Appropriation Vs. Appreciation
I’ve always been a sucker for traditional textiles. The colors! The technique! The labor! I’m here for all of it in a major way. Growing up I swooned over kimonos and longed for a sari. As an adolescent, I saw traditional clothing as nothing more than exotic pieces of wearable art. I wanted to own them because I thought they were beautiful, period. I had zero context for the culture they came from or the meaning behind them.
I’m cringing in my seat as I write this, but I have to be honest with you. I was a cultural appropriator. You’ve probably heard this term a lot lately, but I’m going to break it down for those of you who are still a little hazy on the concept. According to Wikipedia cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.
Sounds pretty harmless right? What’s so bad about a little borrowing? The thing is though, it’s not just a little borrowing. Usually, when a dominant culture takes something from a minority culture (i.e. one with less economic, social, and political power), the dominant culture strips the thing of its original meaning. Often taking something sacred and turning it into a meaningless trend.
[gives side eye to all the girls wearing bindis and daishikis at Coachella]
Appreciation is bartering.
Appropriation is conquest.
Appropriation has very real consequences. The most tangible consequence is how it hurts the artisans economically. When you buy a Mexican huipil from an actual Mexican artisan you’re supporting an entire way of life. Not only do they earn a fair wage for their hard work, they can then spend that money buying groceries or services and thereby helping the whole community thrive. When you buy a similar huipil off of Amazon you better believe that community gets squat.
This is one of the main reasons I love ethical fashion. It seeks to understand and value the artisan and their culture. Not only do I believe this is the right thing to do. I believe it gives your clothes meaning. Cultural appreciation is all about context and compensation. Traditional textiles develop slowly over time and reflect the heart of their peoples. The silhouettes clue you in as to their climate. The colors tell you what plants were available for dying. The patterns reflect what they hold sacred. With just a little knowledge your blouse goes from a cute summer trend to a thread in the tapestry of human history.
That’s awesome! And worth the extra money.
One company that is killing it in the contextualizing game is Mayamiko. They take traditional Malawian techniques and fuse them together with modern design to create clothes that honor the old ways while looking boldly into the future. From start to finish their clothes respect the history of Malawi.
I’m rocking their Chiara High Neck Frill Dress made from African printed cotton, known locally as chitenge. Chitenje (pronounced chit-ten-jay) is a piece brightly patterned cloth similar to a large sarong. This cloth is usually worn wrapped around the waist like a towel over women’s clothes to keep them from getting dirty while they do chores. It has a ton of other uses too. A baby sling, head dress, grocery bag, you name it. It’s basically the swiss-army knife of fabric. Mayamiko sources their chitenge from local markets so you know this stuff is legit.
What I love most about Mayamiko is not only do they abide by Ethical Trade Initiative Principals, they’ve also set up the Mayamiko Trust which is committed to helping Malawians over the long term. The Mayamiko Lab (where all their garments are manufactured) was designed to provide training, education, and nutrition. Currently, they’re focused on providing training in sewing and tailoring for women who are affected by the HIV pandemic. If you want to learn more about the lab click here.
Cultural Appropriation is sometimes tricky to pin down. In our effort to enjoy other cultures we sometimes overstep boundaries. Nowadays before I purchase any clothes, I ask myself three questions.
1. Is the artisan directly profiting from my purchase?
2. Do I understand the context of my outfit?
3. Am I willing to use this knowledge to bring awareness to their culture?
Malawi is not just a place to get some pretty fabric. It is a country with real people and a rich history. Mayamiko understands this and so do I. Next time you decide to purchase something from a far off land I hope you take the time to think about where it comes from. I promise you’ll end up loving your clothes even more.