Stella McCartney and Cultural Appropriation
Can we talk about Stella McCartney’s SS18 Show please? More importantly that dress. As Look 18 came storming down the catwalk, we became aware that Ms. McCartney had clearly taken inspiration from Ankara fabric used in West African countries.
Now, I’m not one to throw around the term “Cultural appropriation’ with reckless abandon but when McCartney’s Look 21 breezed down her Parisian runway I, along with black twitter and African mothers everywhere, were stunned. The humble Kabagondo (as it’s called in Cameroon), the uniform of house girls, housewives and female market traders, had been initiated into the realms of high fashion. There was no mention of the origin of these "African inspired" dresses in runway reports on Ms McCartney's collection. BOF hailed it “summery African prints” whilst choosing to focus on the collection's utilitarian influence and Vogue sidestepped the issue, choosing to focus on McCartney's evening-wear/athleisure blend.
To be clear, I’m all for Ankara (The real name for the African prints used by McCartney) being fused into mainstream fashion - that’s the beauty of the multicultural and easily accessible world that modern travel, the internet and social media have created for us. What struck me the most was that this very traditional and somewhat mundane African clothing was being featured during an event that is most symbolic of fashion innovation without any mention of its cultural reference. Moreover, this transposition into mainstream high fashion highlights that Black culture is en vogue, so long as it is being put forward by non-black people. This elevation of the humble kaba doesn't sit well with me - effectively it feels like I'm essentially being told that my culture is cool now because a white designer has shown it on the catwalks of Paris.
McCartney's use of Ankara, and more importantly this design, strips away the cultural relevance of this humble dress. It ignores the artisans behind the Ankara print and the context in which African women wear this dress. Like I mentioned above, the Kabagondo is not part of the glitz and glamour of the African woman’s wardrobe - my mum wears hers when cooking, my aunt lounges in her’s on lazy Sundays at home and my Grandmother dons her’s for trips to Kumba market. They are certainly not wearing their Kabas to holiday in Mykonos or St. Barths, which is where I’m sure Ms. McCartney’s clientele will be sporting her latest African “inspired” pieces.
I feel like fashion should foster cultural exchange. We should strive to teach people about the the cultures that inspire the designs, not simply re-create and ignore rich heritage. We should be using fashion to unite and break down cultural barriers and misunderstandings. I think this collection and subsequent reports on it completely missed that opportunity.
What do you think about cultural appropriation in the fashion industry?