Fashion’s claim to inspiration

By Iasmina Voinea: Culture Columnist

Cultural appropriation is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”. Perhaps more so than any other industry, fashion has long trodden the fine line between inspiration and imitation, stealing and repurposing elements from local cultures for their material and professional gain. But the rise of social media has finally opened an on-going debate about what is appropriate in the fashion industry.

In 2017, Christian Dior came under fire when several items in its pre-fall collection bore striking similarities with traditional clothes from Bihor, a small region in Romania. Not only did the French label fail to mention Romanian culture, but in an interview for WWD, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri cited the brand’s multicultural hometown Paris and its artistic heritage as sources of inspiration. In response, Romanian magazine Beau Monde, together with local craftsmen and designers, launched Bihor Couture – a website that sells “authentic items and returns money to local communities”.

Yet, Dior is not the only fashion house to appropriate Romanian culture in its campaigns; the following year, American fashion designer Tory Burch was similarly accused of plagiarising the design of a traditional Romanian coat for her Resort collection.

The coat in question (or “suman” in Romanian), which represents the product of a centuries-old custom originating from the southern part of the country, was never referenced by the brand.

Initially, Tory Burch claimed to have been influenced by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Elizabeth, but when confronted by La Blouse Roumaine, an online store committed to preserving Romanian cultural heritage, she released the following statement: “in an effort to summarise the collection, we missed a reference to a beautiful Romanian coat which inspired one of our pieces”. “Whether it’s Romania, Uganda, or France, we are a brand that strives to celebrate, honour and be inclusive of women from all countries and cultures, in the broadest way possible,” she added.

Although specific to Romanian culture, these examples underscore a prevailing issue in the fashion industry. Big labels appropriate – and sometimes misappropriate – elements from particular communities, thus eroding their cultural identity. In addition to this, capitalising on traditional clothes can have damaging effects on local communities. Brigitte Vézina, intellectual property and cultural heritage law consultant, argues that “cultural appropriation can wield a significant economic blow, undercutting the ability of communities to earn a living by displacing the sale of authentic products”.

Since clothes are not merely used for utilitarian purposes but can represent unique forms of expression, it is about time labels recognised the social and economic effects cultural appropriation has on local communities. Exposure to diverse cultural influences can make fashion prosper, but labels should ultimately be able to differentiate between inspiration and imitation and, more importantly, give credit to their sources of inspiration, especially when those traditions are dying out.

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