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Ethical Style: Should You Really Wear That 'Ethnic' Print?

Fashion, like American culture, ought to be a multicultural melting pot. Unfortunately, the fashion industry is overwhelmingly run by white people.

In the fashion industry, appropriating ethnic cultures to stock mainstream closets has long been en vogue. To sell new clothes, fashion has wrapped turbans around Edwardian heads, clasped Egyptian bracelets on flappers’ wrists, and swathed modern hipsters in American Apparel “Afrika” prints. The New York Times’ Guy Trebay has called fashion “culture’s Godzilla, devouring everything in its path.”

This season, fashion’s cultural victims are biting back. In March, the Navajo Nation sued retail giant Urban Outfitters over its line of flasks and hipster panties printed with a vaguely Native American pattern and stamped “Navajo.” When Rodarte released its Fall 2012 runway collection featuring intricate designs inspired by Aboriginal art and craft, a United Nations advocate for Aboriginal and Indigenous rights denounced the line as "completely insensitive.”

What’s so wrong about taking inspiration from other cultural traditions? After all, fashion, like American culture generally, ought to be a multicultural melting pot. It’s not, though: The fashion industry is overwhelmingly controlled by white people, from the models who walk the runways, the designers who clothe them, the fashion editors and writers who cover their every move, and the business people who market the trends to the masses. Given the background of the professionals running the show—and collecting the rewards—consumers should take a critical eye to cultural appropriation on the high-fashion runway and the fast fashion rack.

The case of the “Navajo” panties.
Mainstream America routinely appropriates Native American symbolism for a variety of inappropriate uses—sexy Halloween costumes, sports mascots, Ke$ha performances. Centuries ago, colonialists raped and murdered Native Americans, took their property, and introduced alcohol as a tool of oppression. Now, they just market boozy accessories and sexy panties in the service of hipster irony.

“Navajo” panties aren’t just generally insensitive—they’re also likely illegal. Since 1990, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act has prohibited the “misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States.” The act is meant to prevent non-Native manufacturers like Urban Outfitters from ripping off the traditional cultural products of Native peoples for its own profit. Faced with an alleged violation of the act, Urban Outfitters quietly changed the line’s name from “Navajo” to “printed.” (“Navajo” named goods still pop up in UO-owned Free People stores).

The case of the “Afrika” monokini.
Major fashion retailers have also gotten in trouble for lifting traditional patterns from other cultures and stamping on a less specific label—these prints are vaguely “ethnic” or “tribal” or “African.” American Apparel’s “Afrika” line is marketed under the tagline “Jungle prints are back” and marketed on the bodies of lithe white models. No ethnic group can claim a legal right to a term like “Afrika.” But many can claim offense at American Apparel’s strategy for selling monokinis to hipsters by flattening the cultural traditions of an entire continent into a sexy animal print.

The case of the OPI “Holland” nail polish.
Of course, fashion’s most high-profile cultural slights are directly related to broader systems of oppression. The extermination of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans reverberate in American culture to this day—the fashion industry should not make light of that history to line closets. Meanwhile, OPI’s Holland collection, which markets its seasonal nail polish shades under culturally stereotypical names like “Pedal Faster Suzi!” and “I Have a Herring Problem” fails to spark outrage. While it’s a little crass to crack jokes about an entire country’s relationship to fish, the cultural exchange between Hollywood and Holland is not historically fraught. History matters, even to a seasonal fashion trend.

The case of the Rodarte “Aboriginal” dress.
When Rodarte released a fall 2012 line inspired by “the outback” and peppered with Aboriginal-inspired prints, law professor and United Nations expert Megan Davis didn’t like the look. "The thought of seeing women walking around in this particular ready-to-wear collection sickens me," said Davis, citing a long history of appropriation of Aboriginal art. " I appreciate that we live in a postmodern culture, where people do take inspiration from particular areas … But as an Aboriginal lawyer I found the designs offensive."

This time, though, the law is on Rodarte’s side. “We deeply respect and admire the work of other artists,” Rodarte responded in a statement. “Through the appropriate channels, we licensed the Aboriginal artwork that influenced prints in our collection.” Rodarte has said that it gleaned inspiration from the work of the late aboriginal artist Benny Tjangala, and each piece sold will pay royalties to his family.

A meticulously-sewn frock inspired by the Aboriginal artistic tradition may not seem as outright offensive as stamping a Navajo name on a pair of mass-produced hipster panties—particularly when an Aboriginal artist is getting paid. But when consumers slip on a Rodarte, they're unlikely to know it's really a Tjangala. How many of the line's pieces are attributed to Tjangala—and how much his family will make from them—Rodarte didn’t say. And just as Rodarte pulls from far-flung sources as inspiration for its seasonal looks, it won’t be long before the big retailers start importing cheap knockoff versions “inspired” by Rodarte’s own pieces. Rodarte may pre-license and pay for its aboriginal sourcing. Forever 21’s version will only be funding the fashion machine.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user lovefibre

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