A while back, the team got into a discussion about cultural appropriation. Context: we planned to launch a jacket inspired by the traditional Kimono silhouette, and we were split on whether we should carry on or cut the product altogether, so we called a meeting.
Having this conversation was paramount to our integrity, especially as a brand built on reinterpreting textile heritage into prints that tell stories of where and why they are made. MATTER is grounded on the idea that all prints hail from an existing heritage motif tied to a place and time, and it is our belief that in our continuation of that narrative, we pay tribute to their cultural history.
Years into our mission – it seemed essential, now more than ever, to be having this conversation.
This opened up a jar of worms. What counts as cultural appropriation and what doesn’t? What does cultural appreciation look like in the fashion industry? Our modern silhouettes are edited from existing heritage styles, like the dhoti and the lunghi – does that make it okay because we are an Asian company? Does our connection to the heritage give us consent to appreciate this culture? Where is the line?
Cultural appropriation is when certain aspects of a culture are selected and ‘cherry-picked’ as a trend, with no consideration given to their original significance or context.
Appropriation involves a power dynamic in which members of a dominant group take cultural elements from an oppressed group that they themselves have dominated. The fashion industry is one of the largest culprits of cultural appropriation and racism (that’s a tangent we’ll get into another time). It is when bindis, headdresses, and hennas are seen as trendy accessories for music festivals, when black hairstyles like box braids are worn by models on the runway, or when people put chopsticks in their hair to celebrate Asian culture. Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, upholds a level of understanding and respect. It is when elements of a culture are used while honoring the source they came from.
Here are 3 things that differentiate cultural appreciation from appropriation:
We need to ask ourselves, what is our intention behind participating in this culture? Is it because it’s cool, because it seems to be on trend with the way fashion is going? Or is it out of respect for the people of that culture? If so, it is our responsibility to make it apparent.
As designers, we need to recognize the people and culture behind our inspirations. Creative inspiration deserves credit. This can look like giving recognition to their communities, promoting their art, or working with them directly to support their craft. For us, we uncover heritage prints from the archives of our artisan communities. Take the Trikora print for example, it was a motif traditionally used as a border design for Rajasthani houses, as a sign of protection and defense of loved ones. Keeping the integrity of the story, we worked with our ikat weavers in Hyderabad to simplify its silhouette in our reinterpretation.
All prints hail from an existing heritage motif tied to a place and time, with a cultural story of its own, and every reinterpreted motif is our continuation of the existing narrative.
As customers, before buying a garment or accessory specific to a culture that’s not ours, it’s important to demand authenticity and whenever possible, source directly from ethical sources. Also, consider buying artisan made to support the people who are actually a part of that culture.
Introspection is a crucial component of appreciating a culture. If we cannot express why we have an interest in a culture beyond its “cool factor”, then we’re saying we have no genuine appreciation for that culture. A culture’s purpose is not for our entertainment. Cultures are social processes, they’re a medium through which people make meaning in their lives and for us to dismiss it merely as something “cool” degrades their existence.
Cultural pieces deserve responsibility on our part to research how to uphold its integrity. Taking the time to understand the history of a garment is a big part of cultural appreciation.
As designers, it’s important that in our design process we’re taking the time to understand the style we’re drawing inspirations from and the cultural significance behind these clothings. MATTER began with the intention to pay tribute to the vibrant cultural heritage in our region by celebrating Asian styles and garments. That meant looking at styles like the dhoti, a traditional men’s garment that was a pillar of Gandhi’s appearance as he championed for India’s independence, and the monpe, which in our research we learned was a Japanese work pant worn by women during World War II who turned their kimonos into pants.
As customers, it’s important to remember that appreciation involves respect and value. You’re allowed to find things beautiful, but you can also appreciate something without wearing it. Before you put on an article of clothing or accessory – take the time to learn about it and consider otherwise. Going back to one of the examples mentioned earlier, headdresses are often worn as trendy accessories for music festivals. If you go to your friendly neighbourhood Google – you’ll learn that native leaders received them as gifts, it is a high honour to wear one and every feather was awarded through elaborate ceremonies. We did nothing to earn the headdress, so we should not wear it or make mascots of their culture.
With all this said and done, we want to make one thing clear. The line between cultural appropriation and appreciation can seem blurry, but if you’re uncertain a general rule of thumb is to just ask. Google it. Educate yourself. Speak to a wide range of people from that culture and listen to them, and not just the ones that agree with you. As the rapper Ice Cube said in 1992, “check yourself before you wreck yourself”.
Got something you want to share? Leave a comment below, we’d love to know what you think.