What brought this to my attention was this year’s Paris fashion week where Kim Kardashian and North West brought their style to the streets of France. It was nothing new for them to bring in a look that would create stirs in their religious followers and fashion enthusiasts but it also brought some unhappy comments from people who have carried their so-called “fashion statement” for years with respect because it is deep-rooted in their culture.
Kim Kardashian and North West In Jean Paul Gaultier
On July 6, hours after Kim walked the Balenciaga runway, she and North attended the Jean Paul Gaultier Couture Fall 2022 fashion show. What caught a lot of attention was a silver beaded, seemingly faux nose ring. West’s silver nose hoop featured two chains that streamed from her nose to her earring, while Kardashian’s nose ring connected directly to the cuffs on her neck. It is undeniable when I say that Kim’s look would gather more attention than a fashion show but what the unhappy viewers missed was that the looks were apt for what was being presented in the show they attended.
For its last three collections, Jean Paul Gaultier has handed over the reins of its Couture runway show to designers who have reinterpreted the brand under their own vision. This time, it was Olivier Rousteing’s turn and he presented a Fall 2022 Couture runway show that was filled with historical references.
Rousteing opened the show with a nod to Spring 1994’s “Les Tatouages” collection. Vogue described that collection as “A startling vision of cross-cultural harmony.” The ’94, Fall 2022 unfolded a story of cultures coming together through the power of clothing with their heavy mix of colours and prints. The show presented a mix of tribal, African, and Indian elements which included the faux piercings even then but it was appreciated, unlike today’s criticism.
In my personal opinion, Rousteing would not purposely demean a borrowed culture. The nose ring is a widely used ornament around the world. To say that it originated in India would be a bit of a misrepresentation of facts. The nose ring dates back 4,000 to 5,000 years ago when it was first recorded in the Middle East. It was brought to India in the 16th century by the Moghul emperors. The ancient Ayurveda text, written 3000 years ago, also associates piercing the nose with some health benefits for women. Therefore, to claim ownership over a widely used fashion would do good to no one.
If you think about it, I — a literature major, has nothing to do with this world but I am also a person who has loved fashion and at times lived on the lines “I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” Apart from this, what makes me one of the right people to talk about cultural appropriation is the fact that I come from a rich culture and history that many are not aware of. I belong to the Kachwaha Rajput clan which has safeguarded their culture and at the same time brought out a new wave of fashion in India. We have our own fashion in terms of clothes and jewellery and we are very proud of it, including the ‘Nath’ (nose ring) which is similar to its copy on Kim K. Our culture has seen the most prominent fashion icons like HH Maharani Indira Devi who was married to HH Maharaja Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, 21st Maharaja of Cooch Behar and their daughter, the exquisitely glamourous HH Maharani Gayatri Devi who also followed her mother’s footsteps and popularised the chiffon sarees. She grew up to become the third Maharani consort of Jaipur from 1940 to 1949, through her marriage to Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II.
“She was dressed in a turquoise-blue chiffon sari with silver sequins sparkling like stars on a moonless night. She looked around with her large almond eyes. Everyone stood up. As Hillaire Belloc [Anglo-French writer and historian] once described someone, ‘her face was like the king’s command when all the swords are drawn.” — New York Times Magazine reporter about Maharani Gayatri Devi (1966)
Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch BeharHH Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur
The most magnificent part of our culture in terms of fashion is our traditional dress called ‘Poshak’ which is generally made with pure Chiffon fabric. The karigars (craftsmen) put gruelling hours into the intricate works of thread and sequins done on these poshaks. The work varies in a long-range including — Gota-Patti, Cutdana and Jaal to name a few. Anyone who takes a look at these Poshaks falls in love with them immediately.
Recently, some influencers have made efforts to bring our traditional attire into the lights of many. A couple of months back, global influencer and entrepreneur — Masoom Minawala posted a video donning a yellow Poshak during her visit to Rajasthan. It was a huge step towards bringing a very old and historically precious culture into light and familiarizing a huge mass with it.
There were some errors in her narration but I understood that she was guided over text by someone and so she mispronounced a part of the dress. In her caption, she also very politely accepted that she still needs to work on perfecting the drape but her enthusiasm made her share the look before she got the time to do it. I did not feel like calling her out. The fact that her work reflected an appreciation of the heritage was enough for me to be happy and satisfied as her long-time viewer. In an article featured in Vogue a few days back by Akshara Subramanian, which also spoke about cultural appropriation, Minawala said something very apt. She said — “The only way to determine if we’re appreciating or appropriating is to question ourselves and understand if we’re borrowing and respecting a culture or exploiting it and ripping it off for self-interest.”
I believe that any form of art is somewhere borrowed. There is plenty in the world to create something absolutely new from scratch. But to respect the original idea and acknowledge the culture behind that art when you borrow a part of it is what’s necessary for artists to understand.