High Art & High Fashion: Primitivism & The Cultural Appropriation Debate

Design and marketing have often been the mediums through which fantasies of the exotic ‘other’ are given form and fuel. In Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, Mariana Torgovnick discusses the intersection between commodification, marketing and tropes of primitivism. ‘In the deflationary era of postmodernism, the primitive often frankly loses any particular identity and even it’s sense of being “out there”; it emerges into a generalized, marketable thing – a grab-bag primitive in which urban and rural, modern and traditional Africa and South America and Asia and the Middle-East merge into a common locale called the Third world which exports garments and accessories, music, ideologies, and styles for Western, and especially urban Western, consumption.’ (Kertzer, 2014)

It begins, most commonly, with a runway show, an editorial spread, or a ‘misquoted’ interview. Issues of race, gender and even of class, have long standing been a topic of contention and site of creative exploration, for fashion and it’s supplementary industries. ‘Exploitation chic’, as it has been fondly nicknamed, includes the use of people of color as props on the runways or in photo-shoots, blackface or yellow face or redface in photo spreads, and the ‘renvisioning’ of tradition and ‘ethnic’ prints, styles and textiles, for ‘modern’ and trendy consumption by the cosmopolitan shopper.

These instances usually gain much traction on the Internet, where consumers are given a voice that can’t be edited out of an interview. Minh-ha T. Pham writes in an article for The Atlantic of the two loudest voices that emerge from this debate, ‘critics bring charges of ‘cultural appropriation’ and implicitly or explicitly suggest that racism is part of why the event happened and is being paid attention to.  Defenders, in increasingly strained tones, take the position of ‘cultural appreciation.’ They say that drawing inspiration from the bodies, cultural practices, and cultural objects of people of color are acts of appreciating, admiring, even loving racial difference and diversity.’ (2014)

Richard Fung writes that the ‘noise’ surrounding the cultural appropriation debate is important ‘to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.’ Acts of cultural appropriation often deepen existing divides between haves and have-nots, who’s in and who’s out, who has power and who doesn’t. Commenting on the appropriation of Native voices by white Canadian novelists, M.T. Kelly poignantly observed that, ‘again and again, papers have been written, careers built, tenure granted, royalties issued, and yet the people upon whom this is based are left behind on the reserves with nothing.’

Primitivism and the awareness of primitive art have played a crucial role in the history and development of twentieth-century European and American art, and subsequently, fashion. The dynamics of how this happened are complex and varied. If the terms ‘primitivism’ and ‘primitive art’ are now so charged that the use of the words themselves has become problematic, it is because the consideration of primitive art and aesthetics and so called primitive people, has been tainted by a history of racism and prejudice, and has been linked to cultural issues that may be only indirectly related to the art, but have had an enormous impact on how that art has been studied and written about. The same gaze has influenced western perceptions of non-western fashion. These issues include the history and ongoing discourse about colonialism, the economic disparities between the developed and the third worlds, and the strain created by the increasingly hybrid nature of modern culture.

In the early 1900s, young, predominantly French artists, most notably Picasso, saw in primitive art a unique kind of pictorial inventiveness and imagination, which was especially suggestive and meaningful in relation to their own ambitions. They expressed great enthusiasm and admiration for the objects they saw, they collected and studied them, and the resulting impact was visible in their own artistic creations. Prior to this artistic revolution however, these primitive artifacts were perceived as little more than ethnographic curiosities. Primitive art was different from other exotic arts that these artists were familiar with such as Oriental, and Islamic, and had alternate effects on their work. Unlike other exotic arts, primitive art was perceived to have no known historical development as seemed to exist in a kind of temporal vacuum. The idea that the origins of primitive art, like those of prehistoric art, were lost in the mists of time, allowed for a fair amount of romantic speculation and rumination about it, which lead to the birth of stereotypes and generalized prejudices against this new and unknown ‘other’.

