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Cultural Appropriation in Fashion. Should it really matter?

Oshun dress

 

If you know me, then you’ll know I am a person who happily trundles on in life, getting on with things as pleasantly as I can, doing as much as possible to avoid drama or confrontation. However, I think someone linked to a blog post I wrote over year ago, as I’ve come back from holiday to a flurry of angry comments on the post called OSHUN – THE STORY OF MY CLOTHING BRAND, AND THE YELLOW DRESS INSPIRED BY BEYONCE’S IN LEMONADE. I thought I would respond to those comments in a blog post, rather than reply to them individually, as hopefully I will explain myself and my opinions in a more complete and thought-through way. So to understand what I’m about to talk about, you might want to have a look at that post first and have a read of the recent comments below it. In summary though, it was written at a time when Beyonce appeared to be channeling the ancient African deity, Oshun, so I wrote a bit about her for those who hadn’t heard of her before, and explained how I came to choose her to name my clothing business and a dress after. I wrote a brief message a couple of days ago addressing this on my Threads of a Fairytale website, and if you don’t mind, I’ll quote it now as an introduction:
“Hello! I’m back from holiday and had a wonderful time exploring the Acropolis and other ancient remains and ruins around Greece and Albania and have come home full of inspiration. Three new goddess dresses influenced in design by ancient Greek attire will be appearing in the Threads of a Fairytale shop very soon – one in pink, one gold, and one in a mottled green and grey – all pure silk chiffon. I will continue to be inspired by religions and cultures from all around the world; ancient and modern, because that’s the way art grows, develops and nourishes one’s soul and interest. The term “cultural appropriation” seems to be more in fashion than fashion itself at the moment….If you’re a regular visitor to this page, you’ll know that I changed my clothing business name from Oshun to Threads of a Fairytale a couple of months ago and explained my reasons here. And no, the change had nothing to do with cultural appropriation because I’m sorry, I simply don’t agree that it’s a problem here. We have been influenced by our neighbours of all colours and heritage since time began and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Segregating oneself and not allowing this to happen comes from a place of ego, not from a place of good”.
If you are going to comment here or on facebook (or anywhere), I would appreciate it if you take the time to read this whole piece to fully understand where I’m coming from, and hopefully even take a minute to think about some of my points. I haven’t written this to try to get anyone to change their opinions – of course we’re not all going to agree, but I want to say at the beginning that I have listened to your comments; looked into them further, and really given it some thought from all points of view before writing this……

I’ll start by defending the actual blog post, and move onto the bigger picture in a moment. Yes, you may as well go and get that cuppa, I’ve got a fair bit to say! I talked a bit about how I came to

The Oshun dress

choose the name Oshun for my business and my interest in ancient gods and goddesses, and I did that to show that I didn’t just pluck a name out of the hat and use it with no thought or respect to where it came from. I did the research, and Oshun was perfect. I find it interesting that I was accused of a quick google, when in fact we didn’t even have google back then! All the research was done through library books, but that’s by the by. It’s also interesting that in the early years my clothing business was a lot more popular than it is now; receiving thousands of hits around the world every day and then no-one minded about the name. It leads me to wonder that the current buzzwords ‘cultural appropriation’ simply enables people to get angry when they weren’t angry before. (Well, they probably were, but not about that.)

Let’s talk about religion. Dangerous, right? But in this context I can’t really ignore it. I believe that everyone has the right, should they feel they want to, to grow up and choose the religion that they feel is a befitting one for them. I know I am very privileged to be born into a place to have that choice (on the whole), as many people don’t. This is the point that all the commenters on that blog post disagreed with me on. They believe I have no right to the Yoruba religion because I was born in the wrong place with the wrong ancestors. However I believe that any group – religious or otherwise – who insulate themselves and don’t allow others to join them due to their heritage or the colour of their skin or the culture they were born to, is actually a very sad and damaging thing.
Aside from my beliefs on the matter, I would just like to point out that all I have done is name a business and a dress after Oshun. It is not as if I am proclaiming to be a Yoruba priestess. I doubt every owner of a beauty business called Aphrodite is expected to be an expert in the ancient Greek religion, nor every proprietor of a pub called the King Arthur be a practising pagan.

