Fashion or Theft? Appropriating Indigenous Culture in Mexico and Abroad

On October 18, 1916, fashion designers flocked to the Museum of Natural History in New York City and declared that the “art of the Red Man…[is] a field of remarkable possibilities for all those American designers, artists, and textile men who avail themselves to it.” [1] Fifty years later, in 1966, David Loring of Jeanette Maternities boasted of their “most popular…huipil from Oaxaca” described as a “glorified poncho with crewel-type embroidery” [2] (see Figure 1). The huipil is a wide, sleeveless tunic and has been the prevalent upper-body garment of the indigenous women of Mexico for thousands of years. In 1981, award winning designer Clovis Ruffin’s Aztec lingerie and loungewear was featured as “one of fall’s most stylish ways to stay home" [3] (see Figure 2). Even into the 1990s, Los Angeles fashion designers offered “fresh interpretations of age old prints” in an “Aztec Treasures” feature [4] (see Figure 3). These are but a few examples of appropriation of indigenous, culture by American fashion designers. The likes of Urban Outfitters and French fashion designer Isabel Marant have continued the centuries-old tradition of carrying a “penchant for the ethnic,” [5] therefore contributing to the persistence of cultural appropriation in fashion.

The appropriation of indigenous art by larger manufacturing companies almost always has a negative impact on original artists, both economically and culturally. As is the case with any form of plagiarism, economic harm impacts heavily on the indigenous artists whose designs are abused as they cannot participate in the profit. Indigenous people are pushed to the brink of society and their art and culture misappropriated by large, profiteering fashion companies that are nearly impossible to challenge. Possibly one of the most infamous cases of this in recent years has been major fashion label Carolina Herrera’s use of indigenous Mexican designs in its “Resort 2020” collection (see Figure 4). Carolina Herrera is a Venezuelan fashion designer, notable for dressing various First Ladies, including Jacqueline Onassis, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama. Mexico’s Minister of Culture, Alejandra Fausto, has argued that the designs used by Carolina Herrera are not only clearly plagiarized from indigenous designs, but actually have clear and “well documented” origins as well. [6] While Carolina Herrera considers the designs to be a “tribute” to Mexican culture, others, including the Mexican government, consider it to be a clear-cut case of cultural appropriation.

However, the Mexican government and elite have their own troubling and often overlooked history of appropriation. Since the Porifiriato (the era of the presidency of Mexico of Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911), there have been efforts by Mexican elites to create a sense of Mexican nationalism and identity among an extremely diverse populace. Alongside the development of a ‘Mexican’ identity, Mexico has put massive efforts into the expansion of large Mexican industry to become more competitive within the global market. [7] This multifaceted approach to cultivating a sense of Mexican nationalism has led to cultural appropriation and plagiarism of indigenous culture by the government and elite. The culture and history of communities who have been discriminated against, marginalized, and pushed to the edges of Mexican society for hundreds of years was consequently taken advantage of as a part of an overarching “Mexican” culture. Mexican cultural identity, and the inclusion of indigenous cultures in this national identity, is exceedingly problematic considering that indigenous people in Mexico have “suffered four centuries of exclusion and extreme poverty…their ancient polities had been dismantled and fragmented” [8] by colonialism and Mexican elitism. By creating an “identity” out of Mexican multiculturalism, indigenous people have been further exploited for their long traditions and unique cultures.

Although the utilization of indigenous culture has been evident in many artistic industries, such as film, music, and more, the clothing industry became a market in which “the division between the traditional sector and the modern” was instantly clear. [9] Although some clothes were still “spun in remote villages,” the modern manufacturing and production of clothing was becoming increasingly commonplace in the 1940s. [10] Due to this, as more factories and mass manufacturers began to include indigenous motifs in their subsidized ‘Mexican’ designs, the Mexican government itself began to play a role in the economic dispossession of indigenous artists.

In recent years, the Mexican government has developed a large role in calling out major brands’ appropriation of indigenous Mesoamerican culture. In the case of Carolina Herrera, Alejandra Frausto wrote to the designer “to demand an explanation for her company’s use of indigenous Mexican designs in its latest collection.” [11] The government has also proposed a law to “’tackle the plagiarism that different indigenous peoples and communities have suffered’ by recognising them as the lawful owners of their cultural and identity elements.” [12] This will be of the utmost importance for the economic and cultural wellbeing of indigenous artisans. However, the question still remains whether this will hold Mexico’s manufacturing elite accountable to the same degree as foreign manufacturers.

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