The notion of cultural and subcultural appropriation within the fashion industry has always been a site of contention and will most likely continue to be. It is difficult to draw a line between what is interpreted as appreciation and what is interpreted as exploitation. “Appropriation” within the fashion industry occurs when imagery, symbols and/or language typically associated with, or originating from, a particular ethnic culture or subculture is incorporated into “mainstream” fashion. While prior to industry adoption these styles would have typically been seen only among members of a particular cultural or subcultural group as a means of identity, the involvement of the fashion industry makes these styles more visible and accessible to the general public. With this appropriation often comes a disconnect between the original cultural or subcultural ideology or meaning behind appropriated imagery and the manner in which it is used, represented and interpreted by those outside of the initial community. This disconnected appropriation has the tendency to dilute and distort the ideological and cultural values of foreign cultures and subcultures. However, some argue it also has the power to raise awareness of these cultures and to disseminate their ideologies to those who may otherwise remain ignorant or misinformed. While appropriation of style can be seen across the fashion industry, from “Asian Chic” and Native American Dress to Punk and Anarchism, I will be focusing on the rise of “Environmentally Conscious” fashion, as appropriated from the environmental movement. I will be looking specifically at the environmentalist theme that exists throughout the designs of the English designer Katharine Hamnett, who is best known for her political t-shirts and her ethical business philosophy within the fashion industry. All of the images seen throughout this post are Katharine Hamnett designs and were for the most part created in partnership with various environmental organizations and initiatives, such as the Environmental Justice Foundation and Project Ocean.
Over the past few decades or so there has been a gradual increase in the use of environmental imagery, symbols and language within the fashion industry as they work to brand the idea of environmentalism in concordance with the ideologies of the fashion industry. Katharine Hamnet’s popular designs, sold in association with retail stores such as H&M and Selfridges and Co., can be seen as an illustration of this trend. While the mass marketing of “environmentally conscious” items can be seen as helping to raise awareness around the environment, it can also be seen as providing the industry and consumers with an “alibi” (Yang, 2) for inertia in the face of climate change and environmental waste. When considering the fashion industries involvement in ethical endeavors such as environmentalism, one must also keep in mind that the primary motivation is profits and the success of the fashion industry as a whole. As Katharine Hamnet said during an interview in 2013, “You might think people would buy clothes out of pity, but they won’t. People buy clothes because they want to be excited about themselves… You’ve got to put the fashion first” (fashion.telegraph.co.uk). The fact that Katharine Hamnet’s designs are utilized to support various causes, from labor rights to overfishing to climate change, is an illustration of this idea that fashion comes first, with each of this initiatives treated as a passing trend.
When examining the effects of appropriation within the fashion industry, we must also consider Stuart Hall‘s concept of the Ideological Effect of the media and how framing can affect perception. While this concept addresses the media’s response to cultural shifts, I believe it can also be applied to the fashion industry as these two entities are closely intertwined. Hall argues that the media works to ‘progressively [colonize] the cultural and ideological sphere’ (Hebdige, 85) by containing and framing “rebel” initiatives or subcultures, such as environmentalism. This notion can be seen through the manner in which the fashion industry appropriates or “colonizes” foreign cultures and rebel subcultures in order to fuel consumerism.The environmental movement can be seen as particularly threatening to the consumer ideology upon which the fashion industry is built. Therefore, through appropriating the language of environmentalism, as seen through the Katharine Hamnet designs “Save the World” and “Stop an Think” below, the fashion industry encourages consumers to feel that they as individuals, and the industry as a whole, are attempting to combat environmental decline. This appropriation of the movement allows individuals to continue to participate in a consumer culture that could otherwise be seen as a central contributor to the destruction of the environment. At the same time the effects of rampant green washing drowns out the voices of the “true” environmentalists who devote their lives and resources to combatting pollution and waste. In this way the industry capitalizes on “the desire by consumers to be viewed as responsible in their fashion purchases by their peers and society at large” (Beard, 453).
Through the appropriation and re-framing of the symbols, imagery and values of cultures and subcultures, the fashion industry incorporates styles according to what they believe will benefit the industry. Their central focus is to increase sales as opposed to educating the public or disseminating awareness and information. They position and control the messages and images of countercultural movements within the context of mainstream ideological discourses through the curation of imagery that is viewed as potentially profitable. In this way the fashion industry and the media is able to highlight preferred meanings of cultures and subcultures, such as the idea that “being ethical should also be fashionable” (Beard, 451), in order to direct energies towards consumption. They do so while also “blocking” and delegitimizing messages that are deemed a threat to the hegemonic structure (Hebdige, 86) and the culture of consumption that exists within the fashion industry.Just as Western representations of “Asian Chic” in the 1990’s were illustrative of the West’s attempts to maintain their position within the hierarchy of the fashion industry over Asia (Tu, 121), the representation of environmentalism can be seen in the same light. The fashion industries appropriation of environmental symbols and language can be seen as their attempt to harness environmental thinking for consumer purposes, while the “environmental mission” takes a back seat. In this way they position themselves to overpower the beliefs of the subculture that could otherwise contradict the norms of the fashion industry and therefore reduce its power in society. Nowadays there is a “significant niche market for eco-fashion” with sales increasing steadily, and it must be kept in mind that the “ultimate demonstration of a fashion brands success, even an ethical one, is its ability to produce a profit” (Beard, 452). The fashion industries use of Katharine Hamnet’s call to action slogan, “Save the Future” and other similarly “ethical” designs, can actually be seen as their attempt to save the future of consumerism.
Beard, Nathaniel Dafydd. “The Branding of Ehtical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-Market Reality?” Fashion Theory, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp. 447-468. Berg, 2008. Print.
Hebdige, Dick. “The Sources of Style.” Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. 84-89. Print.
Leitch, Luke. “Ethical Fashion: Is It Just Pity Product?” Telegraph. N.p., 5 June 2013. Web. 06 May 2014. <http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/columns/luke-leitch/TMG10099467/Ethical-Fashion-Is-it-just-Pity-Product.html>.
Tu, Thuy Ling Nguyen. “The Cultural Economy of Asian Chic.” The Beautiful Generation, Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011. Print
Yang, Jeff. Why the Rise of Asia in Fashion Isn’t As Beautiful As It Seems. The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2012. Print.