A textile metaphor for cultural appropriation

Of Noble Family coverFor Of Noble Family, I made the dress on the cover of the novel from a sari. I’m extremely proud of my work on that, because it’s historically accurate and also that entire thing is handsewn.

It also is an excellent metaphor for cultural appropriation.

I took a perfectly good, and beautiful Indian garment, cut it apart, and made it into a British dress. I literally took one culture and remade it into another. The thing that makes this dress special is all the beading and embroidery that some unknown, and probably underpaid, Indian artist did but I get the credit for it.

Without that embroidery, it’s just a basic little white dress.

Now, I did a ton of work deciding how to incorporate the patterns. I did some hand beading to try to link the Indian work more fully into the British aesthetic. I’m proud of the work that I did.

And that doesn’t change the fact that what makes this dress special is still someone else’s work.

So then the question becomes… should I make the dress?

If the sari were a historic museum item? Absolutely not. Cutting it up would be a tragedy.

If it were a factory produced sari and one of thousands? Of course! Cutting it up is no big deal.

The sari in question was somewhere in the middle. Hand-beaded, but contemporary.

Should I make the dress?

The reason that cultural appropriation is so confusing is because there’s a giant spectrum of ways in which we interact with other cultures.

Ultimately, I decided to do it, and to make sure that when I’m complimented I always point to the existence of the artist who did the beading, even if I don’t know their name. I try very hard not to take credit for work I didn’t do. But… I still destroyed the sari.

Now, if I could talk to the artist, they might very well be thrilled with what I did. They might also be devastated by what I’d done to their work. With a culture, we’re not just talking about a single person’s reaction. Culture is not monolithic, so what one person might see as appropriate, another might see as appropriative.

Someone is likely to say, “But Mary! When you write a story, you aren’t cutting up anything material!”

First of all… this is why it’s called a metaphor.

Second… Are you still taking credit for someone else’s work? Or are you acknowledging the original culture?

Third… It is completely possible for cultural appropriation to supplant an original culture. If the re-imagined narrative becomes the dominant narrative in people’s minds, then that can ultimately erase the originating culture. The more marginalized a culture is, the more likely it is that this damage can happen. I mean… just think about the pagan origins of various Christmas traditions.

The point of all of this is, that when you are sitting down to work on something and you are incorporating elements from cultures that are not your own, think about what damage you might be doing . Are you looking at a cultural element that is sacred? Is there anything special about your idea, beyond the originating culture? Are you giving credit to the original culture?

Should you make the dress?

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7 Responses

  1. wendy

    It can also vary the age of the people whose culture you’re adapting from.. I recall a recent exhibit in New York where younger Japanese-American women were protesting What they felt was appropriation of kimono culture by/for a western audience and reinforcing the stereotypes of the “exotic east”

    Then there was a counter protest by a group of mostly older Japanese and Japanese-American women who felt that anything that introduced elements of traditional garments and textiles to a new audience was a good thing and something to be encouraged if the art forms were to survive and remain current and relevant.

    I was nervous about wearing a salwar kameez suit I was given, because I didn’t want to be seen as co-opting someone else’s traditional clothing. I have received nothing but compliments from Indian women I have met, who seem genuinely happy that I see the beauty and comfort in the style enough to want to wear it.

    These are complex issues.

  2. Karl-Johan Norén

    Very nice discussion on the gray zone between representation and appropriation. I discovered this in a discussion at uni last year, where we discussed class issues in literature. Back in the 20s and 30s, Sweden developed a strong set of literature written by working-class authors (like Vilhelm Moberg, Harry Martinson, and Moa Martinson). Part of this was in better access to (very) basic education and the efforts among the early labour movement.

    But I believe that without the earlier works by established “fine culture” and well-educated writers like August Strindberg, Verner von Heidenstam, or Johann Ludvig Runeberg that wrote works that used common workers, farmers, or soldiers in romanticised or idealised forms in the mid-late 19th century, the later working-class authors would have a much harder time to get published or reach an audience. The earlier appropriative representation paved the way to a real representation later on.

  3. Joy Ralph

    Remaking a Indian sari into a British Regency dress sounds like an art project designed to comment on colonialism; which goes to prove your metaphor is apt, I think.
    Interestingly enough I was a bridesmaid where our dresses were made from “recycled sari material,” which *sounds* somewhat different from your dress but in all honesty I don’t know by how much the situation truly varied. Definitely food for thought.

    1. Loredena

      The recycled sari material is probably different. As a spinner, I often buy fiber that incorporates it, and I can also buy yarn to weave with. In both cases, they are sourced from India (the yarn itself having been spun there). With the fiber, it is typically waste threads and bits cut from the sari fabric that are gathered and sold to batt makers, or added as elements in spinning silk yarn. So it is literally the recycled waste product in almost all cases (just as silk available to be spun is almost always the waste from thrown/reeled silk, which is what is actually used to make fabric in Asia).

      Of course, if it looks like someone took a sari, cut it up, and sewed it as something else I suppose it might be exactly the same situation. That strikes me as a costly way to go though, I’m sure a designer could acquire the fabric if they so chose!

      1. Tibicina

        I’ve also seen cases where people took worn out/stained/otherwise damaged saris and cut out non-damaged sections to use in patchwork. They often get remade into skirts or pillows.

  4. Stephen Watkins

    Something about your metaphor here suggests to me what is possibly an interesting solution for an author who is borrowing elements from another culture and remixing them into their fiction. I’ve seen alternate history authors sometimes incorporate some appendix that includes a reading list or bibliography for those wishing to explore the actual history in more detail. Would it be advisable for fiction authors in other genres – say, even in a secondary-world fantasy – to provide similar reading lists or bibliographies of real-world sources that were inspirational to the author?

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