Cultural Appropriation of African Style: Compliment or Insult?

21st November 2017 BY Mariam Tijani

Cultural Appropriation of Style has always been an issue within the Global Fashion Industry to the extent that the United Nations are debating if its adoption should be made Illegal. I first addressed the issue in a recent post on in relation to British Fashion Designer Stella McCartney Spring 2018 Ready-to-Wear Collection which was showcased at Paris Fashion Week, 2017.

Cultural Appropriation
Stella McCartney Spring 2018 Ready-to-Wear Collection Showcased at Paris Fashion Week, 2017. (Source:– Vogue).

African Prints and Silhouettes were featured in 5 out of 41 Pieces of the sustainable fashion designers Collection. This angered #BlackTwitter and Communities around the world joined in on the debate on various social media platforms and forums. Many people agreed that Dominant Western Cultures have been oppressing, exploiting and violating Africa and its culture for a very long time against its wishes and also without crediting it.

Before Social Media, incidents like this would have been swept under the carpet and never seen the light of Day. I guess we should call this progress. That being said, “Cultural Appropriation” is a term which has always been debated. However, many people still believe it’s just a Buzzword with no true context. On the contrary, those who understand its true Value are not okay with this conclusion.

So, what is Cultural Appropriation and Should you care?

Cultural Appropriation
British Chef Jamie Oliver attempt at Cooking West African Jollof Rice. The dish came out looking more like a Risotto. (Source:- Jamie Oliver).

Cultural Appropriation is a concept which deals with the adaptation of certain elements of one culture (often a marginalized or minority one) by another culture (usually colonialist) outside of its original cultural context without understanding it’s true meaning. If the particular element (known as its collective Intellectual Property) is executed wrongly, it is then framed “Cultural Misappropriation”. The wrong portrayal often hurts the culture being copied. This can be related to a culture’s Foods, Symbols, Traditions, Technology, Songs, Languages and this instance Fashion.

The Cultural Appropriation of African Style

Cultural Appropriation
This Oleku Iro & Buba would have probably only be worn for Cultural Day to School and it will not be worn on Public Transport due to Outside Judgement/Bullying of Young Africans while growing up in the Uk. (Source:- Urbanstax).

While growing up in the UK, African Style was perceived as a mere costume and young Africans like myself were teased by our non-African friends who saw it us Playing dress up when spotted in one. Back then, the Fashion Industry named their African Inspired Collection Exotic, Ethnic, Tribal, Tropical, Safari and/or Bohemian. Fast Forward to a Decade later, Luxury brands such as Burberry, Valentino, Moschino, Matthew Williamson, Jean Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacob and others such as High Street Stores like Primark, Top Shop, and even online platforms i.e. ASOS launched their “African Inspired Collection”, especially with Ankara. It has become a Fashion staple to lovers of Print all over the world. It has successfully moved away from its Safari Phrase to inspiration being taken from its Vibrant and extremely diverse culture.

Example of Political Cultural Misappropriation “Ghana Must Go” Bags

Cultural Appropriation
Celine Autumn/Winter 2013 Plaid Collection Inspired by “Ghana Must Go Bags”. (Source:- British Fashion Diary).

On a controversial Note, British Fashion Designer Celine Autumn/Winter 2013 Collection was Inspired by the Famous West African Shopper/Travel Bag widely known as “Ghana Must Go”. Many Critics condemned its adoption because Celine and other Brands including Adidas who also took inspiration from the Plaid Pattern do not know the history of print.

Cultural Appropraition
Luxury Brand Louis Vuitton was retailing their mini “Ghana Must Go” shopper bag for £300. The bag of this size is less than £3 in the Market. Side Note – I know it’s not the same quality. (Source:- StyleVocab).

“Ghana Must Go” has a negative connotation by Ghanaians who moved to Nigeria during its Oil Boom. However, in the 1980s they were kicked out without any advance warning and had to pack their belongings in these bags instead of proper suitcases due to time constraint. For those of you who have always wondered why Nigerians and Ghanaians dislike one another? Well, this is where the Feud emerged from. You can only Imagine why Africans were not impressed when design houses i.e. Louis Vuitton, brands, and highstreets store like Topshop adopted the Plaid Pattern in their collection without paying homage to its origin.

Where Should Design Inspiration be Take from Considering We live in a Global Village?

Politics aside, many people within the Fashion Industry are still adornment that Design Inspiration can come from any Culture. As a designer myself, I agree with the notion. However, whichever cultural element/s to be copied needs to be understood and also executed with respect.

Africa: The Global Trend Dictator / Setter

Cultural Appropriation
WGSN Named Africa Global TrendSetter. (Source:- WGSN).

WGSN, the world’s leading Trend forecaster recognizes that Africa’s Style set Global trends. On the other hand, Many African Designers still don’t understand the continent’s ability to dictate Global trends and continue to underestimate its Global affection. Unfortunately, we are the only people who can do something about it especially if we keep complaining that the world is benefiting from our culture, but we still don’t reap from it. African Fashion and Style is a major contender when it comes to trendsetting within the Global Fashion Industry. We have the power to create economic growth and jobs for the citizens by exporting our creative economy, especially with our Youth Population.

African Millennials in Diaspora Contribution to Africa Trending Globally

Cultural Appropriation
Afropunk Festival 2016 held in London. Black Millennials came dressed in their various Afrourban Outfits. (Source:- Noisey Vice).

Let’s not forget the contribution of African Millennials both on the Continent and in the Diaspora too. From worrying about outside judgment to now embracing our African heritage through our Afrourban style expressions. There are still some people who are still struggling with their identity and don’t want to be perceived as trying too much and others are accused of trying too hard. So, I guess we have not fully won our African Style Heritage issues yet. We can all agree we have come a long way. Lets continue to show our support by Patronising African Fashion Designers to grow the Continents Creative Economy for socio-economic development.

After digesting the article, what do you think?
  1. Do you believe Cultural Appropriation of Africa’s Style is a Compliment or Insult to our Style and Culture?
  2. Do you think designers should ask for permission from a particular culture before adopting it as a design inspiration?

Let’s know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.