Is it wrong to wear clothing from another culture?


As the adage goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, except when you’re a clothing chain exploiting a culture to make a profit.

Nike is the latest brand in a long line of fashion retailers who have been accused of cultural misappropriation. The sportswear giant has been forced to stop production of a line of leggings after an online petition called them out for being ‘exploitative’ to the Polynesian culture.

The black and white printed design on Nike’s Pro Tattoo Tech Tights is similar in design to a traditional Samoan Pe’a male tattoo. Nike said the leggings were not available in New Zealand and were never intended for their market.

“The Nike tattoo tech collection was inspired by tattoo graphics,” the company said in a statement. “We apologise to anyone who views this design as insensitive to any specific culture. No offense was intended… The collection was of a limited run and no additional items will be sold.”

New Zealand MP Su’a William Sio said: “Before you launch into something like this, there’s generally a consultation with those whose pattern who have ownership of this pattern. I don’t think Nike has taken the time to do that.”

New Zealand born actor, Jay Laga’aia has weighed in on the petition page.

“My culture is not for sale. It is free to those who ask and wish to learn the history behind the patterns,” Laga’aia said.


“To steal purely for profit is mean spirited and ignorant! Nike need to understand that ‘created something similar’ is still a breach and if the running shoe were on the other foot, I have no doubt that your lawyers would have been involved and corporate bullying would have taken effect! Stop assuming everything if free to those who have money to buy justice!”

Although not everyone has a problem with the leggings, with Facebook users backing up Nike saying that the designs were ‘inspired’ and the outrage is misplaced.


“We should all be willing to share our cultures in order to educate others so we have a greater understanding of each other,” one user said. Another wrote: “Oh that’s ridiculous. People are too sensitive. It’s a pair of leggings. How is that offensive. The culture has inspired the fashion.” [sic]

While one-off incidents can be easily dismissed, it’s not the first time fashion corporations have been accused of being culturally inappropriate – hell, it’s not even the first time this month. Swedish fashion chain, H&M came under fire in early August for selling this Native American-inspired headdress in their accessories department.

Kim Wheeler, an Ojibwa-Mohawk from Canada, said she first saw the $15 headdress while shopping with her daughter at a H&M store in Vancouver. “You wouldn’t find a colorful hijab or a colorful yarmulke on the shelves as some sort of fashion accessory to wear out to a nightclub or to a music festival,” Wheeler said.

Remember this trend?

While that’s not exactly true –  previously another traditional garment, the Keffiyeh (a middle eastern scarf typically worn by Arab men, which also became Yasser Arafat’s trademark) came to popularity in the early to mid-2000s after it was picked up by high street stores Topshop and Urban Outfitters – her message did get through to the decision makers at H&M.

A spokeswoman for H&M said they received three complaints and responded by removing them from their 61 Canadian stores.

“Music festivals these days are really about experimenting with fashion and dressing your personality. And they’re very heavily based on accessories, really accessorising your look.”

“Of course we never want to offend anybody or come off as insensitive,” Scarlett said. “We’re always about being there for our customers.”

Native American culture has been and continues to be ‘on trend’ and it’s gob-smacking that now, even after several companies have been forced to remove offensive items it keeps on happening again and again.

Is the demand for fast fashion so immense that these chain store designers lack the time to properly think through the design process?  Is it much easier to take something like a headdress, modernise it with a fresh colour palette and pump it out? Is our society so fast-paced that we don’t have time to look back and reflect on what were horrible periods in history?


Apparently, we are.

Urban Outfitters were forced to pull their line of Navajo-labelled clothes and accessories, as the Navajo Nation in the US holds 12 trademarks on the word “Navajo,” and a 1990 federal law “prohibits falsely suggesting that products are made by Native Americans.”

In an open letter to the company’s CEO a member of the Santee Sioux Nation said, “I doubt that you consulted the Navajo Nation about using their tribal name on sophisticated items such as the ‘Navajo Hipster Panty.'”

And in a move that saw that fashion chain, Forever 21 definitely didn’t get the memo, a few weeks later they had their own line of “Navajo” undies for sale.

As were talking fashion chains they have taken their inspiration from high end designers namely, Proenza Schouler’s spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection and Isabel Marant’s 2012 collection including stylized Navajo-inspired prints but the trend for all things Native American is not limited to two-dimensional clothing.

In what is probably the most widely seen example of misuse of the Native American culture, Karlie Kloss struttied down the Victoria’s Secret runway last year in a flowing feathered war bonnet. In what has become typical fashion – the company seemed to completely misread the situation, later apologising and saying they’d remove all traces of the offensive material.


“We are sorry that the Native American headdress replica used in our recent fashion show has upset individuals. We sincerely apologize as we absolutely had no intention to offend anyone. Out of respect, we will not be including the outfit in any broadcast, marketing materials nor in any other way.”

In the same month, Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt were forced to pull their music video for single, “Looking Hot,” because Stefani was wearing Native American garb (the singer is American born but has no family ties to Native American culture) and definitely not looking hot.

Guy Trebay, a writer for the New York Times compared fashion’s obsession with Navajo culture as a fast-moving and destructive beast.

“Fashion is culture’s Godzilla, devouring everything in its path. Half the time, the monster doesn’t know what it ate. Most recently it gobbled up the complex Navajo tribal culture, which then, semidigested, turned up on runways, in stores, online and finally in the news, as last week the people who unwittingly provided inspiration for Navajo chic took legal issue with a process of cultural appropriation that American Indians know perhaps too well,” Trebay wrote.

Locally, Rodarte (an American fashion label founded in 2005 by two sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy) heavily referenced Aboriginal art in their Autumn 2013 collection. After the runway show, Laura Mulleavy said the inspiration “came out of nowhere,” and “we’d done so much research and looked at photo books of different eras.”

“The show was based on the rugged outback,” said Kate Mulleavy but the sisters have never stepped foot on Australian soil. Megan Davis, an Aboriginal law professor and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said at the time she found the collection offensive.


“The thought of seeing women walking around in this particular ready-to-wear collection sickens me,” Davis said.

“Because it is my culture and it is where I come from. I appreciate that we live in a postmodern culture, where people do take inspiration from particular areas and it is a complex area of law. But as an Aboriginal lawyer I found the designs offensive.”

Image via Jezebel.

Davis said the prints represented “a clan’s songlines, story, life and very essence, with responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to land and kin,” and their use out of context “is completely insensitive to Aboriginal art and spirituality and land and how they are inextricably linked.”

Fashion has almost always taken inspiration from art and culture from around the world but in our now culturally and racially sensitive society it’s seen as inappropriate. So instead of us taking cues from what designers deem to be acceptable, shouldn’t it in this case be the other way around?

Is it acceptable in the case of the Nike leggings to be ‘inspired’ by traditional indigenous designs? Should designers have to declare their inspiration (and financially contribute) when taking from indigenous sources?