Appropriation of forms and symbols in the fashion world is nothing new. For decades, creatives have looked for inspiration in familiar or unfamiliar cultures. It is worth considering the impact of this choice, both on the cultures being appropriated, and on the fashion world as such. Can we speak of a process of redefining cultural heritage, by decontextualising traditions and symbols? If yes – how damaging is it, and who bears responsibility?
Culture and tradition are often at risk of being devalued, de-signified, as a clear effect of the logic of repetition that describes our visual production: there is a tone of triviality in mass producing copies of centuries-old symbols and garments. Some elements and tendencies of the fashion industry have reduced our sensitivity for traditions or cultural artefacts, declaring them as the ins and outs, on a seasonal basis, praised today, forgotten tomorrow. What´s problematic in this attitude is the normalisation of otherwise questionable practices: for example, would it be admissible to wear as adornment a piece originally used to exercise ownership over women in some communities?
Together with other remarkable examples from the past, new collections for Autumn 2016 seem to have been particularly inspired by an element heavy with history and symbolism of some communities: the neck choker, bound to make a comeback this year. However, unlike those stretchy chokers that fascinated teenagers and young women during the ´90s, this revival promises a different type of appeal, as it is embraced by established designers.
The tribal chic accessories from Loewe’s Autumn collection are a good illustration. The brand has reimagined the copper rings that women in certain Asian and African cultures use to stretch their necks. Seen as a symbol of wealth and status, the dzilla neck rings are only to be worn by married women in the Ndebele tribe. However, these adornments hide a message of female submission as well; they represent their attachment and loyalty to their husband, as well as a reflection of the husband´s wealth.
In a time when many voices speak against gender inequality, and many women still fall into abusing relationships, has Loewe managed to distort the meaning of an object that is used to suppress a whole gender in these ethnic groups? Is the fashion industry, by means of appropriation, making us all more comfortable with the agony found in remote cultures, and, at some levels, in our own society?
Eventually, high fashion creations end up in the engines of capitalism, which have fostered an aggressive logic of business, manifested as “fast fashion”. The increasing necessity for often mindless and meaningless consumption is a driver of cultural insensitivity, as it reduces cultural meaning to the point of insignificance. Clothing giants, such as H&M or Primark, mass produce T-shirts, phone cases, and other articles, inscribing them with sacred symbols or printing copies of artworks on cheap fabric. Surely, the newly revived chokers will be flooding their stores soon.
Does this trend of compulsive buying of cheap, desecrating reproductions have an effect on the meaning of the originals? As figures in the front line of creative production, do designers have the responsibility to protect historical and cultural heritage?