous brand delivered such a soulful, romantic, heart-felt love poem to NY. city, showing it as a state of mind more than anything else. And his I (heart) NY as per the Milton Glaser logo (whereby he twisted the famous logo and put it on jumpers) was - by all means - a case of appropriation. But no one dared suggest such a thing. Why? Maybe one cannot appropriate/steal codes coming from "predominant" cultures. Only those coming from "lesser"/marginalized cultures can be so.
Even the definition of what a culture or subculture is tends to be in question. Supreme and Louis Vuitton just collaborated together, after a cease and desist case which went back to the year 2000. Supreme is the skater brand par excellence. But are skaters a subculture? Can be take their codes and incorporate them in bigger fashion/luxury perspective? 
To go back to bandanas, which were codes for sexual fetishes and preferences among homosexuals in the 70s and 80s. However, ask any kid who grew up in the 80s, the items were issued en masse by Gap (and other mainstream retailers) and they transcended the subculture and became a common household-fashion-decorative item for the whole decade and their sub-cultural meaning was eventually lost.
Do you have to be a biker or a BDSM practitioner to have a leather item in your closet? Once more this calls to redefining what a culture/subculture is before jumping on the "appropriation" labeling. 
In 2011, and following United States former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying she had a "mac and cheese" for Thanksgiving, white televangelist Pat Robertson wondered: "What is this mac and cheese? Is that a black thing?”
Mac and cheese is simply, "macaroni and cheese" - nothing black about it. and let it be known that baked macaroni and cheese was invented by none other than (white US founding father) Thomas Jefferson (yes, that Thomas Jefferson). So again, when ethnicity, genders, cultures and subcultures themselves are at flux and resist definition, how can we speak of usurping them and therefore appropriating them? Androgynous looks currently flood the runways, and Balanciaga just issued a massively high-heeled platform shoe - for men.
On that last note, women culturally appropriated men's cultural codes by using high heels. Yes, high heels were invented for men!