The Age of Cultural Appropriation: The misuse of Aboriginal symbols

By: Tanya Debi

Karlie Kloss wore a headdress at the Victoria Secret Fashion Show in 2012 which caused a massive uproar from the Aboriginal community.

Karlie Kloss wore a headdress at the Victoria Secret Fashion Show in 2012 which caused a massive uproar from the Aboriginal community.

Two years ago one of Victoria’s Secret lingerie model’s wore a sacred Aboriginal headdress during a fashion show, resulting in backlash from the Aboriginal community. This past Halloween also saw a rise in the misappropriation of Aboriginal culture. The sexy Pocahontas or ‘Pocahottie’ portrayed Native Americans as ‘sexy Indians’ and was skimpy, short and showed a lot of skin. The Aboriginal community wanted ‘Pocahottie’ taken off the shelves, while those who were not offended by the costume, argued that it was ‘just a costume’. “People who are not part of indigenous cultures and are fashion designers are always mining the world for the next, new inspiration and to just pick an iconic symbol and to put it with sexy garments, that is where the line gets crossed,” says Dorothy Grant, a Haida artist and Aboriginal designer. “The indigenous cultures use religious symbols, like the headdress, with ceremonial garments. It is very sacrilegious and offensive.”

Angela DeMontigny is an Aboriginal fashion designer in Toronto and agrees with Grant, explaining that the use of these symbols, value only trends and amusement. “They don’t look at us as a culture or a race, they just say, oh those costumes look really fun and they use it and make tons of money off of it,” DeMontigny said. “They don’t realize that they are impacting people who are being pigeon-holed in stereotypical ways. They don’t understand the implications of what they do.”

The misuse of Native symbols in fashion design, also present a backwards view of the Aboriginal community. “There is such a lack of information and education about our people as a whole around the world, that it continues to perpetuate that stereotype of who we were 300 years ago” DeMontigny said, “like we haven’t evolved.” This stereotype also hints at what some think the image of a Native American woman is, the sexy Indian, like with the Pocahottie costume. “There is a way in which N­ative women are viewed in North America and it’s so disrespectful and that needs to change,” DeMontigny said. “People are just very unaware especially when we have a situation in which so many Native women, are missing and being murdered.”

Kim Picard is another Aboriginal fashion designer from the Pessamit First Nations community. She is just one of the designers trying to combat the perception of the sexy or the non-contemporary Native Indian and doing it in a way that has meaning. “My objective is always to join the two worlds, the modern world and that of my ancestors, which is not always an easy task” Picard said, “I chose my profession because I believe that, I could revive the designs of my ancestors by giving them a contemporary form.” Picard’s speciality are coats, she designs contemporary coats with inspirations from the past. “Hunters would pass on their ideas to the women, mostly from their dreams, which inspired the creation of their coat,” Picard said. “This was believed to bring them luck and success in their hunt.”

There are ways that fashion designers can use Native culture.“People just need to give credit to where their inspiration comes from,” DeMontigny said. “It needs to come from a place of respect and they need to acknowledge that, or work with a Native artist and give them credit for their part in the collection.”

Several designers have succeeded in using Native symbols respectively. “I’m going to say Ralph Lauren,” DeMontigny said, “because he has been very successful at utilizing those traditional elements in a contemporary way.” Picard admires another designer, who expressed regret for an earlier misuse of Aboriginal symbols in his line. “Paul Frank did a collection that was really tacky, with dream catchers,” Picard says. “I saw the designs and I was really surprised, but you know he apologized and he hired real Native fashion designers to help him with his next collection and it was great.”

Paul Frank with Dustin Martin T-shit

Paul Frank with Dustin Martin T-shit

Paul Frank released clothing and accessories with cartoonish dream catchers. He also promoted the opening of the fashion line with an event called, ‘Dream Catchin’, a Pow wow celebrating fashion’s night out’. After a lot of criticism, Frank deleted and apologized on Facebook and Twitter, he removed any Native inspired designs from his line and digital promotions. Frank hired Native artists to help design the new line and all the proceeds went to different Native foundations. Picard says that, “this is the right way to do this, because this way, no one gets offended.”


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