I only follow like three fashion blogs, coincidentally all by Asian girls who are around the same age as me. So I found it appropriate after writing this post that one of them just featured an American designer living in Shanghai who’s collection is entirely inspired by the styles of communism and textiles of Chinese Miao tribes.
Emulating or taking directly from a tribe’s craft/clothing tradition is widely popular in Asia, for good reason. The work is beautiful, seeped in meaning, and continues to be made with the same ancient technique and skill by the tribal women. Whether it’s a woven scarf, print dress or beaded necklace, they are rarities compared to the cookie-cutter fashion in stores, and attract fashionistas just like the vintage-hunters we have in America.
My family used to have tons of these unisex army green jackets (without the beautiful embellishments) at home, but got rid of them long ago. Once, on a visit, I tore through my grandparents’ closets to find one of the last remaining ones to bring home. I was certain I could incorporate it into an outfit for a retro-chic, ironic touch. Alas, these jackets (the originals, anyway) are totally unflattering and it still languishes in storage. Speaking of fashion don’ts…each person’s boundaries are interesting. I’ve vowed to myself never to wear ethnic Chinese clothing, especially qipaos, unless it’s for a culturally-relevant occasion. On the other hand, my mom loves qipao-inspired jackets and traditional embroidery. When it comes to another culture’s traditional garb, it’s easy to cross the line into tacky.
Photos above from Hart Hagerty
On the designer’s website, it says, “Many Miao are still too poor to send their daughters to school, so when young men leave villages, females must take on agricultural work, leaving little time to teach or learn textile pursuits.” And “Hart’s featured embroidery was made between 1970 and the early 90s and sourced directly from artisans’ homes. Vintage embroidery has far better quality and ingenuity than contemporary pieces, which are cheaply machine-made with artificial fibers.”
The jackets run you $1000-2000 a pop. I must not be the only one wondering how she acquired the embroidery, how much she paid for them, and how she intends this business plan to actually “inspire and empower young Miao women to pursue the ancient art of their mothers and grandmothers as a means to support their independence and cultural heritage.” Might she be able to commission and pay them enough to survive on? To spearhead a new economy and liberate the women from fieldwork, and while she’s at it, start a CSA box delivery program to get food on the table?
Let’s say this is really the goal of these designers.
Because that’s one thing that troubles my understanding of appropriation–if you’re taking the art from the source and paying the artists a fair (keyword: fair) price, bringing their work to greater heights, doesn’t that counter whatever bastardization you make of it? If you buy and then destroy someone’s tablecloth to make an expensive skirt and sell it to a celebrity who wants to seem “authentic,” does the good you bring to the tablecloth-maker outweigh the possible damage you’ve done to culture? Yes, survival takes precedent over culture or art.
Unfortunately, fashion designers are not philanthropists, nor are they usually wealthy. Their businesses would crumble if they paid a just price. So whatever their intentions, they’re better off keeping their ideals to themselves. Do it for your fashion, and let the people be. Better yet, find better fashion.