I am a sucker for “bohemian” fashion, and against my inner-hipster/culturally aware self, I still think that clothes from such stores as Free People, Urban Outfitters, and Anthropologie are cute. Those three brands are, in fact, owned by the same company, and they are marketed towards customers with similar aesthetics yet different price points and ages: Urban Outfitters is the young, hip, and “alternative” customer, Free People is the “worldly, bohemian” girl who is hippie enough to dress hippie but affluent enough to spend $100 on a skirt, and Anthropologie is an older, wealthier woman who still wants to look “indie.” I think that Free People probably resembles my personal style best, or at least the style that I wish to emulate.
Not to brag or anything, but I won “best dressed” in my high school yearbook thanks to the offbeat outfits that I wore to school. Nylon Magazine was my religious text of choice, Jenny Lewis my style icon; I tried to combine girly, 1950s, 1990s, country, and just plain weird things in the hopes of looking cute yet different. I definitely stood out from my Southern California peers who were all clad in Rainbow sandals (ironically coming only in shades of tan) and jean shorts. However, around age 18, I got really into reggae music, and moving to Seattle for University instilled in me a deep-seated nostalgia for the beach; I wanted my outer look to mirror my newfound “laid-back” personality.
Before I could start traveling, I had to buy clothes from American retailers that still conveyed the “global gypsy look” which I was seeking. Free People became my muse, my longing- for I couldn’t exactly afford their clothing on my student income. Clothes with “exotic” prints or such labels as “Aztec,” “Navajo,” “Moroccan,” etc. called to me.
In the past year, however, I have become familiar with a term called cultural appropriation. This is a phenomena wherein one culture- typically the dominant, oppressive one- adapts elements of a minority, oppressed culture. One example would be a white American wearing a Native American headdress. The wearing of the headdress is problematic not just because the person is white, but because oftentimes the non-Native American wears it simply because it “looks cool”- thus not understanding its symbolic meaning. In reality, a headdress is supposed to be worn by Native American chiefs or warriors, not a drunk person at Coachella.
Urban Outfitters stirred controversy that led to an online petition last year when it sold a dress called “90s Vintage Linen Dress” that looked exactly like a traditional Ethiopian/Eritrean design. It was beyond inspiration from Ethiopia/Eritrea- it was basically a copy that gave no credit whatsoever to the culture from which it came. However, it wasn’t the first time that Urban Outfitters came under fire for cultural appropriation/insensitivity; the Navajo Nation actually sued the company for misuse of its trademarked name back in 2012. During a time when designers across the globe had become infatuated with Navajo culture and fashion, Urban Outfitters created items like the “Navajo Panty” and “Navajo Flask”- the flask being particularly insensitive, given the Nation’s ban on alcohol on its reservations.
Additionally, Free People frequently uses the exoticization (is that a word?) of foreign cultures, particularly non-White cultures, in its quest to sell products. Their current online theme is “Moroccan Romance,” which is all very pretty- but, in my opinion, it is quite a big stretch to put a red zig-zag print skirt or an embroidered peasant blouse that looks more Mexican than anything under the umbrella of “Moroccan” (confusingly enough, the red zig-zag print skirt is itself called Maracana, which is the name of the stadium in Brazil where the World Cup will be held) The photos of the models wearing the clothes weren’t taken in Morocco- they’re just standing in front of a pretty blue tiled wall. To me, it just seems like they picked an “interesting/exotic” sounding country and slapped it onto their collection.
None of this is really new, though; hippies of the 1960s were inspired by non-White fashion in their efforts to go against mainstream society. Both men and women wore clothing adapted from places as disparate as India and Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve their signature look. Today, are we copying the hippies who copied other cultures, or are we copying the cultures themselves?
Where does one draw the line between liking clothes from other cultures and copying, appropriating, or exoticising (again, is that a word?) them?