(disclaimer: I decided to delve more into the fashion aspect for this blog post even though we’re still on the beauty unit 😛 )
One of my favorite stores to shop at is Free People. I love the range of styles, patterns, accessories, etc. But sometimes when shopping in the store or online, I wonder why so much of the trendy style seems to either allude to, or blatantly say that it is some sort of Native American style or pattern. Don’t get me wrong, I think the styles are beautiful, but I find it very interesting that much of the “trendy” or “hipster” styles nowadays allude to Native American roots. Can we consider this a fetishization of the culture? Most likely, the majority of the people wearing these items such as feather earrings and “Navajo” prints (which I will get to later), have no idea about the culture they come from, or if these appropriations are even accurate to the native culture.
You wouldn’t usually hear someone comment that a Caucasian girl who is wearing moccasins and a feather in her hair is “trying” to be Native American. However, I would not doubt that a Caucasian girl wearing her hair in cornrows and a matching track suit would be accused of “trying” to be black. Perhaps this is because the majority of society doesn’t perceive the Native American race as something that can be fetishized anymore; that since the hippies did it in the 60’s , it was re-appropriated as “hippie” culture, therefore it is simply a “trend” now.
In her first chapter of “Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics”, Laura Miller explains the different aesthetics of the Japanese youth subcultures that sprung up in the 1990s. Many of these trends gave Japanese women freedom of aesthetic expression and a sense of independence through the rebellion against traditional norms of how Japanese women should look and behave. Many of these subcultures’ aesthetics came from appropriations of other ethnicities and cultures. One of the popular styles was “B-Girl” style, an appropriation of African American pop culture.
Something that happens when a “trend” from another culture is appropriated into another is that it somewhat loses depth—it is simply a stereotype. Miller goes deeper into this phenomenon:
“Japanese appropriation of ‘black style’ is also narrowly limited to specific representations. Hitoe is not copying the style of the Baptist choir singer or the working mother, but rather that of hip and wealthy superstars found in films and on MTV”
When we popularize a very specific element from a culture, it may also become skewed in a way that not only stereotypes the culture, but disrespects or dishonors it. A few years ago, the Navajo Nation Attorney General brought a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters (which is the same company that Free People is under) for using the term “Navajo” to describe some of their clothing items and accessories. In a blog post on nativeappropriations.com, writer Adrienne K explains that the “Navajo” designs Urban Outfitters sells are “loosely based on Navajo rug designs (maybe?)… but aren’t representations that are chosen by the tribe or truly representative of Navajo culture.” She then goes on to explain how appropriation can lead to erasure of a culture.
“Additionally, it’s more than likely that Urban chose “Navajo” for the international recognition–to most of the world Navajo (and Cherokee)= American Indian (my Jamaican friend didn’t even know there were other tribes in the US until she met me). This conflation of Navajo with “generic Indian” contributes to the further erasure of the distinct tribes and cultures in the US and solidifies the idea that there is only one “Native” culture, represented by plains feathers and southwest designs.”
She has pictures of some of the “Navajo” items Urban Outfitters sells, but the two that, both to her and to me, were the most striking and most offensive, were a flask and a pair of underwear.
Staying classy and always culturally sensitive, Urban Outfitters 😛
Here is the entire article: http://nativeappropriations.com/2011/09/urban-outfitters-is-obsessed-with-navajos.html
I think that the biggest problem with cultural appropriation when it comes to fashion and beauty is awareness and accuracy. I don’t think that trendy stores selling Native American inspired items is fetishization or offensive, however it becomes so when it is advertised inaccurately or done in a way that may dishonor the culture.
For the most part, I would argue that people who appropriate other cultures into their fashion or beauty practices are not trying to falsely present as someone native to that culture, however, they simply enjoy the aesthetic that the culture offers. There is, however, a fine line between a personal fashion statement and a reminder of offensive practices of the past.
This article about headdresses being incorperated into “hipster” culture sheds some light on how offensive this “trend” actually is, based on the history of Native American oppression and colonialism.