What the Redskins and fashion world share: Borrowing, sometimes badly, from cultures

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2014, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — The Washington Redskins' paraphernalia, in its traditional burgundy, gold and white, bears the profile of what is intended to be a Native American man. His complexion reflects the team's moniker, and his broad forehead slopes to an aquiline nose. His long black hair is braided and topped with a headdress adorned with two feathers. However one feels about the name of Washington's football team and whether it should be changed, that image also serves as fodder for the complicated argument over whether a group of people is having its cultural identity exploited, absorbed into the mainstream and sapped of its original meaning — although not necessarily left meaningless.

This debate became particularly heated Sunday when the Redskins lost to the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. The location provided rich context. Minnesota has one of the country's largest concentrations of Native Americans, with more than 70,000 living in the state. The university is home to the country's oldest academic department devoted to American Indian studies.

To alleviate some of the expected animosity, over the summer the university asked the Redskins to forgo their familiar uniform and wear vintage jerseys that do not have the modern logo. The Redskins were asked, in effect, to change their clothes. To trade in their costumes. To alter their fashion. The team refused to do so. (Mascots are, almost by definition, cartoonish and exaggerated, but not inevitably offensive — although, in the case of the Minnesota team's blond, mustachioed Viking character, one would have to go pretty far afield to find an old Viking to weigh in on it.)

Fashion doesn't define us, but it gives others instructions on how we are to be perceived. It signals how and where we fit into our community; it can elevate a group or devalue it.

"It's a very real expression of identity," says Jean McElvain, assistant curator at the Goldstein Museum of Design in St. Paul, Minn. Even if the name of Washington's football team remains unchanged, altering the uniforms — the fashion — could have a resounding effect.

Fashion has long had its way with Native American totems — the weathered profile of male elders, the striking patterns created by Navajo weavers, the romance of teepees and feather war bonnets. The borrowing and stealing from Native Americans is often done with blithe disregard for propriety, because there is a misguided belief that "there aren't any of them left — that they are a thing of the past that can be idealized," says Jane Blocker, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in contemporary art.

Outsiders have shown a particular affection for feather headdresses, celebrating them for their beauty, employing them to connote exoticism and reveling in their connection to the natural world. At the same time, vigilant and exasperated guardians of Native American culture have repeatedly explained that the headdress is sacred to them. Not in the past, but right now. Not just anyone is allowed to wear one and, most certainly, a barely dressed model prancing down a high-fashion runway is not one of the chosen few.

And yet modern music festivals abound with self-declared bohemians bedecked in feather headdresses. They became so ubiquitous that one Canadian festival banned them. The list of offenders also includes members of the fashion establishment, big and small: Victoria's Secret star Karlie Kloss, workaday models walking a runway in New Zealand and organizers of a Fashion's Night Out event in Los Angeles. Pharrell Williams was taken to task for wearing a war bonnet in an Elle UK fashion shoot. All of them were pressed into an apology with the paternalistic scold: You should know better.

Even Chanel's infamously unapologetic Karl Lagerfeld issued a sorry-you-were-offended mea culpa when his ode to Texas history sparked controversy. The show in Dallas last year included several models in elaborate white-feathered headdresses. (There was also a boy in Western gear carrying a bejeweled toy handgun. The child packing heat barely caused anyone to blink.) The headdresses rankled observers: Here we go again.

Removing a war bonnet from its original context is disrespectful. Doing a creative riff on it is disrespectful. But why? European designers, Seventh Avenue and mass marketers have been criticized as cultural interlopers. Are they? Are Native American artifacts exceptional? More precious than those from the Jewish community? The poor or disenfranchised? The Redskins football uniform is part of fashion's long tradition of borrowing from other cultures, playing fast and loose with history and allowing aesthetics to trump all else.

"There have been, for millennia, cultures that take a piece of someone else's culture as a source of inspiration for creativity," Blocker says. "Native Americans have used each others' stylistic and artistic culture for inspiration, and they've used white culture to inspire work."

Some academics argue that the disrespect comes not from the work but from the uneven power dynamic. It's those with clout — access to money, media and social currency — who so often are the ones doing the borrowing or stealing from those less affluent. After all, the fashion industry has found inspiration in the distinctive red clothing and beadwork of Masai herdsmen. It has been mesmerized by the indigo garb of North Africa's nomadic Tuaregs. Designer creativity has been sparked by Southern California's cholos, Alaska's Eskimo population, Harlem's street peddlers and even the homeless. All these have been examples of the creative class using the aesthetics of the less powerful to inform its endeavors.