The tropical colonies of France were conceived in two ways, both of which suited the colonial ambitions of Europe. On the one hand, there was the romanticized view that Africans embodied a surviving instance of the noble savage, a precivilized state of humanity that worshipped nature gods and whose naturalness and authenticity was set in contrast to the decadent West. On the other, Africa was thought of as the Dark Continent, a place of human sacrifice, witchcraft and mysterious, primeval spirits. The continent was at once, both attractive and repellent, grotesque and beautiful, and this is the duality that extended into African art, which was appropriated into Western art.

These instances of creative appropriation have overtime extended beyond the confines of what constitutes art, and has extended into the far less easy to map, appropriation of cultural references and aesthetic iconography for a wider commercial market.

In the runway collection of F/W ’13, French luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton, pictured below, featured as its star of the accessories collection, traditional BaSotho blankets worn by men of the BaSotho culture of South Africa. Elle magazine wrote ‘Basotho blankets are fast becoming a fashion trend. In ELLE Decoration’s latest Country Issue #90, they showcase a selection of their favorite Basotho Blanket patterns, and let you know how you can get your hands on your very own. Ideal at the end of your bed, on a couch, as a picnic blanket or even to wear, we are completely besotted with these tactile, functional heirlooms and are thrilled to see them being used in exciting new ways.’ This statement completely disregards the context in which these tradition garments are worn, the spirituality imbedded in their meaning, and the rituals associated with their adornment. This shunning of ‘The dark continent’ and adoption of selective aesthetic form, is reflective of the way artists such as Matisse, appropriated the solely beautiful parts of a people being marginalized and oppressed. The reduction of cultural objects or practice, to simply decoration, is a blatant example of the misuse of culture in the fashion industry, and illustrates the attitudes to people who are still deemed ‘other’ than the imperial rule that is still enforced in patriarchal western society.

Just because these cultures are mentioned with regards to certain luxury goods, does not mean these communities are being ‘seen’. Invisibility leads wider mass markets to believes the details are unnecessary; it allows for the treatment of all marginalized groups and their realities as interchangeable, whereas specificity is a sign of attention, respect, and deeper understanding – especially given the heterogeneity among low income and impoverished areas, and within them. The concept of marginality may have been debunked, deconstructed, dismissed, rediscovered, and reconstructed by academics and politicians. But seeing these in terms of design and marketing is another thing, where artists and designers reconstruct interpretations of marginalized peoples and spaces for purposes of commercialization. ‘Otherness remains a sales tool.’ (Kertzer, 2014) The issues of (in) visibility and commercialized marginality are therefore tied to larger questions of power, domination, co-optation, and exploitation.

Of course, this is not the first time Western fashion has appropriated imagery in the name of aesthetics, as fashion historian Lizzie Bramlett points out in her blog, The Vintage Traveler. For example, the pattern we think of as ‘paisley’, now most commonly seen on ties, was once a holy symbol of the Zoroastrians in Persia. And throughout fashion history, designers have been ‘swiping’ motifs from other cultures, from China and Japan in Victorian times, Egypt in the 1920s, and West Africa and Latin America in the ’60s. In Wild Men of Paris (1910), Gelett Burgess associates a new aesthetic of ‘ugliness’ with primitivism in general and with the growing popularity of African art in particular. In 1916, some years later, Marius De Zaya noted in African Negro Art, It’s Influence on Modern Art, that ‘negro art has re-awakened in us a feeling for abstract form, it has brought into our art the means to express our purely sensorial feelings in regard to form, or to find new form in our ideas.’ In the same text however, he described his belief that ‘Africans remained in a mental state very similar to that of the children of the white race.’ His timeline for the creative evolution of the marriage of primitive art and western art, describes that it ‘follows an uninterrupted chain, beginning with the geometrical construction of the Negro art and ending in the naturalistic art of the Europeans.’

