There is a picture of me, somewhere deep in a photo album. It is blurry (maybe the lense was a little fatty?), but it doesn’t do anything else than make the picture extra romantic. The photo is from the early 80s. I’m wearing a homemade jumpsuit (it was called something else at that time), and a long cornrow down my back. My mum called it root-braid and had made both that and the suit. She was good to have in that way
If someone at the time had told me that we were stepping dangerously close to cultural appropriation, I think both me and my mother would have been standing there like big question-marks, looking for meaning. We had never heard of the sort. But the braids we had seen both of us. it was fashion at the time, and I just felt fine.
Fashion, an ever changing tastemaker
If we go to The Norwegian enclopedia to find the definition behind fashion, we find the following words:
“fashion is an ever changing tastmaker within art, achitecture, garmentmaking, way of living and so on. Fashion occurs when a group of people let themselves be led to follow certain standards. By this the demand for certain social adjustment is met, and the need for own stances avoided. Because fashion is many faceted, changes and ever evolving, there can still be room for personal taste, in addition to space for the development of individuality within the frame of fashion. The word fashion is these days seen as synonymous with garment-fashion.” (Melilot, Mari & Kjellberg, Anne. (2018). fashion, Great Norwegian Enclopedia)
According to the definition, it was, in other words, quite natural that I felt pretty and in line with the fashion at the time. The most important role model for braids these days was Bo Derek that, in a now legendary movie scene from the from “10” (1979), rises from the water, dressed in a nude swimsuit and a cascade of small braids.
She immediately crated a trend that last for a long while thereafter. Finally it reached little Grimstad, as small 10 year-old and a mother with cleaver fingers.
Cultural appropriation and braid trouble
If we take some fast leaps forwards and land in June 2019, this picture has changed dramatically. I strongly dislike mentioning Kim Kardashian in any context, that woman has by far enough attention as it is, but she serves so well my point that I will let it pass for now. The 19th of June, she was seen in public with braids, more or less exactly like the ones Bo Derek was seen in, only this time the reactions was vastly different. (read the whole story Here ).
According to many you can no longer call these cornrows, braids or anything else, you have to call them African Fulani braids, and if you show yourself in public wearing these, you have to be prepared to defend yourself against accusations of cultural appropriation
“Cultural appropriation is wrongful acquisition and abuse of other cultural production, such as symbols, vestments, music and rituals. The term is used where there is an asymmetrical power balance, in particular between majorities and minorities and generally refers to a prior colonial relation” (Eriksen, T. (2018). Cultural appropriation, Great Norwegian Enclopedia)
Does Kardashian fit this description? There is surely an a-symmetrical constellation in the relation to the vast number of followers she has, without any real influence, vs. Kardashians own influence on them, and thereby ability to capitalise on this influence. I this respect she should pay close attention to the signals she is sending. But what signals are those in terms of these braids? If Kardashian no longer can show herself wearing these, can you and I? And if you conclude you can’t, then where are we heading?
Offences or cultures in flux
In a world full of YouTube, Instagram, and reality-stars in free dressage, it can be hard keeping track of who has – or better yet – should have definition power. It was easier before. MTV had its pop-stars, Paris, Milano and London their fashion designers and the movies their big movie-stars. The spotlight was on them, and what they created. In that way they were also benchmarking what we were listening to, and not least how we dressed. When Yves Saint. Laurent, as early as 1979, set out mannequins dressed in kaftans and turbans, it was only the sound of an excited fashion press that was heard. I don’t think it is drawing it too far to assume that was because of 3 things:
- Saint. Laurents obvious respect and admiration for the origin of his designs
- The fashion press’ will and ability Motepressens to convey this with equal respect
- The total lack of social media and the possibility for anyone to have an opinion about his show.
In comparison, GUCCI had to publicly apologise for its use of a turban in their 2018 show. (See the full story here)
Today anyone can comment about just about anything. In addition, anyone can (in theory) create its own star, regardless of education, schooling, or other standards of cultural understanding. And therein lies parts of the problem. Some would probably call it a democratisation of the definition power, where I myself se the shadow of the opposite. When anyone is given the right to mean something about anything, and thereby defines stricter and stricter frames for other, often based on feelings and not knowledge, or freedom is chipped away, bit by bit, until we one day will be left with the opposite of democracy. Because, if the framework for cultural exchange no longer can take exchange itself, if fashion no longer can “(be) multifaceted, changing and ever evolving” Melilot, Mari & Kjellberg, Anne. (2018). fashion, Great Norwegian Enclopedia), we have entered a path that is so that we need to protest. The fashiondesigner in me certainly feel that we must be aware of our responsibility and not use our arena to create products or collections that can be seen as “offensive, hurtful or dehumanitizing” (Eriksen, T. (2018). Cultural appropriation, Great Norwegian Enclopedia), but we, at the same time must have the freedom to collect inspiration to ever new expressions, like fashion always has
Respectful fashion-meetings or cultural appropriation?
Hylland Eriksen, Thomas. (2018, 22. mars). kulturell appropriering. I Store norske leksikon. Hentet 13. juni 2019 fra https://snl.no/kulturell_appropriering
Melilot, Mari & Kjellberg, Anne. (2018, 31. juli). mote. I Store norske leksikon. Hentet 13. juni 2019 fra https://snl.no/mote