Let’s talk about culture. I was told in the comments to look to my own culture and traditions (and leave theirs alone, but I’ll come to that in a minute.) So I did: Morris Dancing. I don’t think

Morris dancers

Morris dancers

anyone would have a problem if morris dancing was taken up in Nigeria. Now I know there is a difference and it isn’t as flippant as turning the situation around but stay with me on this because there are similarities. It has its own traditional fashions and the dances are based on old pagan folklore with movements having their own particular ancient meanings. British paganism almost died out through the conversion of Romans to Christians and invasions and influences of Christians beyond the dark ages; however some people, in the minority, have kept it alive. I meet and know many practising pagans and they (obviously I’m generalising here) are very open to allowing anyone to take an interest, be inspired by and take part in their culture. They even don’t mind non-pagans taking part in morris dancing just for the fun of it. They wouldn’t mind if anyone in the world started borrowing the dances and using them to ward away evil spirits of their own religion. And I certainly wouldn’t tap a black person person on the shoulder at a village fete and say Excuse me kind sir/madam, but you’re not allowed to wave that hanky around because you’re not white and your ancestors clearly did not come from Somerset and therefore you have no right to be taking part in this.’ It’s preposterous! And should be equally so the other way round.

Let’s talk about race. To save you checking, I am white and from Britain. Of course those factors are going to influence my outlooks and opinions (how can it not?), but that does not mean that I’m any less entitled to them as anyone else whatever their cultural background. I was quite shocked at the downright racism aimed at me for simply not being black. Apparently it would be ok if I called my dress Oshun if I was black! I did notice almost all these comments came from America. Now I’m not saying Britain is perfect, but I don’t think that racism is experienced in this country anywhere near as much as it is in America, so perhaps these people are coming from an angrier, more defensive standpoint than I am used to seeing. In researching this article, (someone suggested I look up the term Beckeisha, so I did) I was surprised to find how much of a problem some people with black heritage have with integrating with white people and are against interracial marriage. Seriously? In this day in age? I’m never going to get anywhere with people with such extreme opinions, so if you feel this way (either way), please leave this page now – you will not be missed.

Let’s talk about money. Wow – I am really covering all the taboo dinner party subjects aren’t I?! I was accused of using Oshun to make money. My accountant (my Dad) would have a good laugh at that comment! I write stories, take photographs, draw pictures, write blog posts and make pretty dresses. Basically what I’m saying is I’m a creative person, not a business-minded one. If

Oshun

Oshun art

I was a good business person I wouldn’t have called it Oshun, because no-one knew how to pronounce it. (That is the main reason why I changed it to Threads of a Fairytale). Every business needs a name and I felt that Oshun was a good one for mine. It does not mean I’m being disrespectful. On driving around America I noticed most small businesses are named after their owner’s name – does that mean they are disrespecting themselves for wanting to earn a living with it? Of course not.
The Oshun dress, on the other hand, and the blog post I wrote about it were done due to Beyonce. Google searches for ‘Oshun’ went dramatically up and I wanted to be amongst the results. So yes, you are welcome to accuse me of wanting to make money from the name in that instance. I might have done the same if Beyonce (or any other fashion influencer) wore a dress inspired by any different culture if I felt it suited my brand. I consider that to be canny business practice, but I don’t consider it to be wrong. The strongly worded comments on that blog post showed that people were highly offended by it, but I wondered if they’d actually considered whether Oshun would be too? Because I don’t. In fact, from what I know of her, I think she’d love having a dress named after her! And if the whole world of all colours, races and religions started wearing yellow frilly dresses named Oshun, why would it matter? They are just pretty dresses.

Beyonce in Oshun dress

Beyonce in Lemonade

The Yoruba culture, traditions and religion is on the rise. I have no evidence of this – it is purely conjecture, but none of those library books I mentioned said that the ancient Yoruba religion was still practiced today. It was a place of mythology, on a par with those of Greece and Rome and from a similar point in time. Naturally, with my business previously called Oshun, I would type it into the search engine every now and then and cast my eye over what came up. Recently it became apparent that it is still practiced today. Great, I thought; isn’t it wonderful that an ancient culture has survived? What a wonderfully interesting and diverse world we live in! And since Beyonce channelled Oshun throughout her pregnancy and promotion of Lemonade, there’s been a massive upturn in its popularity. She can’t help it. She’s Beyonce. But isn’t that a good thing?
Fast-forward to an imaginary world in five hundred year’s time when finally interracial friendships and marriages are welcome and embraced, and cultures and religions are shared. Imagine that people all over the world of all colours are praying to the Orishas and joining in the Yoruba religion. If you are a believer in the Yoruba religion, surely this would be a good thing? Your answer is either:

Yes – in which case, why not start by at least allowing everyone to share an interest in your culture? Let them be inspired by it; it will help spread the word and get people interested.
or
No – in which case, why not? The only reason I can see is because you want to hold onto it as your own and keep it secret and private and special and not share. Like I said in my first paragraph, this comes from ego, not goodness.

