Fashion, hipsters and the appropriation of culture

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Originally published in Overland Journal 29 January 2014

 

An anonymous video that has recently surfaced accusing the hypercool Melbourne label Perks and Mini (PAM) of blatant cultural appropriation has sent shockwaves through the hipster community. The voiceover in the video states:

For a group of people who freely use African textile patterns and traditional ornaments, put on performances using didgeridoos and dot painting, and casually deface images of black people, you might think they have some personal connection to the cultures they have profited from . . . But they are just as white as their $150 t-shirts. T-shirts which are cheaply made in China, but have the labels removed and replaced with ‘Made In Australia’.

This is a strong argument to make against the label, which has previously claimed it is culture indiscriminately to create art in their fashion. And the offending items are one part of PAM’s clothing range, most of which does not use the design of other cultures.
Nonetheless, the issue provides an opportunity to discuss three main problems not only symptomatic of PAM but also of ‘postmodern’ fashion more generally (H&M, Urban Outfitters and others have faced similar accusations).

Firstly, the appropriation is used for indiscriminate profit, not as a way for intercultural dialogue.

Secondly, this form of appropriation flattens the myriad of cultures designers steal from, and mythologises them simply as belonging to a people who create interesting design, not as a non-homogenous group who also happen to be some of the most oppressed people in the world. We are bearing witness to an unprecedented homogenisation.

Thirdly, it is ahistorical, neglecting the colonial past of the white culture that is PAM’s market base, a culture that views the other from a position of privilege. In this sense, contemporary ‘postmodern’ racism is the symptom of multiculturalist late capitalism, and so brings to light the inherent contradiction of the liberal-democratic project.

On the surface, fashion, like other forms of art, can be seen as a powerful meditator of cultural diplomacy, translating the aesthetics of one nation to people in distant lands who would not necessarily think about that part of the world.

Fashion as a piece of art that is on your body, which gives it a more intimate connection with you, possibly allowing you to walk in the shoes of another.  Furthermore, fashion design does not face the copyright issues confronting other industries, which makes cross-cultural sharing more possible.

Yet it is naïve and simplistic to see such transactions as equal exchanges. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that cultural distinctions (which include our choices of what we wear) involve social distinctions as well as purely aesthetic choices.  Notions of ‘good taste’ function as class markers and investments in the appropriate (culturally approved) commodities can be ‘traded’ for social position.

Fashion is often regarded as only ephemeral. But consumer choices about clothing speak to wider issues about the nature of contemporary transnationalism and the commodification of cultural difference. Fashion discourses become a way in which consumers align themselves with certain cultural viewpoints, while resisting or subverting others. Wearers of PAM (I know many) follow the contemporary liberal attitude, which sees the individual as surpassing the limitations of ethnic identity.  This functions to reinforce an elitist, upper middle-class identity, opposing itself to the majority of society, who are looked down upon for being caught up in their narrow confines.

This social position is not only a marker of status in Australia but also on a global scale, where colonising no longer takes place by the hand of the state directly under the control of global business.

The form of ‘multicultural’ appropriation that PAM practices is an ideal of global capitalist ideology. The relationship between traditional imperialist colonialism and capitalist global auto-colonisation is the same as the relationship between Western cultural imperialism and multiculturalism.  Just as global capitalism includes the paradox of colonisation without the colonised countries, so multiculturalism offers a protection of Euro-centric distance and the respect for local cultures without having any roots in its own particular culture.

Defenders may claim that they are respecting other cultures and being aware of others outside an insular white existence – the good intentions behind such designs. Yet I would argue that what we are really seeing is an unrecognised form of distant racism.  It is ‘respecting’ the identity of the colonial other, in which the other is a ‘authentic’ closed community against which we can maintain a distance only made possible by our privileged position.

To put it another way, such art removes all positive content from the other – not in an openly racist manner but in a way that maintains our white position as empty but privileged universality. In strong terms, the ‘respect’ for the specific other from the position of the universal is the way in which the hegemonic white culture can reaffirm its own superiority.

It is not only the fashions of distant cultures that are appropriated for profit, but also that of the working class and poor.  We have all seen the shabby chic fashion look and the Prada shoots in shantytowns in which a gaunt model takes on a poor appearance ­– but not poor enough to be associated with the excluded of society. Suffering has become a cultural commodity, as photos of suffering people are used to sell newspapers and magazines and to reinforce the cultural superiority of the west.

It should never be forgotten that fashion is a huge, profitable business.  Like all capitalist businesses it constantly needs to expand and change its market to continue accumulation.

Nonetheless, acts of appropriation vary in terms and degree and relevance of (in)voluntariness, (in)equality, (im)balance and (im)purity. The answer is not protection of a ‘pure’ culture, because this does not exist either, with all cultures flattened by multicultural capitalism since the fall of really existing colonialism. The challenge is to reconceptualise culture not so much as a bounded entity and essence (as the use of ‘ethnic’ design does), but as relational or dialogical. Cultural practices, including appropriation, are both constituted by and constitutive of culture (in general) as a realm of relationships.  What we are dealing with is matters of power and rhetoric, rather than essence of a sovereign, liberal individual or state.

Naturally, this is a complex issue. On the surface, the designers do not appear to have committed any great crime (except against fashion) – and, let’s face it, cultural appropriation is inescapable.  No-one says we should only dress directly from our culture or in drab clothing. Nonetheless, the fashion industry is one of the world’s largest global export industries (of culture and commodities) and, like capital itself, itself disguises its reality. High fashion and art are always looking for the artistic camouflages that capture the essence of innocence and design.  Of course, fashion as design is a worthy pursuit. But when it is motivated purely for profit, it can only follow the colonial logic of late capitalism.

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