Cultural appropriation is the act of lifting an element from a different culture and using it in an inappropriate context. There are examples of it in every branch of popular culture, but it appears most often in fashion. It is a form a racism, though the people who wear appropriated clothing are usually not racists. It is so pervasive that most people who wear clothing with borrowed elements are not aware that, by wearing those designs, they are acting as oppressors toward groups of people whose cultures are not respected even while they are being mimicked.
Native American imagery is constantly recreated in fashion. Even though brands are seemingly always being criticized for doing this, they keep finding new ways to imitate designs that carry too much meaning to be ethically used in this manner. Cherokee war bonnets are popular props in photo shoots and music videos, but using them for aesthetic purposes is deeply offensive to Cherokees. A war bonnet is a symbol of honor that very few people have earned the legitimate right to wear. Women are usually not allowed to wear them at all. When Karlie Kloss wore one with a bikini during the last Victoria’s Secret runway show, she was disrespecting everything that war bonnets represent. Lana Del Rey and Ke$ha wore war bonnets amidst desert imagery in recent music videos, and No Doubt’s video for “Looking Hot” never aired on television because the Native American imagery was deemed too offensive.
There is much debate over whether defending traditional cultural practices is at odds with feminism. Respecting the values behind war bonnets means preventing women from wearing them. Some view the aforementioned incidents as ways of forcing the Cherokee nation to acknowledge its own sexism. Protecting a culture often means protecting its oppressive practices. There is no easy solution to this problem, though it is fairly obvious that nothing justifies wearing a war bonnet with a string bikini during a lingerie show.
Urban Outfitters has also come under fire for using Native American designs. The company had been recreating exact Navajo patterns in its clothing. Navajo patterns are copyrighted, as is the word “Navajo.” Urban Outfitters broke the law by pasting those designs on t-shirts, hot pants and tube dresses. The products remained available for purchase, but they were not restocked. The word “Navajo” was removed from the product names.
Native American details have been creeping into fashion as a result of the hipster trend. People who dress in that manner think of themselves as artists and bohemians, even if they have corporate jobs. Tribal graphics and feathers signify that one is a laid-back free spirit. They give the wearer an instant connection to nature and make her appear more spiritual. These ideals are overly simplified preconceptions that white Americans tend to have about the Native American religions. They are lovely concepts, so it is easy to see why people would want to tap into that kind of mystical and enlightened living.
Problems arise when the aesthetically appealing parts of a minority culture are borrowed by the majority. In this instance, Native Americans have historically been oppressed by people who are now wearing their sacred ideologies on t-shirts. The people wearing this clothing want to be associated with the way Native Americans are thought to look but probably would not volunteer time or money to activist causes. Many Native Americans live in poverty even though pieces of their cultures are being bought and sold at every mall in the country.
Some brands are now working around this dilemma by producing generic tribal prints. Sometimes these designs are also called “southwestern” prints. While this is technically ethical, it still succeeds by referring to and taking advantage of an oppressed culture.
If one really must wear Native American clothing, it would be best to do research before making any purchases. All items should be authentic and purchased directly from the artisans if possible. The significance behind an item should be learned so that the piece can be worn in the proper spirit. The goal of identifying cultural appropriation is not to prevent people from finding deep meaning in other cultures. It is to foster respect and open sharing between people of different backgrounds.