Adriana Kertzer begins a discussion about favelization, which I define as the use of references to Brazilian slums to brand luxury items as ‘Brazilian’, in her body of work by the same name, which requires that we address the difference between the meanings attached to favelas in Brazil and those employed by companies and individuals using references to favelas in the marketing of high-end products. Favelization also raises questions about the myths of racial democracy and intersocial class cordiality common in mainstream discourse about Brazil. Discrimination based on race, socioeconomic background, and place of residence are a reality in Brazil, as well as government inaction, mismanagement and corruption. ‘In the book I pose a series of questions: Is favelization evidence of a deeper cultural shift in which Brazil's poverty is repositioned as part of its national brand? Or is something else at stake in these endeavors that makes favelization a patronizing and opportunistic way of portraying the reality of a certain segment of the Brazilian population, fetishizing a space and its inhabitants, to brand products as Brazilian? In other words, are producers of contemporary Brazilian culture referencing an example of what"isn't very glamorous in their projects because it is part of Brazilian reality? Or is their “quasi-altruistic” language evidence of a more problematic power dynamic? I bring in historical examples that show how other peoples and places regarded as “exotic” and “primitive” have been characterized as a desirable “other”.’ Although Kertzer’s analysis is located within the conext of Brazillian social and econonmic power binaries, she alludes to the ways inw hich this is done to other exotic cultures, the chief example being Africa. Mainstream commercial culture has created the concept of ‘native cultures’ as being exotic and other, and then reduced these cultures to bite size portions of sterotyped icons of difference and otherness, entitled ‘ethnic’.

Ethnic dress is best understood as ensembles and modifications of the body that capture the past of the members of a group, the items of tradition that are worn and displayed to signify cultural heritage. With the introduction of the word ‘tradition’, we must reckon with the phenomenon of change or it’s apparent lack. The complexities of ethnic identity are acknowledged by De Vos and Romanucci (1982). They define ethnicity on four levels of analysis, first, in respect to a social structure level, second, as a pattern of social interaction, third, as a subjective experience of identity, and fourth, as expressed in relatively fixed patterns of behavior and expressive emotional styles. These patterns of behavior and expressive emotional style include dress and the meanings associated with them.

‘Appadurai’s (1991) concept of a global ethnoscape is that where human beings move quickly and easily from one part of the globe to another. Appadurai contends that as many people travel from one country to another, they gain access to information about the world beyond their home community, places that are often seen from the outside as ethnic communities.’ (Eischer, Sumburg)  This opens up the discussion around globalization and cultural appropriation. Questions about does any one culture own a particular garment or item of clothing? How are people to stop the spread of cultural influences, in an age where information is made so easily accessible through the Internet, especially through visual culture, and most pertinently, what is culture?

The Predicament of Culture is a critical ethnography of the West in its changing relations with other societies. Analyzing cultural practices such as anthropology, travel writing, collecting, and museum displays of tribal art, James Clifford shows authoritative accounts of other ways of life to be contingent fictions, now actively contested in postcolonial contexts. His critique raises questions of global significance: Who has the authority to speak for any group’s identity and authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture? How do self and “the other” clash in the encounters of ethnography, travel, and modern interethnic relations? In discussions of ethnography, surrealism, museums, and emergent tribal arts, Clifford probes the late-twentieth century predicament of living simultaneously within, between, and after culture.

In this text, he questions ethnographic authority in shaping representations of ‘culture.’ Modernity, characterized by rootlessness, mobility, alienation, scattered traditions, craziness, and disorder (Clifford, 1988), entails historical uncertainty and undermines concepts of cultural ‘essence.’

The crux of the ethnographic problem of representation for him revolves around the production of texts, which inescapably entails the production of a kind of fiction. Clifford contextualizes “the predicament of culture” in an historical understanding where cultural artifacts ‘shape’ paths of hybrid meaning. He contrasts this with a view of history, which sees the authenticity of culture, peoples, and products (Clifford, 1988) as endangered and in juxtaposition to modernizing influences. Thus he rewrites an often described or assumed cultural dualism between authentic versus modern, by situating ‘pure products’ - artifacts, identities and communities - within blurring / shifting processes.

