When Nadine Leopold strolled down the catwalk at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show in Shanghai last month, there was a collective intake of breath among onlookers.
It was not the Australian model’s blonde good looks which struck the rows of fashionistas, but her feathery headpiece, reminiscent of the traditional war bonnet of many Native American tribes.
Other models, too, wore Native American-inspired headgear and clothes with tribal-style motifs, for a section of the show named “Nomadic Aventure” – despite the lingerie designer being forced to apologise for decking out one of its models, Karlie Kloss, in a similarly-themed headdress for its 2012 show.
Victoria’s Secret, apparently, can’t get over its habit of cultural appropriation, and it is far from the only company or designer to engage in this practice, defined as taking or using things from a culture which is not your own, especially without showing understanding or respect for that culture.
It’s something that Australian Aboriginal people have experienced, too, with their sacred marks and symbols appropriated by non-indigenous painters and designers.
Earlier this year, the Turkish fashion label Les Benjamins was criticised for incorporating such marks and symbols into its designs.
Defending the move, Les Benjamins designer Bunyamin Adyin told Pause Magazine he had been inspired by both Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori culture.
“Aboriginals, Islanders and Maori people are the natives and their cultures, traditions and rituals are rich in culture,” he said. “You can see minimal details in my collection that are inspired by traditional clothing, face paint and art from the region, fused with British colonial details like royal and floral embroideries.”
Aboriginal artist Bibi Barba told Hatch about her personal experience of cultural appropriation.
“About four and a half years ago, there was a designer in Poland who downloaded my artwork off my website and used it in a hotel they designed. She didn’t consult me about it and she used … [it] without an agreement. She said she had redesigned … [it],” Barba said.
“I pretty much found [out about] it on the internet and had to go to Poland to fight for my copyright after I had approached them.
“For indigenous people, our land is our law, it’s our culture, it’s our DNA, and when we paint and tell a story, that’s our artistic interpretation of it, and by doing that we’re keeping the culture alive and it’s evolving.”
Another problem is fake “Aboriginal” art and artefacts. Many didgeridoos, for instance, are mass-produced in Asia and imported into Australia, to be sold in souvenir shops. Some Australian artists are calling for legislative changes outlawing the import and sale of fake Aboriginal-style souvenirs.
Some in the art world take a more relaxed view. Commenting on the Les Benjamins case, Adam Knight, president of Aboriginal Art Association of Australia, said designers can “create a design based on inspiration, as long as you are not directly copying a design … ]You] would just need to state the basis of that inspiration of that tribal work and offer respect to those who inspired.
“Circles and dots and other elements have been used by cultures all over the world, and interpretations are varied.” – Alicia Camilleri @AliciaCam98 editing by Kathy Marks