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion. At last we’re onto the topic in hand! So let’s say we actually are at a dinner party, and you’ve managed to avoid any discomfort or disagreement by not

kilts in fashion

Kilts in fashion – unknown photo credit

talking about serious and difficult topics such as religion, culture, race and money. Instead you think it’s safe to bring up the frivolous, fun and totally unimportant subject of fashion. And then you notice that your South African friend has feathers in her hairband; your Catholic Spanish neighbour has a beautiful henna tattoo on her hand; your upper class white uncle is wearing a gypsy-

St Patrick’s Day Fashion – taken from Pinterest

inspired shirt with embroidered roses on it; your Nigerian friend is wearing a kilt; your sister is wearing a plaid shirt from the Jenners’ with gold hoop earrings; your Mum is wearing a wrap-around belted kimono style top and your American friend is wearing green four-leaf clovers on her dress because it’s St Patrick’s day in a couple of week’s time. And you could decide to not say anything after all to be on the safe side, but then you realise that would be silly because we’re all born equal and naked and clothes are just there to keep us warm and sometimes make you look nice and feel good as well. Fashion is there just to be fun.

People and fashion designers have always and forever been influenced by every religion and culture around the world. In approximately 1380 Chaucer wrote of a merchant wearing a Flaundrish Beaver hat. The question is, considering the merchant was Italian, did he have any right to wear a hat traditional to Flanders? Could this be the first written evidence of cultural appropriation? (I hope you’re catching my ironical tone in my writing.) Anyway, a hundred years before then in Spain, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together and influenced each other’s style and fashion and often merging all three together in what they wore. If we could do it happily then, surely we could manage it again now?
In the 1450s, to reflect a cultural interest in countries newly trading with each other, brocade was a luxury fabric often woven with Chinese, Indian and Persian motifs. As seen in all Jane Austin

Regency fashion inspired by ancient cultures

screen adaptations, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought a sudden change to fashion and was heavily inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman style from their statues. In the 1860s-70s Japanese culture along with kimonos became fashionable in the west. Skip ahead to the 1990s when half the girls in south-east England looked like the model in the apparently offensive photo Kendall and Kylie Jenner were obliged to remove from their Instagram feed last week. The ’90’s street-style probably emerged from MTV and the styles we were suddenly seeing in music videos from various cultures in America. No-one minded when we were all influenced by them then! This blog post about cultural appropriation is long enough already, so I won’t list all the modern designers and fashion trends that have been inspired by cultures around the world, so maybe I’ll save that for another day; but it happens with every single season’s catwalk shows and whether they realise it or not, I bet everyone, including those offended by me naming a dress after Oshun, have worn clothing with a design influenced by a culture different to their own heritage.

Before I end though, I want to address the fact that a common factor in the comments I received was that I am stealing something that doesn’t belong to me. By definition, when someone steals from you, you no longer have that thing, or you have less of it. I’m not doing that by naming a dress Oshun. (If I were to be facetious I

90’s fashion

could point out that the Yoruba culture stemmed from the exact place where the entire human species originated so should that not make it all inclusive?) Anyway, to illustrate my point I’ll talk about Christianity and back to the fashion in the 1990s. I remember there was some fuss when wearing a cross pendant became the latest trend and everyone was doing it regardless of their faith. If you believe in God; love him and behave in a way to please him, then he’s going to know it. And he’s going to know it whether you’re wearing a cross or not, and whether the person over there wearing a cross does or doesn’t, and whether everyone in the world is wearing a cross or just you. Your belief isn’t going to be any less because of someone who wears a cross and isn’t a Christian. Does it really matter to God? Or rather, does how you feel and behave matter? Would you be any less Christian if every person and his dog wore a cross? The answer is no. Nothing, at the end of the day, has actually been taken away.
I presume the Christian in my analogy wears a cross because they want to show the world they are a Christian. I can see that it’s a bit annoying if you can no longer tell if someone’s a Christian or not despite wearing the cross, but does it really matter? I mean, really? I’ve taken the argument a bit too far here, but I think it’s a point worth making. Our conscience dictates what we think appropriate and I personally wouldn’t wear a cross or knowingly a symbol of particular religious significance that I’m not a believer in, but lines are drawn in the sand at different places for everyone and the crossover between religion and culture is blurry.
Another comparison: Just because you might know every single lyric to every single Nirvana song, doesn’t mean that the person who picked up the Nirvana t-shirt in Primark who might just about have heard of Teen Spirit has less of a right to wear it than you. God forbid they just bought the t-shirt because they liked it! Essentially the problem here is, when everyone else is doing it, we don’t feel so special any more do we?