For Clifford, the problem encapsulated in his work examines ‘far-reaching questions about modes of cultural interpretation, implicit models of wholeness, styles of distancing, stories of historical development’ (Clifford, 1988). He therefore questions all ethnographic authorial authority by asking, for example, ‘who has the authority to speak for a group’s identity or authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture? How do self and other clash and converse in the encounters of ethnography, travel, modern interethnic relations?’ He suggests that ethnographic authority heretofore embodies a crisis of representation where the meaning of ‘culture’ itself, which shapes ethnographic authority, must be re-examined. Clifford also argues that one significant limitation of ethnographic authority is that it only represents the view of the author, when ‘culture,’ especially in terms of conjunctures shaped by modernity, is comprised of many voices. Thus modes of ethnographic representation which express many voices more accurately reflect ‘culture’ than ethnographies which utilize a single voice.

The problem of representations of ‘culture’ is partly definitional, situated within a historicized ethnographic landscape of conjunctural processes. In the context of today’s world, ethnography involves questioning the ethnographer’s authority to objectively and realistically portray the ‘other,’ as well as ways in which the ethnographer is a ‘product’ of culture. Culture itself has more to do with intersections of traditions rather than identifying what epitomizes cultures.

In a BBC interview, Lemayian Ole kereto, an elder from the Masai community, expresses some key concerns with regards to the case against appropriation. Not only is cultural appropriation an act of suppression done primarily for commercial gain and usually enacted on already oppressed and marginalized groups, the use of ‘culture without consent’ is never complimentary as it disregards the history, traditions and identities of those it depicts and affects the most. Ole kereto further adds that without prior consent from those representing the communities or culture in question, use of any facet of their culture falls directly into the relm of cultural appropriation. If no body or agency exists that represents the majority or totality of the people in question, then companies should then refrain from this form of cultural ‘borrowing’. Ownership must be respected at all times. Often, when discussing the issue of cultural appropriation, the question of whether or not it can be complimentary or not is sure to arise. Cultural sensitivity and awareness are at the crux of addressing issues pertaining to cultural appropriation. When buying or making use of an item that is said to represent or belongs to a certain community, it is important to inform oneself of who is benefiting from this transaction. There is a possibility that cultural borrowing can benefit all parties involved. As Ole kereto says, ‘partnership attracts responsibility’ which in turn creates effective awareness beyond commercial gain and profitability.

In the 20th century, culture emerged as a central concept in anthropology encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term ‘culture’ in American anthropology had two meanings, the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols and to act imaginatively and creatively, and the distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.

Adamson Hoebel describes culture as an ‘integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance.’ Distinctions are currently made between the physical artifacts created by a society, its material culture and everything else, the intangibles such as language, customs, etc. that are the main referent of the term ‘culture’. Culture is central to the way we view, experience, and engage with all aspects of our lives and the world around us. Thus, even our definitions of culture are shaped by the historical, political, social, and cultural contexts in which we live.

Discussing with particular reference the adoption of Native American styles in fashion, Lisa Wade writes ‘all of these cases romanticize Indianness, blur separate traditions, as well as the real and the fake, and some disregard Indian spirituality. It is disregarded that before Native American aesthetics became trendy, current and hip, the greater white patriarchy was responsible for their massacre and attempts to sequester them, and the US government is still involved in oppressing these groups today.’

Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation. Not every culture has chosen to open itself up to being adopted by outsiders in the same way, as most often when it has, the result is exploitation, ridicule, or caricature.

