Festival season fashion: How to appreciate other cultures instead of appropriating them

24th Jun 19 | Beauty

Step away from the feathered headdresses and bindis if you’re heading to Glasto this year.

Audience with hands in the air at a music festival

Glastonbury begins on Wednesday and festival season is well and truly in swing. Even though these events are ostensibly about the music, you can’t deny how much effort we put into what we wear – they’re basically real-life fashion shows.

However, festival fashion has the unfortunate reputation for being a hotbed of cultural appropriation, where white people are more likely to don bindis, feathered headdresses or cornrows, even if it’s not something they’d consider doing on their average Saturday night out.

Maybe it’s something about these spaces which mean people ‘lose their inhibitions’ – sure, this might mean dancing wildly into the early hours of the morning, but it doesn’t have to mean appropriating somebody else’s culture and potentially offending those around you.

We’re having more conversations around white privilege and how fashion can assert this, and yet festivals seem oddly immune to society’s increasing wokeness. With this in mind – and with the biggest festival on the UK calendar coming up – we spoke to Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, associated professor of integrated design at the Parsons School of Design, about how you can use fashion in a way which appreciates other cultures rather than appropriating them.

Jaramillo directs the DEED Research Lab at Parsons, which researches the indigenous and traditional artisan sector in Guatemala and Colombia. She’s well placed to discuss issues of cultural appropriation in fashion, particularly as indigenous Latin American designers are often subject to appropriation.

For example, earlier this month Mexico’s cultural minister accused Carolina Herrera – a fashion house set up by a Venezuelan woman, but is currently helmed by a Caucasian man – of culturally appropriating indigenous Mexican designs. It’s also worth noting that Caucasian models wearing these clothes were used in the campaign. In response, the brand said on Twitter that it was “proud of its Latin roots” and “we believe in having an open conversation about how we can respectfully highlight and celebrate the different cultures around the world.”

“Though the sector is cited to be between $34 and $526 billion dollars (£27 – 416 billion) in size, the majority of the world’s artisans are living in poverty and are socially marginalised. Where is the money going and how can we co-design more just models between designers, entrepreneurs, and artisans?” asks Jaramillo. With these questions in mind, the DEED Research Lab does a lot of work around indigenous rights and intellectual property.

“Recently, we’ve become interested in the conversation around cultural ‘appreciation’, as distinguished from appropriation,” she explains. “And as a lab that amplifies the voices of artisans and indigenous people, we’re certainly committed to celebrating culture and cultural heritage, while still honouring traditional design and their origin.”

Jaramillo’s work is on an academic level, but it can easily be applied to how you approach festival dressing. No one is saying you can’t be inspired by cultures which aren’t you’re own, but it’s clear more of us need to be working with these other cultures as opposed to brazenly taking from them.

So what should you keep in mind?

“Key questions that people should ask themselves to avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation when it comes to wearing garments and accessories include – was this design created by people who have been historically marginalised? Do I belong to that community, or has anyone from it invited me to wear that design? Is my wearing it benefiting the community in any way? Am I wearing it as costume or as just one design element of my outfit that is neither imitating nor mocking a culture?” says Jaramillo.

Even if donning that feathered headdress might seem harmless to you, it’s important to think about what it might mean to other people – for some, it’s so much more than just an accessory.

Crowds at Glastonbury
Glastonbury kicks off on June 26 (Ben Birchall/PA)

As well as wanting people to think more closely about what they wear, Jaramillo wants designers to be more mindful of these issues. She says: “The key question certainly is one of community involvement. Was the design created with or by the indigenous people who came up with that design in the first place? Or is the indigenous person absent from the design, and in which case has served solely as the backdrop of so-called ‘inspiration’ for the designers who then travels back to their studio wherever they’re living and creates something that looks similar to what they saw?”

Unfortunately, Jaramillo adds: “There are few legal protections for indigenous design, so here we must rely on ethics over the law.”

Jaramillo advises that “entrepreneurs and designers should look at existing successful models”, and she gives the example of Naatu (a Colombian company which sells cereal, owned by Pepsi), saying it “pays annual royalties to artisans for using their graphics on their boxes as printed patterns.”

She also cites the Colombian bag company Totto, which “is paying fair wages as well as additional community contributions from the sales of their latest line of bags co-designed with Wayuu artisans”.

Festival organisers are waking up to how widespread and damaging cultural appropriation in fashion is. Last year, Arizona-based event company, Form, claimed to be the first festival to ban cultural appropriation. So it’s not just up to consumers to tackle these issues – brands and festival organisers also need to step up to the plate. However, this festival season, it should be all of our responsibility to put a bit more care into what we wear.

© Press Association 2019

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