Is Karl Lagerfeld racist? And Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

Fashion is art. That’s an irrefutable fact. It’s also commerce. But Fashion is Art. What is the origin of art? I like to think of it as experience, environment and imagination. It’s individual. It can be cultural, but it doesn’t have to be. And in this melting pot of a world, culture, though identity defining of course, is diluting. Some are expanding, some are shrinking, some are religious, some are positive, some bland, some rich in history, some new, many old… But as our world shrinks with easy access and communication, it’s clear to me that we should all remain pretty open minded about and tolerant of each others values and cultures.

A Head Dress from The Plumed Serpent

So when discussing the comments of a post on feathered headdresses a white bride chose to wear on her wedding day as posted on OffbeatBride.com with my friend who edits the awesome site, I was shocked to hear that many readers were incredibly upset with the bride. The idea of using these gorgeous headdresses from The Plumed Serpent (example shown left) was offensive to them, as if wearing something inspired by the Native American culture was diluting its original meaning, purpose, and sanctity. Urban Outfitters came under fire for using the trademarked name “Navajo” to describe what is traditionally and technically called a Navajo print on a few garments they sold a few months ago. They removed the term, but did they have to? Between the head dress and the Navajo uproar, I started thinking about it. Is my adoration of Native American fashion wrong? Am I not allowed to be inspired by it? Because I’m white and supposedly part of a culture that only a few decades ago did surpress the Native American culture,  I’m not allowed to appreciate, support and wear turquoise, fringe, buckskin or navajo prints? I can’t enjoy moccasins? Maybe I wear it out of reverence so it’s acceptable? But not everyone sees Fashion as Art.  And maybe those who are upset  feel that a corporation is only following a trend/demand to make a buck.  But if the trend is good-hearted and out of tolerance, love and adoration, is it bad then?

The more I think about it, the more I realize that intention isn’t enough. And yet, I recall Chanel’s Metier d’Artes, Paris-meets-Mumbai presentation in India, to Indians. Here, a German designer, working for a French house, appropriates many culturally significant garments and accessories with Chanel’s iconic looks and the collection is met with nothing but reverence and rave reviews! India was only recently released of it’s colonization, oppression and discrimination by the British (and the Dutch, and French and so on), just as America was, and though white man rule did not end up happening,

And where does the line get drawn? Does wearing an army jacket, or anything appropriated from the military, a very significant influence in collections for the past….forever, really…an insult to the men and women of service? I know I wear my Dad’s army jacket with pride!

So what I’m saying: I am in reverence and awe of the Native American culture. I take the time to educate myself about it, its relics, and the art that it has created and contributed to our world in the form of fashion. So while I wouldn’t wear a headdress myself, I do want to harness the healing powers of turquoise and relish in the beauty of buckskin and pop a feather in my scarf/hair/pocket as a way to seriously, truly pay homage to what a race of people, of artisans, had to undeservingly endure. I can’t take responsibility for my ancestors actions, but I do want to try and honor the culture and support it’s tolerance through art.