Most of those groups lacked access to the means of protest, but Native Americans do not. They have picketed. They have filed lawsuits. And Sunday in Minnesota, thousands of Native Americans resoundingly declared: "Who are we? Not your mascots!" To some degree, the very act of objecting — of raising one's voice in dissent — is a sign of authority. And when there has been vocal outrage over cultural appropriation, critics often focus on context. A sacred object or sentimental curio should not be absorbed into an industry enamored with surface image, engaged in consumerism and focused on extravagance. The culture of a group that has suffered so much in its history should be set aside and protected.

And yet, isn't the sometimes painful process of opening oneself to outsiders a humanizing force? Allowing cultures to mingle and flow can be a kind of social salve. For fall 1993, French designer Jean Paul Gaultier created a collection inspired by the traditional garb of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews. He was not subtle in his references. He served Manischewitz wine before the show. A violinist played excerpts from "Fiddler on the Roof." The collection included fur hats, bejeweled yarmulkes, velvet frock coats and references to prayer shawls and tefillin. The models were styled with side curls and wore spectacles to mimic the look of a yeshiva student.

Some observers declared it respectful and intriguing. Others noted that the subject matter should be off-limits for a fashion show. But most critics, regardless of how they felt about the appropriateness of the collection, deemed it beautiful. In fact, it remains one of the most memorable collections in the designer's archive.

About four years later, Gaultier presented his black chic collection. It was a riff on traditional African styles of dress, the artistry of the Harlem renaissance, the religiosity of church ladies and the politics of hip-hop. Critics described the stunning presentation as "noble."

Which is to say: skill matters. It may not mute criticism, but it can reduce it. So does the degree of authenticity. Is the inspirational source material genuine? In the case of Gaultier, he began with faithful representations of Hasidim; he took note of the African women he saw on the streets of Paris. Or is the starting point itself a problematic cartoon? The Redskins uniform, for example, uses a caricature as its source material.

Yet manipulating a caricature — reclaiming it, redefining it — can be used to powerful effect. The late African-American fashion designer Patrick Kelly, for example, used images of mammies, pickaninnies and golliwogs in his work, making a political statement and an aesthetic one. His work was widely considered to honor African-American history.

"The question becomes, is a white person, by virtue of their identity, prohibited" from paying homage to another group by reclaiming stereotypes? Blocker says.

In a global community, cultural traditions will inevitably evolve. Trying to create products to appeal to a worldwide marketplace, while also attempting to work on the artistic edge, means that entrepreneurs are bound to bump up against something that someone will consider inappropriate.

Chanel used script from the Koran to adorn a frock in 1994; the company apologized and destroyed the dresses. Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo created men's striped, loose-fitting trousers and smock tops in 1995 that recalled concentration camp uniforms; she issued an apology and removed the offending garments from the collection. Perhaps these instances signified proverbial lines in the sand beyond which fashion should not venture. Or maybe the aesthetics just weren't good enough.

It may be impossible to live fully and still guard one's individual culture. One might be forced into a kind of detente: acknowledging that while a belief might be sacred, the artifacts related to it are just an assemblage of feathers, leather and fabric. Cameroonian juju hats, originally worn by tribal chiefs and dignitaries, are best known to Americans — if they are known at all — as the brightly colored feathered headdresses favored in interior design. Is it better that Americans admire and purchase juju hats even as wall decor than not to know of them at all?

One of the unlikeliest examples of cultural cross-pollination occurred in the 1990s, when young rappers took the styles of America's upper-crust — polo shirts, rugby pullovers, hiking boots, sailing jackets. They blew up the proportions and altered the silhouettes and made them their own. There were howls of outrage from many of the creators of those products. These black kids will drive away our white customers! The dominant culture — or more precisely, generation — derided the new versions as sloppy, thuggish and undignified.

The rappers not only took ownership of the style, they created a new fashion vocabulary. They borrowed a look, transformed it, renamed it and embedded it within hip-hop culture. In the process, they empowered themselves.

The trajectory resembles that of cultural authentication, as described by Joanne Eicher, regents professor emerita at the University of Minnesota. Appropriation, she says, is an insensitive use of something from someplace else. Cultural authentication is a far more complex process. It's taking someone else's cultural artifact and so deeply transforming it that it becomes intrinsic to its new surroundings. The original continues to exist and retains its meaning. Yet something new is born.

Is there any offense in that?