This piece was originally published on i-D.co.
When I first saw the video for Coldplay's Hymn for the Weekend, it was hard to choose what to be offended by first. The blatant tokenisation of Indian culture to use as the backdrop for Chris Martin's grandiose lyrics? Maybe the "noble savage" motif of the Brahmin priests, their orange shawls flowing in the mystical breeze behind them? Perhaps it was the irritating trope of slum children running out cheerfully throwing colourful powder at each other as if everyday was holi.
All of these things are repugnant, and demonstrative of a white gaze that carelessly glosses over the complexity of Indian culture in its hurry to construct a magical, mystical place that doesn't exist. But the thing that irked me most was Beyoncé's place at the centre of it—waving her hennaed hands in an imitation of classical Indian dancing, wearing a traditional outfit.
The internet loves to talk about cultural appropriation, specifically the impact of white cultures appropriating aspects of marginalised ones as symbols of "cool". Before Coldplay and Beyoncé fetishised another community for a primarily white market, Katy Perry had made a habit of it: picking and mixing from geisha history, the African American community and ancient Egyptian culture across various videos and performances. Prior to the term cultural appropriation even being popularised, Gwen Stefani was parading around wearing a bindi and making us cringe with her team of Japanese plus ones.
Even more so than music, fashion is perhaps the most fertile battleground for these debates. We've seen designers from Valentino to Watanabe criticised for tokenisation. The familiar response from designer is to explain they were simply drawing inspiration, then comes the critical response: their collections fail to meaningfully engage with this cultures which inspired them.
Here lies the problem with taking influence from a culture that isn't your own: how do we balance the harms of cultural appropriation against harmless intentions?
One could argue that Beyoncé donning a sari and waving her hands in front of her face for about 60 seconds didn't cause any actual harm. Some commentators even theorise that being African American Beyoncé can't be guilty of cultural appropriation because of the specific politics of anti-black racism, and colonialism. But Beyoncé's failing, at heart, was neglecting to do more than window-shop a Indian culture.
Katy Perry's performance at the 2013 American Music Awards is a case study on how not to engage with a culture that's not your own.
Watching that video as a young Indian woman, Beyoncé's own background and experiences with race didn't stop me feeling angry and uncomfortable seeing her in a sari. In fact, seeing any non-Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes, and benefiting from the use of our cultural garb, juxtaposes uncomfortably with the experience I've had.
Growing up I was regularly teased and bullied for wearing traditional Indian clothing. To see Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani or any number of random white women on the street wearing those same outfits or accessories as novelty is a slap in the face. You see; they can choose to take off the costume, and return to their daily lives when they want. I am unable to not inhabit my skin and the inherent Indianness of my appearance. But none of these artists want to engage with that part of my culture, that's not a cute outfit option.
By now, most of us have come to understand how appropriation is alienating to the people it references. It takes artefacts from marginalised groups and benefits from them—mimicking the original patterns of colonisation and then laughing it off as flattery.
Appreciation is a trickier concept, but one I believe does exist on the scale of engaging with other communities. The only way to really define whether cultural appropriation is harmful is to look at the intent of the artist. Coldplay's video seemed to have little intent other than to use India as a backdrop for their overwrought lyrics - and the fact that they're a British band, imposing their top-down vision of India is a bit more than problematic.
Let's look at another, contrasting example: Valentino's African inspired Spring 2016 collection and following campaign. When designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli were criticised for their use of bone necklaces, beading, feathers and cornrows they were able to clearly detail their intention. They were attempting to engage with something beyond aesthetics: they were trying to explore cross-cultural influences in a time of increased migration, primarily from African countries.
While the final product remains problematic as the show cast predominantly white models. They also repeated the unfortunate phrase "wild Africa," homogenising the multitudes of cultures within the continent into one look. But their intent was to make a broader point, perhaps saving the collection being condemned entirely.
After all, when done well, the West's taste for other cultures has its advantages. India actively promoted yoga to westerners in the 60s, sending practitioners on tours to the UK, and turning the tradition into an enterprise that was mutually beneficial. Westerners got yoga, Indian teachers got paid.
When discerning between harmful cultural appropriation, and the oft-problematic, but well-intended cultural appreciation, we look at engagement. That is, whether the group in question are willing participants in the exchange of ideas. Hermés demonstrated how this could work in 2011 when they released a collection of saris that were designed in collaboration with Kolkata-based designer, Sunita Kumar. The brand used the partnership as a chance to learn from individuals who identify with the culture and respectfully engaging with it through artistic expression.
Regardless of where you sit on the cultural appropriation vs appreciation debate the take away lesson is to acknowledge that traditional clothing is about more than materials and outfit choices for culturally diverse people. They're part of their history, community, identity and language. It might be made of fabric, but it's so much more than fashion.