It doesn’t matter if someone wears an Oshun dress to a special event; a fairy dress to a fancy dress party; a feathered headdress to a festival or a nun’s habit to a Sound of Music showing, because they are just clothes and none of that takes away the importance of the heritage, religion or traditions of those things they relate to. And I don’t believe they belong to some people and not others. I don’t believe in a world where we’re divided into groups of people who are only allowed to dress/behave/believe in a certain way due to where their great-great grandparents came from. Without wishing to sound like a Miss World contestant, I believe in a world where we integrate and share. Where there’s no ego or self importance preventing other people from joining in. We are all equal underneath the pieces of woven fabric we cover ourselves in and our mothers all told us that it’s what’s inside that counts. So despite taking days to write this article and doing masses of research seeing the points of view from those who think cultural appropriation in fashion is a problem, I simply cannot agree. None of us are that important that we can’t let go of our ego and invite people in to share some of the things that make us feel special.
I’m not belittling, degrading or making fun of anyone and I honestly don’t believe I have done anything wrong by naming a dress after Oshun. There may be quite a lot of things in the world to be worried about. Fashion is not one of them.

Ps. One last thing (I promise!): I belong to a community choir in which we sing traditional songs from indigenous cultures around the world; Africa, New Zealand, and native America (along with the Beetles and carols at Christmas of course). At concerts where we join up with choirs from other cultures and sing to audiences of all backgrounds, no-one minds one jot that we happen to be ninety-nine percent white, because it’s joyful and wonderful and fun, like the world should be.

 

You may also be interested in this related post I wrote in 2015 about fancy dress.

Fashion, Lifestyle, Musings and ramblings, Threads of a Fairytale - my handmade clothing label, Writing,
007 comments

writer

Writer, pyrographer, renovator, crafter, photographer and maker of bohemian clothing and costumes.

7 Comments

Vanessa Mártir

You deserved to get dragged for the last post and for this one. Pulling the angry black women trope is ridiculous and tired. Learn what the term racist means before you wield it. To quote an essay you should read but probably won’t: “racism = prejudice + power (or “prejudice + privilege” in some trendier renditions). White people are the ones with all the power and privilege here, so, per the formula, they cannot possibly be the objects of racism. Hence, reverse racism doesn’t exist.”

You were called out because you appropriated a sacred deity that you learned about in a book or google or wherever. Have you practiced the religion? Do you know it’s rituals? Have you asked a person who practices the religion why this would be an issue? You aren’t trying to see anyone’s viewpoint. You’re defending your problematic, colonizing behavior. Yes, colonizing because that’s what you’re doing, taking something that is not yours and trying to monetize from it. Y’all been doing this shit for hundreds of years and it didn’t start with Columbus; it’s just now the internet is around to tell the world about it and inform people who can take you to task. Welcome to the world of woke people who aren’t afraid to challenge you.

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Vanessa Mártir

It also takes some gall for a white person to claim racism doesn’t exist as badly in Britain. Talk to a person of color before making these erroneous claims.

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Katherine Etwasin

Oh Helen, you’ve missed the point again. The point is that there is a group of people who have been systematically robbed of their culture, religion and claim to cultural expression. Every time you – a white person – do something (however good your intentions!) which draws attention to yourself using these cultural products – you are contributing to further oppression. I’m sorry that this is the case, but it’s true.

Things you can do if you truly love Oshun and other African diasporic cultural elements – support black artists. Stay quiet and put the spotlight on black people. Devote your life to learning the history. Say where you got your information from. Talk about how wonderful Beyonce is. But don’t claim things as your own. It seems harmless because you haven’t experienced the harm that white people have done. This is not personal. Try to make things better, fairer, more equitable. You can’t do that by doing this.

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Tamara

All of you: look around you, whatever room you’re in. There is absolutely nothing there that hasn’t come to you via trade, invasion, assimilation, exchange, colonization, syncretism; not of the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the objects that surround you. That is the nature of humanity and a defining aspect of the Anthropocene: we spread and merge and saturate not only the planet but each other.
Also: you’re all crazy if you think Beyonce understands or gives any more of a shit about the Yoruba than Helen does. Way to lump all dark-skinned ethnicities into one amorphous mass, by the way. Does Beyonce get a free pass to monetize a blasphemy because she is black? She has no more connection with the Orisha than Helen.
Nothing has been stolen from anyone here. Helen referenced a single artefact from a foreign mythology; this has not diminished that mythology. Nothing of or about Oshun is less intact than it was before Helen named her brand or this dress. Do you really think the faith is so fragile that it can’t suffer casual reference to one of its deities? Or can’t support a dialogue with (white) outsiders?
What a huge waste of time to come here and collectively pile on someone who has shown nothing more than respectful curiosity. Helen has not associated herself with or invoked the sacred in any way. What is this to you? Are you similarly pissed off because she has named a dress ‘goth’? I mean, she’s not Germanic or a practising pagan. Or because she makes ‘gypsy’ dresses? Again, she’s not Romany. Are you seriously saying that in all her creative endeavours Helen is not allowed to make reference to any cultural object unless it is of white, British/European, Christian origin? You’re aware I guess that Britain has been invaded multiple times (by Romans, Norse peoples, and Normans, among others) and had new cultural and religious systems imposed both by conquerors and by home-grown revolutionaries. Even within our own island we have disparate and often conflicting traditions: Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh to start with, before we even consider what was imported, established and subsequently naturalised during the period of empire. What exactly does ‘belong’ to Helen and who or what exactly determines this?
PS Helen makes a reasonable point about racism in Britain. She didn’t say that no British citizen has experienced racism as bad as any American. But we did not bring African people to our country in their millions to be our slaves; we never had a Confederacy of states willing to go to war with their compatriots over the right to own black people; we never had lynchings; we never gathered en masse to pelt black children with stones on their way to school; and most weeks go by without our law enforcement murdering our black citizens. To say that every person of colour around the world experiences racism in exactly the same way is offensively reductionist as well as plainly unhelpful. Our (British) racial history is vastly different to yours.
PPS Sorry but it’s astonishing to me that Beyonce is your flagship Black Woman. Her ‘tribute’ to the Black Panthers and #blacklivesmatter campaign is to dress a bunch of voiceless afro’ed black women in fetish wear and black berets while she struts in front with flowing Goldilocks hair? I cannot believe that you supposedly intellectual and socially-conscious individuals – women – have chosen Beyonce as your totem. Is it literally just because she’s conventionally attractive, famous, and has made a shedload of money? I am genuinely bewildered why out of all the women of colour who have radically impacted myriad social, political and cultural contexts over the past century, you point to Beyonce.
Last word: there’s a scene in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ which exactly reflects what’s happening here. (This is a British comedy film from the ‘70s, if you haven’t heard of it.) The part I’m thinking of is where a man is about to get stoned to death because he committed blasphemy: what he said was that his meal was “good enough for Jehovah.” Not allowed to say Jehovah, you see. The man is perplexed, since he was complimenting the cook, the fish, as well as his God, and expressing pleasure and gratitude for what he had eaten. Meanwhile, standing facing him are the group who will stone him to death, and they can’t wait to get going, so much so that they begin to throw rocks before the attendant official has discharged his duties. All of the group are in disguise, as it goes; they shouldn’t really be there, but to a person they’ve gone under cover in order to participate, so desperate are they to join in the execution. This all takes a turn when the official also blasphemes by using the word ‘Jehovah’ – which he does simply by referring to the condemned man’s words. In the end the group stone the official to death.
This is comedy so doesn’t ‘play’ in the way I relate it above, but all of you commenting here: you are all those people, dressed up in arbitrary legitimacy, holding rocks in your hands, and you don’t give a fuck who you’re throwing them at or why, because the stoning is the thing.

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Helen

Thank you for your support Tamara, it is appreciated 🙂

“Are there any women here today?” Haha!

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Bee

Hear, hear Tamara! A genuinely intelligent reply at last!

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Helen

I agree Bee – the points she added are excellent ones and I don’t how anyone could argue with that!

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