by Marguerite de Villiers. What happens when Material Culture items are removed from their original context — as we see more and more brands drawing inspiration from various Cultural sources — and transplanted into another? If such an item is the source of interaction in one setting, what does it become in another? That all depends on the distinction between appropriation and appreciation.
Culture is defined as ‘learned behaviour’ — it is how we dress, what we eat, the things we believe in, how we interact with others, the practices we participate in. Everything we do is cultural; it is learned. Material culture is our learned behaviour around and interactions with objects, products and brands. Material culture is the tangible translation and evidence of a community’s heritage, identity, behaviours, beliefs, and more.
The problem with appropriation (the misguided adoption of elements of one culture by another) is that it disregards the origin, complexities and cultural value of the items or elements that they then claim as their own.
Fashion brands tend to be the key perpetrators in cultural appropriation, where they either draw inspiration from patterns, symbols, hairstyles or accessories, or simply copy and paste entire elements. Examples include Gucci’s Geisha-themed 2017 autumn runway, Chanel’s Bantu knot featured in its 2017 campaign and Victoria Secret’s Native American-inspired runway piece, all sported by predominantly white models.
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What makes this offensive — apart from it being seen as a modern form of colonial behaviour, where one dominant cultural grouping takes advantage of another — is that the dominant group picks and chooses aspects of a minority group that it finds appealing, removes the cultural value attached to it, and makes it purely about image, status and aesthetics. It transforms something complex and dynamic into something static and flat.
In understanding material culture, we are more likely to gain insight into the ways in which people express themselves and who they imagine themselves to be. If appropriation is on one end of the spectrum, appreciation is on the other. It’s not to say that we should avoid all contact with or inspiration from some form of cultural expression that’s not our own. We can appreciate something without appropriating it.
Designers, artists, marketers, advertisers can collaborate, exchange and celebrate through their interactions with people. It is about sharing the value and expressing the significance to an audience while doing justice to the source of inspiration and the people from which it originates.
For example, Quartz published a video telling the story of how designer Osklen participated in a mutual exchange between himself and a community in the Amazon when creating his spring collection. He was in awe of the details of their designs and forms of expression and, in return, the community received royalties and recognition for the role it played in the design process.
Marguerite de Villiers is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Added Value. “Why Things Matter”, her latest regular column on MarkLives, applies an anthropological lens to the world of commercials and commodities.
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