Now, once the Imperial power has overcome their transgressions, they have sought to exploit the very same cultures they endeavored to oppress, for their own creative ends, with little regard to the impact or implications this may have on these people. Responses to these arguments on various blog posts on the topic, include ‘its just fashion, who cares’ or ‘PC, policing.’ Julia at L’allure Garcionniere responded in an essay entitled ‘The Critical Fashion Lover’s (basic) Guide to Cultural Appropriation, where she addresses some of the claims made by people opposing the awareness of the movement. ‘My favorite aspect of cultural appropriation is that it can help us begin to deconstruct our sartorial choices and acknowledge the power of clothing as a means of shaping (racial, national, sexual, gender) identity. The exact same piece of clothing can mean very different things to different people (take any politically charged piece of clothing: the hijab, high-heeled shoes, doc martens, the keffiyeh, etc.) and acknowledging this fact is a very important first step. The very basis of cultural appropriation gets people thinking about questions like, can one piece of clothing “belong” to one culture? What do certain pieces of clothing signify? It moves us away from basic discussions of color palettes and cuts and styles and trends, and moves us towards a more complex theorizing of fashion.’

Above, Julia identifies the ways in which the issues can be combatted head on, in ways that do not restrict the free creative expression of an industry built on change, but rather open it up to growth and more socially just progression. It is a dull fact that the initial phase of modern cultural heritage appropriation was underscored by the twinned ages of Enlightenment and Empire, during which all the world was made over to fit the intellectual, economic, and cultural requirements of first Europe, then the United States. All manner of tangible cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, from design patterns to artifacts to body parts, even the people themselves, were looted, stolen, traded, bought, and exchanged by colonials. These were studied, admired, looked at, and forgotten; created manias of taste and connoisseurship or never saw the light of day again, whether in the private houses, the palaces, or the museums of Empire.

Rosemary Coombe gives the pertinent description in ‘Representation without Representation: Visibility Without Voice’ (Coombe, 1993), the idea that without sufficient formal protection, indigenous arts and cultures may be made over in the mode of the dominant colonizing language and then made to speak in place of legitimate indigenous voices. Underlying these discourses is the incontrovertible fact that the exchange between the West and the so called Primitive cultures was essentially a dialogue between ‘white people’ and ‘people of color’, and that virtually all such exchanges over the course of the ninetieth, twentieth and even still today, were based on unequal political, economic, and technological power, with missionary and anthropological approaches to native peoples implicitly used to justify military, political and even creative conquest.’ if certain people were supposed to be inferior, it was perfectly acceptable to rule and exploit them, and since they were ruled and exploited, the reasoning went, they were obviously inferior.’ However, according to Clifford’s description of culture as being fluid and constantly being produced, how do we pin the ‘borrowing’ of print or textile, as a mark of the enforced inferiority afore described? Minha T. Pham has written several articles for The Atlantic, in which she calls for a more critical analysis of fashion that would push the cultural appropriation debate away from it’s current binary of appropriation vs. appreciation, and open up the conversation about diversifying and enriching the fashion story, history and mediation of garments, prints and textiles considered to be ‘other’.

Nowadays the Basotho tribal blanket, Seanamarena, is such a common sight in Lesotho, that tourists tend to assume that it was a local invention. However, its origins can be traced back to the European traders and missionaries as far back as the 1800s. The popularity and assimilation of the blankets by the Basotho people can be traced back to one single incident, recorded in histroy through oral tradition. A blanket was presented to the monarch, King Moshoeshoe I in 1860 by a man by the name of Mr. Howel. The King was by all accounts quite taken with the cloth and wore the blanket in preference to his then neglected traditional leopard skin karosses. The blanket has become part of not only their everyday life but as a status symbol. To outsiders it became a mark of ethnicity and therefore a token of cultural identification. In fact Lesotho is the only nation south of the Sahara that illustrates the culture of an entire nation through such an individualistic item such as the tribal blanket.

