Culture and Appropriation: Inspired By My Visit to the Tropenmuseum

I just got back from my trip to Amsterdam and one museum that really interested me was a cultural museum called the Tropenmuseum. Learning about the fashion of different cultures is an interest of mine and I have posted twice about it. The museum had an exhibit on the fashion of different cultures and how each portrayed meaning in different ways. This inspired me to write an article addressing this topic to share what I learned about the power of fashion and why it can be okay to wear the fashion of different cultures.

Fashion is a way to make a statement without saying a word. The museum shared a lot on how different cultures use fashion as a way of expression. In the region of Palestine, women do not always get to have as strong of a voice as others, so clothing can give them the freedom to make a statement. A British-Palestinian woman who the museum highlighted was a rapper named Shadia Mansour. Her music allowed her to make a forceful statement of political activism and fashion helped her deliver her message. The museum showed a clip from her music video “The Keffiyeh Is Arab” in which she wears two traditional pieces to show her support for Palestine. Discussing her song with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in March 2013, Mansour explained the song’s inspiration. “Palestine is still colonized, still occupied,” she said. “In terms of defending our identity… our culture, our traditions [are] probably the strongest weapons we have today. That’s part of the nonviolent resistance that we’re all playing a role in.” One part of that culture is dress. According to the exhibit, “The keffiyeh, a black and white chequered scarf, is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Palestinian identity. This everyday item of clothing acquired political significance as a symbol of resistance, first against British colonial rule and later against the Israeli occupation. From the 1960s left-wing activists worldwide began wearing the keffiyeh to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for statehood”. The second significant piece worn in the video by Mansour is a black dress. According to the exhibit, “Black dresses with red embroidery are a symbol of the Palestinian identity because they bring to mind the Palestinian culture that existed before the state of Israel was established”. This can be explained by a description of a white dress exhibited. “The motifs embroidered on this Palestinian dress are typical of villages in the Lydda-Ramleh region, which is now part of Israel. The dress was not made there, however. In 1948 the inhabitants of the villages fled or were driven out. In the refugee camps where they ended up, many women continued to embroider in the style of their regions of origin.” Fashion was a way for these refugees to honor their identity and keep their culture alive. The last examples show that from looking at a garment someone that is not knowledgable about its cultural background would not know the meaning behind it.

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Photo from Shadia Mansour’s Facebook page

I used to not think about my own culture because I never practiced many rituals or ate certain cuisines growing up. The exhibit made me think about the fact that my culture is my entire environment from where I grew up to the stories my dad shared with me of his father escaping communism in Czechoslovakia. All of that had an impact on where I am today. Immigrants often come to their new region with not many material possessions and have to adapt to a new environment. A way for them to keep ties to their culture is through dress. An example that the exhibit shared of people using fashion to connect to their roots abroad was the description of a garment called a Dashiki. I learned from the exhibit that the Dashiki was a symbol of the civil rights movement. According to the exhibit, “African Americans wore dashikis to demonstrate their connection to their African roots”. This garment still serves as a symbol of cultural pride to African Americans.

Another part of African garments that pertains to culture is symbolism. The museum shared examples of the traditional wax prints and how symbolism is involved in them. The museum shared the origins of this tradition, “Kente is a royal fabric native to Ghana. Visco wax prints are a Dutch product that took West Africa by storm a century and a half ago… Younger generations are inventing new and contemporary ways to wear these fabrics”. One garment that stood out to me was a suit by Ohema Ohene, a brand founded by British-Ghanaian designer Abenaa Pokuaa. The piece stood out because it had an African style print, yet it is a Western style garment. This shows that it was meant to be worn by people of other cultures. According to the exhibit the print was still designed with a special message, “The cacao beans combined with the Ghanian ‘Love Chain’ pattern show how sweet love can be”.

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It has been debated whether wearing the fashion of a culture that does not have a meaning to one’s own should be done. I believe that if a manufacturer is copying something verbatim then this is morally and legally wrong. However, when it comes to styles and prints originating from certain cultures it is alright for brands to be inspired by the look of them and create similar pieces. People will be profiting off of cultural tradition, but fashion is also a product. Consumers will often purchase an item for how it looks and a particular culture can’t be trademarked. Therefore nobody can really deem it wrong for one to wear something outside of theirs. However, a garment purchased at a fast-fashion retailer will not have the same connection to the culture as one made with the culture in mind. More thought will go into the meaning of the garment if it is handmade by a relative or made by a brand like Ohema Ohene that makes garments that have a deliberate tie to the culture. Someone outside of a particular culture can relate to the meaning behind a garment, but it is fair to say he/she may not be able to connect to it in the same way someone of that culture can. Learning about culture in relation to fashion can not only help you understand others, it can also help you develop your own beliefs. As stated earlier, if one is not knowledgable of a particular culture then they will not know the meaning behind certain pieces. That’s where the pieces really get their power from. Anybody can wear say the pictured suit above, yet the same can’t be said for those that get the pleasure of benefiting from its message.

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