Cultural Appropriation & Historical Costume

Feeling smart yet?

So, in the last two entries I’ve offered a bit of a look at the complications of cultural appropriation in art, particularly pertaining to art of the 20th and early 21st century. This is an issue that is most often encountered in the arena of contemporary fashion design, particularly now that we live in a world with an increased sensitivity to global cultural awareness and cultural identities at the forefront of everyday life. Yes, the 1990s labeled this “political correctness” and we went through an awkward phase of trying to relabel everything to be as inoffensive as possible, but this was an attempt to reverse the effects of harmful social patterns that had been enacted and reenacted throughout the last, oh, several hundred years,  obliterating cultural identities that came into contact with Western civilization, whether through politics, war, or grassroots social suppression.

I bet you’re all thinking, “That’s nice, but how does this apply to historical costuming?” Well, this has everything to do with historical costuming, in that as cultural appropriation is not a 21st century problem, nor a 20th century problem, it’s also not strictly a problem isolated to simply any point in time or even any particular dominant culture.  I will only speak about the Western culture because I have expertise in researching this issue from this historical perspective, but where any dominant culture comes into contact with a sub-culture, you will find effects of appropriation (in medieval Japan, for instance, there were instances of appropriation from Korea; and perhaps the greatest of all instances of cultural appropriation, the Romans practically lifted their entire culture straight from Greece, simply changing the names of everything to Roman names).  So, do not misunderstand me, lest you think I am coming down unnecessarily harsh on the Western world for being big jerks… In fact, my personal belief is that cultural appropriation is probably hardwired somewhere deep into the most primitive portions of our brains, the parts concerned with survival and fitting in, perhaps.  I would be inclined to suspect that the urge to adopt unique and interesting things about another culture might have once been a way for our ancestors to help fit in when it was required for them to form alliances with other groups of humans with different customs. It was only as civilization advanced that this skill at cultural blending became a tool by which groups could dominate one another.

Anyway, back to my original point: This has been going on for a very long time, and one does not have to look very long nor very hard to find instances of it. So let’s try to condense what cultural appropriation is in it’s most basic terms: It is the lifting of an item of significance from a particular non-dominant culture, removing its context and original meaning, and reducing it to an objet d’art, a curio, or a novelty without meaning.

Now, let’s examine the following images:


The Victorian Craze For All Things Japanese Chinese Asian?  Oh, Close enough!

Claude Monet, La Japonaise, or Camille Monet in Japanese Costume, 1876.
James McNeill Whistler, Caprice in Purple and Gold, or The Golden Screen, 1864.
Gustave Courtois. Young Woman in Kimono, 1890.


Turquerie: Young Europeans in the latest Ottoman loungewear

Jean-Étienne Liotard, Young Woman in Turkish Dress, 1740-50.
Jean-Étienne Liotard, Marie-Adalaide of France Dressed in Turkish Costume, 1753.
Jean-Étienne Liotard, Lady Anne Somerset, Countess of Northampton, 1755.


The Kimono in 17th century Europe: What do you do with a rectangularly constructed garment?

Make a mantua out of it!

Mantua, c. 1708. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Spitalfields Silk Mantua, English, c. 1730.




Renaissance Italy gets obsessed with the Ottoman Empire

Jacopo Ligozzi, Allegory of Avarice, 1587. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Titian, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1555. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Album Amicorum of Jan van der Deck, 1592.

Now, the hardest thing about cultural appropriation in regards to clothing is that it is meant to cover the body.  Its function, even if it has a significant meaning that is spiritual or socially important, if it goes on the body, well, its purpose is pretty clear.  Perhaps the only example above that actually gets closest to the definition of cultural appropriation as I’ve described it is mantua: It bears almost no resemblance to the original garment it once was when it is on the body.  Only after it has been removed from the body and deconstructed is it evident that the shape of the garment was, once upon a time, a kimono.  So, there’s that uncomfortable gray area with clothing and cultural appropriation that always trips me up… Sometimes there’s clearly defined boundaries (Plains Indians war bonnet) and sometimes the boundaries are much more fluid (16th century Ottoman robes). Sometimes the historical context is too recent and too bloody to be completely striped of its social context (Navajo blanket motifs showing up in current fashion trends), and sometimes the historical context is so distant in the past that it, too, is stripped of all meaning and social relevance to our time and is, essentially, lacking in any meaning whatsoever beyond “oh, that looks pretty!” (the 18th century craze for “Turkish” inspired, well, everything.  Refer to the two 18th century images below for a little lesson in cognitive dissonance, or, “how in the world does the dress on the left even apply to the outfit on the right?”).

Abdulcelil Levni, Girl with a Veil, c. 1710. Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul
Robe a la turque, 1780, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This is just meant to be a really brief taste of what’s out there in the historical costuming world in terms of appropriative clothing.  I’m sure some of you reading this can think of many more examples; if so, please share them in the comments!


5 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation & Historical Costume

  1. I have no examples to add but wanted to say this is a cool set of posts. Thanks for a clear and accessible scholarly explanation. That Roman/Greek example is one I noticed but didn’t realize there was a term for it. I feel enlightened. Lots of food for thought here and it makes me think twice about picking up a pen.

  2. Ha, I actually just wrote a paper on Orientalism in 18thc. women’s dress, exhaustively explaining the influences for each style, so my first reaction to those two juxtaposed images at the end was, “how do they not look alike?”

    1. LOL, really? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how they’re alike, because all I can come up with is they both have sashes and then maybe some stuff about Orientalism in general and the silk trade, etc. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *