“Through the looking glass” is a metaphorical expression—albeit, a commonly misunderstood one; it means “on the strange side; in the twilight zone; in a curious, parallel world.”[1] The phrase stumbled out of Lewis Carroll’s novel, Through the Looking-Glass.[2] In this decadent tale, the heroine Alice steps through a mirror—a looking glass—and finds herself amid a dark and mysterious new world. Today, we step through a different type of glass: the Gaultier glass. 

Jean Paul Gaultier is a famed French fashion designer known for his politically-charged and iconoclastic haute couture collections.[3] Gaultier’s pieces are riddled with contradiction, vivacity and drama. However, this decadence in design has not come about entirely on Gaultier’s own creative merit; instead, Gaultier is obsessed with extracting elements from the cultures of the Global South—such as that of India—and then “reinventing” them to be palatable to his Western audience. As a result, the designer has polarised the fashion criticism field. Though some continue to mistakenly laud his “cultural appreciation” efforts as “creative genius,” a rising number of fashion devotees have begun to condemn these designs as acts of cultural appropriation.

This being said, the issue at hand is not one exclusive to Gaultier alone. Gaultier, I believe, is a lucid example of a trend in the fashion industry that surpasses any one single brand or designer. By looking through the Gaultier glass—that is, using his work as a lens—we can explore the permeating phenomenon of cultural appropriation and begin to unravel the complex web in which it entangles itself. 

The premise from which we start this study is a basic understanding of the current and popular (and notably, neo-liberal) discourse on the issue of cultural appropriation. This discourse condemns these appropriative acts only for vague reasons related to the Western ideas of “disrespect.” In doing so, it reduces the impacts of cultural appropriation to mere “hurt feelings,” and, like much of neo-liberal politics, fails to address the true nature of the problem. Thus, instead, I propose an alternative framework for understanding the impact of cultural appropriation: first, a Saidian analysis can elucidate the reality that cultural appropriation not only perpetuates, but is a constituent part of Orientalist discourse (Orientalism). Further, it is this Orientalism that masks and inadvertently serves to ideologically legitimize the West’s never-ending imperialism in, and exploitation of, the Global South—in the context of the fashion industry and beyond.

3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs

Mary Binney Wheeler, A woman in a sari, 1963-1978, photograph, South Asia Art Archive,  https://library.artstor.org/public/SS37691_37691_41103239.

Orientalism

The starting point of this discussion is understanding Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism. Orientalism is the misrepresentative discourse that derives from Western concepts of what is considered “Oriental” (i.e. cultural representations) that reduce the Orient to the fictional essences of “Oriental peoples” and “the places of the Orient.” Said identifies Orientalism by exploring how the “Orient” first entered Western thinking. Throughout the colonial era, the “Orient” became, in a sense, a “European invention” in Western society; that is, the concept that Westerners have of Oriental countries, such as India, are much more indicative of European power than they are a truthful verdict about those countries.[4]

Said draws from Foucauldian theory, noting that the institutionalized way Western society speaks about and conceives the “Orient” is plagued with inconsistencies, misconceptions, oversimplifications and mischaracterizations.[5] Orientalism is not only inaccurate but is also deeply essentializing; it assumes an oversimplified “essence” to Oriental countries.[6] Importantly, this discourse typically depicts the “Orient” as primitive, irrational, violent, despotic, fanatic, and ultimately inferior to the West. These flawed concepts of Oriental countries have, throughout history, been circulated through the West and utilized to shape European identity by “difference” or Lacanian “Otherness.”[7]

Though Said’s work was originally written with specific reference to Arab-Islamic people and the Middle East, the general notion can be extrapolated and applied to all countries and peoples of the Global South, including India— as we will explore with Gaultier.

Orientalism and Cultural Appropriation: A Gaultier case study

Cultural appropriation in haute couture such as Gaultier—that draws on elements of the “oversimplified” India into high European culture for creative and economic benefit—is a tangible manifestation of Orientalism. By appropriating Indian culture, the West (with Gaultier as the agent) ultimately consolidates this over-simplistic and essentialist knowledge about India so that it can be accepted by a Western audience.[8] In this way, cultural appropriation not only perpetuates but is a constituent part of the detrimental discourse of Orientalism.

To understand this, let’s take Gaultier’s Fall Couture 2017 collection as a case study.[9] In his designs, Gaultier not only appropriates the general essentialized “aesthetic” of Indian traditional wear, but also attempts to recreate specific cultural items such as the saree and the nath.

The saree is traditionally an unstitched piece of cloth, with a length varying from four to nine yards, which is draped around the body in various styles. The method of draping the saree is a reflection of the ancient belief that the navel and the midriff should be left bare as they were considered to be the ‘life source’ of the body (as they connect to the umbilical cord). This belief is recorded in an ancient South Indian text from around 200 AD called the Natya Shastra.[10] 

3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs

A woman wearing a red sari, 1800-1899, gouache on mica, 12.2 x 8.2cm, Wellcome Collection, https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/24903272.

3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs

Prakhar Amba, Indian bride on her wedding day, 2007, photograph, France, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f0/Bride_by_prakhar.jpg.

