Style / Fashion

The Impact of Political Correctness and Commercialisation on Creativity

The line between cultural appropriation and apprecaiation comes into question as society moves to a heightened state of social awareness.

May 28, 2024 | By Sanjeeva Suresh

Has society’s hyper-sensitivity negatively impacted the fashion industry’s creativity? Heightened social awareness and fear of cultural appropriation have led creatives and brands to tread the line between appropriation and appreciation resulting in what some may say is a loss of true ingenuity. However, in an industry that is constantly seeking the “new” and yet creates trends and collections based on cultural references, can originality truly thrive in today’s world of political correctness?

The Rise of Heightened Political Correctness

While social justice movements have been constantly evolving for centuries, within the last decade alone, there has been a shift in political awareness and correctness. Victims of sexual assault and harassment came forward with their allegations during 2017’s “MeToo” movement. The “BlackLivesMatter” movement and protests against police brutality reached an apex in 2020 during the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. The “StopAsianHate” campaign came after a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, which was spurred by the misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 virus and the racial conflation that Asians were associated with the virus. Change is embedded in how society adapts and grows. As we continue to create dialogues around race, gender, class and physical abilities, we grow to communicate with a new vernacular that reflects the rhetoric of the times. This change brings a new understanding of what is and is no longer acceptable.

Sign of the Times

In the context of fashion, political awareness and correctness are often highlighted in one of two ways — cultural appropriation versus appreciation and hypersexualisation versus empowerment of women. The former is often scoffed at by designers who call out their critics for being “overly sensitive”. However, in today’s world of social media sleuths and an increasing demand for transparency, circumstances that the fashion industry could have gotten away with 20 years ago would be entirely unacceptable by today’s standards. Some of the biggest discreditors of cultural appropriation attribute it to the rise of “woke culture” and tout cancel culture as the thin-skinned downfall of the freedom of expression. As critics and enthusiasts look back at some of fashion’s most memorable collections through the lens of 2024, perhaps “correctness” has hindered sartorial creativity. Case in point, John Galliano’s legacy as the creative director of Dior. During his tenure from 1997 to 2011, Galliano would often reference (or appropriate depending on how one views it) East Asian culture. This was seen in the Christian Dior spring 2003 and 2007 couture collections which saw references to Madame Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-San which, amongst the intricate origami folding and geometric sculptured pieces saw white models in white powder-ed kabuki make-up made to resemble geishas.

So while at the time the collection was heralded as a theatrical masterpiece, nearly 20 years later, the sight of white models effectively cosplaying as a different race wearing traditional Japanese-inspired dresses and kimonos, overshadows the brilliance of the collection. One could argue that Dior’s design aesthetic under the helm of Maria Grazia Chiuri is a stark departure from the controversial creative direction of Galliano. Dior today is demure, classic, and elegant so much so that even when the Maison references destinations like Mexico City for the Christian Dior Cruise 2024 collection or Mumbai for the Christian Dior Fall 2023 Couture collection, the pieces are not literal interpretations of traditional dress. They are contemporary pieces finished with silhouettes and local textiles that pay homage to the geographical inspiration, however, social media is rife with garden fans of “Galliano’s Dior” drawing comparisons to two vastly different aesthetics. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s pieces tick all the proverbial boxes without any room for dissension or potential for a PR disaster.

In response to accusations of cultural appropriation Marc Jacobs once said, “Cultural appropriation erodes freedom of speech”. “One thing I’ve learned is that there is no winning on the internet. You can’t argue with people online. It is absolutely pointless,” said the designer.

Commercial Opportunity or True “Collaboration”?

In March this year, Polo Ralph Lauren tapped seventh-generation Diné (Navajo) weaver Naiomi Glasses to collaborate on the second drop of their “Artist in Residence” release. As Naiomi Glasses is Ralph Lauren’s first artist in residence, it would be fair for consumers to question the legitimacy of the collection as Ralph Lauren has no history of indigenous ties aside from the “designer’s fascination with Native American craftsmanship”. So where is the line drawn — are collaborations a performative display or are they simply an approved, paid-for version of cultural appropriation?

Similarly, another form of collaboration is done via licensing and using art to “pay homage” to other cultures and sub-cultures. With mixed Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, Basquiat’s art depicts themes of police brutality and the division of wealth and poverty. His distinctive style has been seen on brands such as Comme des Garçons, Supreme, and Reebok adorning t-shirts, sweatshirts, sneakers and accessories. Similarly, Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa and Keith Haring’s ’80s pop-art prints have been seen on brands like Cariuma, Converse, Alice + Olivia, Tommy Hilfiger, and Uniqlo. Basquiat’s work represented the black experience while Keith Haring’s was an activist in the fight against AIDS and was an advocate for the democratisation of art from the elite. Therefore when a clothing brand passes these recognisable motifs on their products to see, it comes across as a marketing opportunity particularly when large companies do not share these same beliefs or relay the message of the artwork beyond face value. A true collaboration would go beyond featuring the art on a T-shirt but rather a combination of creative perspectives that elevate the art from its original state. Heightened sensitivity should serve as a catalyst for amplifying diverse voices within the creative industry. By providing platforms and opportunities for artists from marginalised communities, fashion brands can play a role in ensuring that creativity remains inclusive while avoiding the pitfalls of cultural appropriation.

Walking a Fine Line

While it is essential to educate creators about the importance of cultural sensitivity, there is a fine line between education and censorship. Overemphasis on avoiding appropriation can hinder genuine appreciation and understanding of different cultures, ultimately stifling creativity.

One can also be empathetic to the offense one would take at racial-based tropes like blackface or styling a Caucasian model to look like a race that is not theirs. When physical characteristics like hair, lips, and eyes are of a mariginalised, minority group of people in society are put onto someone else of a different race, it takes on the impression of a “caricature”. So while the notion of paying homage has shifted, perhaps there are more beneficial ways in which creatives can respectfully incorporate a culture that they were not born into instead of using one-dimensional tropes that propagate prejudice or can be used as a mockery of another culture, background and race.

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