Designers create the world of fashion by pushing the boundaries of style each season. Sometimes they seek inspiration from other cultures, so they borrow elements from the cultures of minority groups without their input, which is cultural appropriation. Such is a recent case with Canadian label Dsqaured2. After presenting their Native-themed line at Milan Fashion Week, designers Dean and Dan Caten were accused of cultural insensitivity towards aboriginal culture. Dsquared2’s newest women’s collection is called “Dsquaw” and features tribal-prints, pants, dresses, skirts, ponchos and feathered accents. The online presentation of the fall/winter 2015-16 collection appeared on the label’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts last month with the hashtag #Dsquaw. Many social media users were offended and left angry comments on the images. So, a couple of hours later, the #Dsquaw hashtag was removed from Dsquared2’s pages. However, the Caten brothers did not comment on the matter.
Critics have pointed out that the word “squaw” is a derogatory term for First Nation women; it is also considered to be racist and ignorant. “Squaw” is an offensive and discriminating word for Aboriginal women, says Kevin Myran, a 37-year-old member of the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre. “Our First Nation women were very strong, they took care of their bodies and they lived in a healthy way, now we do it anyways,” he adds.
Tonya Davidson, a sociology professor at Ryerson University, says that this is a classic example of cultural appropriation. It is problematic because industries that are a part of mainstream society steal and commodify aspects – ideas, images and names – of minority cultures without any permission. “This practice works to reduce living cultures into commoditized objects that are being sold and bought,” she says. “Powerful industries are capitalizing this practice to make money of misused ideas about aboriginal cultures.
In fact, the excuse of celebrating aboriginal culture is simply a way to justify ongoing theft. Dsquared2's glamorization of colonialism is a form of racism because it reproduces the colonial logic where aboriginal cultures are just reduced to images that are set in the past and are decontextualized. Aboriginality is understood through fun and catchy thing, not in terms of real social and politic conditions. White people made up ideas that represent Aboriginal people as barbaric and uncivilized. It was very important in the past and it continues to be important now because it allows white people to dominate and minimize social issues. “It is really disappointing and not surprising at the same time,” Davidson says.
According to the label’s website, the collection embodies: "The enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes. The confident attitude of the British aristocracy. In a captivating play on contrasts: an ode to America's native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe."
“Aboriginal culture has been exploited by Westerners who benefit from knowledge, craftsmanship and skills that are properties of Aboriginal people,” says Ben Barry, an assistant professor at Ryerson’s School of Fashion.“I think discredit done here is incredibly offensive and shows little cultural awareness. It is taking the culture and reducing it to a trend.”
A bigger issue about this practice is that Westerners keep all of the profits and do not invest money in aboriginal communities. Barry offers “rules of significance, source, similarity, systematicness and sustainability” to understand and avoid cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. People need to recognize where a design is coming from and if the source works for its production. Understanding its religious and cultural meaning is also very important because its misused can offend some ethnic groups. People also need to determine whether it is a copy or an interpretation of a design. Often, patterns are just replicas and items are not created, but copied. A solution to reduce cultural appropriation is to find a way through design to reduce inequality among cultures and create a more equal sustainable relationship with exploited cultures.
This is not the first time that designers and retailers have inconsiderately used aboriginal cultural symbols and icons as a fashion piece. In 2013, H&M sold a Native American-inspired headdress as a fashion accessory. The company removed the piece from its Canadian stores after customers argued that it was making a parody of aboriginal culture.
Myran explains that only chiefs, who earned every feather by doing something good for the community, wore headdresses. “When a young lady puts a headdress and walks down, it is really dishonoured. Those feathers need to be earned and she didn’t earn them by helping the Aboriginal community. In addition, we use only eagle feathers, which are meaningful for us,” Myran says.
In 2011, Urban Outfitters sold underwear and liquor flasks that used the Navajo name and symbols without the Navajo Nation’s permission. “Putting the native design on an alcohol flask is like saying that drinking is a part of our everyday life, but it isn’t. My family design can be on something honourable, but not on an alcohol flask.” Aboriginal people try to change this practice by educating public on who they are today and how their culture changed over the years.
Barry comments on this ongoing cultural appropriation “it is certainly not the future of design. Good design isn’t just creating something beautiful, but it is about understanding the power of design to empower people to change the world.” New generation of designers is more aware of cultural appropriation and understands harmful issues that go with it. They are also more active to make a change in the fashion world.