The nath is a piece of jewellery worn through a piercing in the nose—what is typically referred to as a “nose stud” or “ring” in the West. The significance and history of nose piercings and the nath varies substantially throughout different areas and ethnic groups in India and across South East Asia. Depending on the local cultural traditions, they may be worn on one nostril, both nostrils, the septum, or combinations of these. The appropriate side of the nose for a nath also varies. However, a commonality across all Hindu groups is that piercing the nose is a means of honouring Goddess Parvati, the goddess of (inter alia) marriage, fertility and devotion.[11] 

The misrepresentative and careless misappropriation of the nath and saree, as well as the collection’s attempt to generally emanate an “Indian” aesthetic, not only disregards the complex cultural meanings of these items, but also, and more importantly, forms and feeds into Orientalism.[12] It is a means by which an essentialized, primitive and infantilized idea of India (and its people) is created in the minds and ideologies of westerners. The further “transformative” element of Gaultier’s designs reconstructs the alleged “Otherness” of these Indian styles by constituting them in a Western image. In essence, Gaultier perceives, interprets and then regurgitates the Indian culture, simplifying it and reducing it to “trendy” tokenizations of an “exotic” and “backward” foreign land for Westerners to exploit. Not only does this further fuel the West’s quest to shape their own identity by “difference” to India, but it also assists them in maintaining a dehumanized concept of it. When contextualized in the wider fashion system and the relationship between the West and India (and the Global South generally), we can understand that this discursive phenomenon has a dangerous political, economic and social role.

3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs

Sari, ca. 1875, silk, 24 ft. x 42 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/SS7731421_7731421_11609388.

Shattering the Glass: The System of Imperialism that Belies it All

As noted earlier, one of the most fundamental flaws in the current discourse around cultural appropriation is that it reduces the impacts of cultural appropriation to mere “hurt feelings.” The reason it does this is because the discourse operates off the false assumption that colonialism is a “relic of the past.”[13] This is far from the truth. Colonialism and imperialism are ongoing—in fact, they are the very pillars of the Western capitalist system in which the fashion industry currently operates. The fashion industry is predicated on a supply chain that forces the countries of the Global South—especially nations such as India and Bangladesh—into a position that renders them almost powerless in the face of violent exploitation. The West is able to fuel its insatiable fashion industry only because it extracts resources from these nations that have been and continue to be destabilized by colonial violence.

What does this have to do with cultural appropriation and its role in Orientalism? I propose the following: cultural appropriation forms an ideological counterpart that assists in legitimizing the imperialist project underlying fashion. It does this as it is a constituent part of the wider discourse—that is, Orientalism—that works to construct the Global South as a primitive, “backwards” land, which ultimately creates the narrative that ideologically legitimizes the exploitation of the Global South by the West—economically, socially and politically. That is to say, there is not only an economic imperialism, that exploits the bodies of the Global South, but also a cultural and ideological exploitation, that not only non-consensually extracts elements of culture but also disfigures them and presents them to the West as being truths about the countries and peoples of Global South. And, most importantly, the latter serves to legitimize the former.  That leaves us with a Western empire that not only exploits the bodies of the people of the Global South, but also alleges that such exploitation is justified due to narratives of primitiveness and inferiority; narratives that are not a reflection of the truth, but rather a creation of the West itself.

Concluding Thoughts

A look through the Gaultier glass has exposed much about the nature of cultural appropriation. Rather than a mere window, it has become somewhat of a kaleidoscope that reveals not one, but several distinct, and yet overlapping, issues that fold into one another—all reflecting the dark story of colonialism that is far from being in the past. But this is not just about one brand or a single story; it is a dark, twisted web constructed over decades by thousands of individual hands. Cultural appropriation is a phenomena that goes beyond just Gaultier. It permeates the industry—from the ancient archives of the industry’s most famous houses, to examples as recent as the Comme des Garçons Menswear show in January 2020.[14] And, most importantly, it does not exist in a vacuum; it forms part of the harrowing discourse of Orientalism. Viewing cultural appropriation as a mere constitutive element of this Orientalism that ideologically legitimizes all aspects of Western imperialism, including fashion’s global supply chain, forces us to reckon with a disarming reality: that, to this day, there is a complete lack of self-determination afforded to countries of the Global South in an allegedly “post-colonial” world—ideologically, economically and beyond.

References

[1] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-glass and What Alice Found There (Chicago: Macmillan, 1871).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Virginia Gorlinski, “Jean Paul Gaultier,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-Paul-Gaultier.

[4] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michel Foucault, and Colin Gordon, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), vii-viii.

[7] Adrian Johnston,  “Jacques Lacan,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, July 10, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/

[8] Said, Orientalism. 

[9] Mark Holgate, “Jean Paul Gaultier Fall 2017 Couture,” Vogue Runway, Condé Nast, July 6, 2017, https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/fall-2017-couture/jean-paul-gaultier.

[10] Koshalpreet Kaur and Anjali Agrawal, “Indian Saree: A paradigm of global fashion influence,” International Journal of Home Science 5, no. 2 (2019): 299.

[11] Mansi Sathyanarayan and Mitraja Bais, “Indian Marital Jewellery and Symbolism: Contextual Manifestations,” SAARC Culture [6] 2018: 49.

[12] Rosemary J. Coombe, “The Properties of Culture and the Politics of Possessing Identity: Native Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 6, no. 2 (July 1993): 249.

[13] Ayesha Barenblat and Aditi Mayer, “Brands Are Today’s Colonial Masters,” Remake, May 27, 2020, https://remake.world/stories/news/colonialism-in-fashion-brands-are-todays-colonial-masters/ 

[14] Sarah Mower, “Comme des Garçons Homme Plus Fall 2020 Menswear,” Vogue Runway, Condé Nast, January 18, 2020, https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/fall-2020-menswear/comme-des-garcons-homme-plus.