Up to approximately 600 years ago furs, skins and even dried grass were used to keep out the cold during the winter months. By 1860 it was becoming more difficult to procure sufficient skins for Karosses and by 1872 many of the old sheepskin covers had been replaced by crudely made cotton or woollen blankets. The visible stripes on the blankets are known as pin-stripes. According to historical records these 1cm stripes originally came about as a weavers fault. Instead of correcting this fault, the manufacturer shipped them with the “pin-stripe” which subsequently became a traditional feature.

The traditional blankets differ from most modern blankets in that they are almost entirely made of wool (88% wool and 12% cotton), hence their rougher and firmer texture. Although blanket styles have been subject to outside influences, they are still to this day closely linked with the milestones of Basotho family life. Boys preparing for the circumcision ritual don a special fertility blanket known as amoholobela. After the ceremony he’s considered to have reached manhood, and wears another kind of blanket, called the lekhokolo. On the occasion of his wedding, a man wears a motlotlehi, and he presents his wife with a serope when their first child is born. Before her wedding day, a woman spends a great deal of time trying on and selecting blankets for her trousseau.

Women’s blankets are worn differently to men’s, they are designed to be pinned over their bosom whereas the men pin them to the right shoulder. There are also special occasions in the Basotho’s national life where blankets symbolize the particular event. For instance, on Independence Day or National Tree Planting Day, a man of substance may wear not one but three blankets, namely the Torch blanketa Victoria and a Sandringham.

Many of the patterns are based on daily life, such as the maize cob or wheat patterns, which symbolise fertility and prosperity. The royal family have their own blanket design, which features crowns and heartsand is passed down through the monarchy. Even today, all new patterns must be approved by Lesotho’s royal family. How a blanket is worn is a symbolic descriptor for passers by, and can reveal details about the wearer about cultural status. As mentioned above, men and women wear the blanket differently. If a father is going to arrange the marriage of a child, it is obvious in the way he is wearing his blanket. Women who are married wear it differently to those who are not, and even the birth of a child can be marked by the particular draping of the blanket. Boys wear blankets differently before and after circumcision. Even when you die, you’re buried with a blanket to keep you warm.

So although the blanket was initially a gift of the West to the native people in Africa, it has been adopted as a survival instrument, and become deeply imbedded in expressions of culture. This is the rich narrative of garments and textiles that’s Pham claims will help mediate the cultural appropriation debate. Though at first glance it appears, like with the example of primitivism in art, that what Louis Vuitton had done in that collection was exploit the cultural icons of a ‘primitive’ community. However, when the history of those icons is explored, a much more diverse conversation is possible in fashion.  However, as expressed in Ariana Kertzer’s research, this commercialization of culture serves to further exacerbate the political, economic and social asymmetry of the West and the Third World.

- Kenny Morifi-Winslow



Clifford, James. The predicament of culture. Harvard University Press, 1988.

Eischer, Joanne B. and Barbara Sumberg. World Fashion, Ethnic, and National Dress. In: Joanne B. Eischer (ed). Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time. Oxford, Washington DC. 1995.

Pham, Minh-ha. Fashion’s Cultural Appropriation Debate: Pointless. In. The Atlantic. May 15, 2014

Kaiser, Susan B. Fashion and Cultural Studies. London, New York: Bloomsburg 2012.

Kertzer, Ariana. Favelization: The Imaginary Brazil in Contemporary Film, Fashion and Design. 2014. EBook Kindle edition.

Coombe, Rosemary J. "Properties of Culture and the Politics of Possessing Identity: Native Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy, The." Can. JL & Jurisprudence 6 (1993): 249.

Hale, Charles R. "Cultural politics of identity in Latin America." Annual Review of Anthropology (1997): 567-590.

Burgess, Gelett. The Wild Men of Paris. 1910.

Flam, Jack D., and Miriam Deutch, eds. Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: a documentary history. Univ of California Press, 2003.

Shand, Peter. "Scenes from the colonial catwalk: cultural appropriation, intellectual property rights, and fashion." Cultural Analysis 3 (2002): 47-88.