Is There a Good Way to Appropriate Culture?

In recent years cultural appropriation became a hot topic. One of the most current examples might be Kim Kardashian’s shapewear that was launched this summer and initially was called “Kimono”. What was intended to be a fun wordplay between Kardashian’s first name and an already existing clothing piece ended up insulting the original Japanese kimono (Brown, 2019). Even the mayor of Kyoto criticised Kardashian’s latest branding (Asian Boss, 2019). Although the word “kimono” simply translates to “a thing to wear” it has never been used to refer to undergarments. Quite the opposite is the case. In general, it describes an ankle-length, long-sleeved, wrapped overgarment that is used for special occasions such as weddings and traditional festivals. It is only understandable that the Japanese were offended by applying the word “kimono” that represents tradition, pride and honour to them, to a random, American lingerie line. Even Kim Kardashian came to realize that and changed the brand’s name to “SKIMS” (Bonner, 2019). While this is quite an extreme case of cultural appropriation and it’s easy to say “that’s wrong” there are many more subtle ones, especially in fashion, where a decision about its political, ethical or cultural correctness is a lot less clear to make.

Do We Take? Do We Buy? And Does it Even Matter?

This leads us to our own brand HANIMANNS. Where do we stand when it comes to cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation can be defined as “taking something produced by members of one culture by members of another” (Young, 2005). While most of this definition fits what HANIMANNS is doing, the word “taking” seems not quite accurate. Whenever Melanie goes to Ghana she visits local fashion shows, interacts with visitors and artists and gets in contact with the brands that impressed her the most. In meetings she discusses the terms and conditions of a possible collaboration and a contract gets signed or not signed. Can this process simply be called “taking”? Isn’t buying a more matching term for what we do? And does it matter if you take or you buy? Is only taking associated with cultural appropriation? Or buying as well?

I think part of the problem is that as an individual of one culture you can buy a product from someone with another culture. Although you paid for the product, you did not and you cannot pay for the cultural aspects that went into the creation of the product. For example when HANIMANNS buys coats from ThreadedTribes we pay for material, the production and the design however it is, of course, impossible to pay for the invention of mud cloth, for the people who kept the production going over many years and made a tradition out of it, for the meanings of the patterns. In a sense, we do “take” part of the culture with just the allowance of one single person of that culture and so we do participate in cultural appropriation.

However, this sense of “pricelessness” is not only tied to products produced by other cultures. Nearly every product that we buy today has some sort of history that we can’t pay for and in the process of the making people were involved that can’t be asked for permission when buying “their” product. That leads me to the conclusion that no one can buy something without taking a part of the culture or history that went into the creation of that product.

The Main Problem with Cultural Appropriation

But why is it perceived as “more wrong” if you take from another culture? I don’t think that the “taking” is the problem. I think the problem lays in “taking without understanding what you take”, “taking without telling where you got it from” and “taking with telling a wrong or too simplified story about the origins”.

On first sight it might seem easy to avoid all that but while I researched for this blog I realized that I already did take and tell a too simplified story about the origins. I started to work for HANIMANNS this February. One of my first tasks was to bring some order to our webshop that also included giving proper names to our goods. Early products of us where the initially so-called “Bogo Cloaks”. I stumbled over the name since I didn’t know either word. I googled and found out that “bogo” is short for “bògòlanfini” which translates to mud cloth and mud cloth refers to a handmade Malian cotton fabric that is dyed with fermented mud and the patterns on it are representative of Malian culture. “Cloak” can be used as a synonym of coat but when I checked google image search only medieval, cape-like overgarments like the one we know from little red riding hood popped up. So I decided to name the product “Malian Pattern Coat” instead. A few months later the designer of ThreadedTribes sent a message to Melanie and asked her to use the word “cloak” instead of “coat” for branding reasons. Slightly unwilling I changed it back. However, I kept the descriptive title “Malian Pattern”. But of course, this title is exactly a form of telling a too simplified story about the origins. But how should I call it to be politically, ethically and culturally correct? Just “bogo” like in the beginning? But would anyone google it’s meaning? I wouldn’t if I just want to buy some clothes. Or I call it with fermented mud dyed Malian fabric with traditional Malian Patterns, cut designed in Ghana. How catchy is that?

Towards a Solution

I think the product descriptions are the wrong platform to tell a story. Hence it’s HANIMANNS job to create a platform where a story can be told, and that is what this is. In the future, we will talk about our products as accurately and as wholly as possible on this blog. We hope you stay tuned.

Marina van Spyk