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    Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry 

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    Globalization and has created a paradoxical relationship between western fashion and its use of imagery, symbols, and historically tribal crafts of indigenous groups in relation to world intellectual property laws.

    While Intellectual property laws are very strict in fashion, designers find round-abouts, or even completely forget about fashion works that come from indigenous artisans. These works are often overlooked as having little design value, workmanship, and/or relevant processes yet are remade, or reworked by luxury fashion brands and sold at high retail prices with very little credit or payment being given to the originators.

    Appropriation has become buzzword in our current social climate and people may want to invoke the term at any intended or unintended slight. This inclination to be hyper-vigilant, or even hypersensitive to perceived misuse of one’s cultural identity is a growing issue, but can also create a confusing nitpicky back and forth. This often occurs via social media and tends to be argumentative discourse surrounding a favorite celebrity’s music festival attire, or a friends Halloween costume. While these conversations are needed as fuel for the bigger picture, both sides are often missing a key understanding of inspiration, appreciation and appropriation. Given the appropriate context, inspiration and appreciation of another’s cultural imagery is beautiful and necessary for growth. Moral and ethical problems arise when true appropriation occurs.

    The Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. This idea was first recognized and defined by sociologists in the early 1990’s. Unlike cultural exchange, in which there is a mutual interchange, appropriation refers to a “particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”.

    IP Law and Legal Recourse

    Intellectual property laws protect fashion brands as well as companies of all industries. These laws include patents, copyright and trademarks, and enable people to control and/or gain a financial benefit from what they invent or create “creations of the mind,” such as novel inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.

    Fashion brands including huge fashion corporations file suit against other brands, designers, and artists often. These suits are necessary to protect the company and create distinction among thousands of other brands who do what they do. One major issue with IP laws is that they do very little and make it difficult to protect shared intellectual property, as would be the case when considering cultural identity. A cultural group who has been around for multiple generations and has imagery, design practices and group craft ideologies may not have the desire nor thought to file these iconic symbols with western IP databases. Their cultural identity and the items that correspond to that identity are used in their everyday life as part of religious practice or just daily necessity. An issue might arise for these cultural groups when they discover or are alerted to an outsider using said imagery for monetary gain without attribution and definitely no thought of payment for these uses.

    In 2014 Louis Vuitton filed suit against Los Angeles based canvas bag maker, “My Other Bag” (MOB) in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In the 2014 suit Louis Vuitton claimed that MOB was infringing its federally registered trademarks and copyrights, as well as “diluting the ‘distinctive quality’ of Louis Vuitton’s world-famous trademarks by slapping images of Louis Vuitton bags on its inexpensive canvas tote bags.” (The Fashion Law). This is an example of the many suits that are filed by fashion brands on a daily basis, while they are simultaneously stealing from others.

    Some cultural groups have protective measures in place and many others are beginning to seek out ways to protect their cultural identity. The Maasai people in collaboration with Light Years NGO have created Maasai Intel

    Maasai People of Kenya and Tanzania

    The Maasai represent one of the most indelible images of Africa to the western world, so it is unsurprising that companies around the world have exploited its iconic cultural brand to sell their products. The Maasai, up to 80% of whom live below the poverty line, have gained no benefit from this iconic status.

    Maasai elder Isaac ole Tialolo told the BBC

    ‘I think people need to understand the culture of the others and respect it, you should not use it to your own benefit, leaving the community, or the owner of the culture, without anything. If you just take what belongs to somebody, and go and display it and have your fortune, then it is very wrong…very wrong.’

    Isaac ole Tialolo is a leader and elder, and chair of the organization, the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI) The MIPI was founded with the help of Washington-based Light Years IP, an NGO who specializes in securing IP rights in developing countries. MIPI plans to create and assembly of Maasai elders who would be trained in IP law, and act on behalf of the Maasai people to negotiate with companies who wish to use their cultural imagery via a licensing agent. The goal of the MIPI is to enable the Maasai to develop greater economic rights. (Phipps-Rufus)

    The key issue when it comes to the use of cultural imagery, or artisan crafts concerns the commercial use of property and the sharing of the benefits. When companies use imagery without addressing the original community who helped to create that imagery we begin to get into issues of ethics. If we consider the premise that only a small amount of the profits made from these uses actually goes back to the original community, we have a huge issue of the lines of intellectual property and who owns what.

    One of the main cultural crafts that tend to be copied by large brands is the group’s renowned beading skills (figure 1). High-end jewelry designers will copy this type of beading work not give credit in any way to the Maasai people. Brands who have used and even name retail products after Maasai crafts and imagery include Louis Vuitton, Camilla, with a swimsuit called the Maasai Mosh, Bootmaker, Minnetonka, and many others. Each of these corporations has a one time or another filed suit against another designer to enforce their own trademarks and copyrights to ensure that their huge brands are not diluted. It would be remiss of these corporations, and any other brand not to go after copycats, but the onus should also be on them to look at how their own exploitation affects the branding of entire cultures.

    Native American People

    Native American people of almost every tribe in the Americas have had their imagery consistently exploited for in the fashion industry. Native symbols are often used as decoration in western fashion, but imagery is also used for financial gain, with the assumption that iconic Native designs and motifs up for grabs because e

    Who is Getting It Right and Suggestions

    There are brands who understand the gravity of what appropriating a cultural groups ideas and imagery can do that group both financially as a well as effects that may not be seen. Some designers and y have chosen to use ethical practices in all aspects of business including paying for inspiration where appropriate. The Maasai Project, a charitable project that was started in 2013 by Spanish footwear brand, Pikolinos created a collection based on Maasai inspiration and collaboration. The project is ambasadoored by fashion maven, Oliviia Palermo and created in collaboration with Maasai women in Kenya and Tanzania. The project allows Maasai women to earn a steady income to help support their families and learn about manufacturing processes and quality control systems without ever leaving their home environment.

    “Today, more than 1,000 women participate in the Maasai Project earning a stable salary, something that up until now had been reserved exclusively for the men. But most importantly, the work they are doing allows them to preserve their culture and lifestyle, and as a result of the income they receive, more than 1,000 Maasai families can access basic needs such as education, food, and medicine.” (Palermo)

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