Fashion & Cultural Appropriation

The image above is a quote from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. The full quote is:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery. celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

We’ve looked at fashion designers stealing ideas from other designers. Now for a different type of stealing that’s arguably even more problematic.

Plagiarism is unethical for obvious reasons but with cultural appropriation, the lines are a little more blurred

This post looks at fashion designers taking aesthetics from cultures other than their own.

Some examples:


In 2015, Isabel Marant’s Etoile collection was singled out by the community of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, in Mexico, which believed some of her designs bear striking resemblance to their traditional costume (a 600 year old design). The community sought reparations. Marant’s office stated: “For her part, Ms Isabel Marant does not claim to be the author of… these designs”.

The pictures that were tweeted by musician Susana Harp. On the left, Harp, with the women of Tlahuitoltepec. On the right, the blouse from Marant’s collection. Photograph: Courtesy Susana Harp. via

In 2016, Oaxaca’s congress declared the community’s traditional designs and language as Intangible Cultural Heritage per UNESCO guidelines.



Images above: Donna Karan skirt (left). Seminole women wear patchwork skirts in an archival image (right). Courtesy of Seminole/Miccosukee Archive. via

In February 2017, a group of young Seminole (Native American) seamstresses confronted one of the biggest names in fashion: Donna Karan, after becoming frustrated by designers who copied or interpreted Seminole Indian patchwork without acknowledging the source of inspiration — Donna Karan in particular.

Jessica Osceola, a direct descendant of the 19th century Seminole leader, Osceola, an activist, college professor and artist said: “As far as drawing inspiration, I don’t think we can say that anything is wrong about being inspired by Native art and expression. I think the issue is when things are copied to such a degree that it is very very apparent that this is not [the designer’s] idea. It still has a very strong association with a community which is the originator, and that should be acknowledged.”


Black-and-white keffiyeh
Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images. via

In April 2017, fast-fashion Brit emporium Top Shop apparently thought it was a good idea to use the black-and-white keffiyeh (long associated with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian resistance) as the fabric for a decidedly unmodest (sleeveless, skimpy back, short-shorts) “scarf playsuit.”

Topshop’s ‘scarf playsuit’. via


In May 2017, Chanel was criticised for ‘humiliating’ Indigenous Australian culture when they included a $2,000 boomerang in their spring-summer 2017 pre-collection.

A boomerang made by Chanel has been criticised for its cultural insensitivity. Photograph: Chanel. via

(Chanel has been selling boomerangs since 2006, Fairfax Media reported).


This issue is a pretty complicated one for me, more so than the obvious cases of plagiarism discussed in the previous post. What makes it so complicated:

1. Is it even ‘stealing’? Or is it just ‘being inspired by’? Where is the line between stealing and being inspired? How much should original cultural designs be altered?

In the previous post, brands that copied from other brands tried to pass off the ideas as their own, with no acknowledgement of the original creators. But in many cases of cultural appropriation, brands readily admit that they’ve been inspired by a certain culture. How much difference does that make?

2. It’s less clear cut in terms of what’s allowed and what’s off limits. Is it ok to appropriate ANY elements of other cultures? How much is too much?  Where is the line between being offensive/insensitive and being respectful?

3. It’s less clear cut in terms of what’s actually ‘wrong’ with using aesthetics from other cultures. See this post for an example of cultural appropriation in fashion and some arguments for and against.

Is it because it takes something away from significant cultural symbols/trivialises them?

Is it like in the previous post, the main problem is the theft of ideas and profiting from them while the original creator doesn’t profit at all?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be severely limiting and wouldn’t fashion become really boring if designers could only take inspiration from cultures they belong to?

Is a designer’s argument that they’re paying homage/celebrating a culture ever valid?

4. It’s less clear cut in terms of who should be compensated in cases of cultural appropriation and what form that compensation should take. In the previous post, a big brand who rips off an emerging designer could/should acknowledge and compensate the original designer. But when you rip off an entire culture, what do you do? Divide up your profits among all members of that culture? Unlikely…

5. WHO DECIDES ANY OF THIS? You may have noticed this post consists almost entirely of questions. I’m really not qualified to answer any of them but I know they’re worth thinking about and could generate some interesting discussion. Cultural appropriation is a ‘hot topic’ at the moment, not just in fashion, e.g. an American university recently made headlines when students complained that the cafeteria was committing culinary cultural appropriation by serving bánh mìs made from ciabatta and sushi from undercooked rice. Clearly, people take this topic very seriously.

So, please let me know what you think.


I asked in the previous post: do designers have a right to borrow aesthetics from cultures other than their own?

Should there be any limits on creative expression?


2 thoughts on “Fashion & Cultural Appropriation”

  1. What was Chanel thinking?! Who could possibly be the market for that boomerang? I hope I don’t sound politically incorrect in saying this but I find it funny and in a sense creepy because of the political incorrectness of the whole thing. As for the ‘scarf playsuit’, in my ignorant opinion, I think Top Shop could have possibly gotten away with it had they been a bit more inconspicuous with the name. The other items are equally as controversial but because the creators didn’t claim the idea as theirs I suppose that made it okay? I’m no expert either and I wonder could the original custodians apply for patency on their designs?


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