Stealing Style

Cultural appropriation, Louis Vuitton Basotho blankets and the Banksy of pantsy

cultural appropriation

Words: Nabeel Allie | Illustrations: Ian Skene

How do we know whether our outfit offends or not? It truly is a delicate line to walk that may fast-track your visa application to the Drag-Nation that is South African social media, or see you branded as an ‘influencer’ – whatever that is? 

Ahead of Africa's first Afropunk Festival, the touring spectacle that celebrates melanin, we feel we have an ability to do the most, so that nobody offends or attends as anything less than their most extra self. 

Having recently attended a debate sparked by Louis Vuitton’s appropriation of Basotho blankets, none in attendance was bold enough to voice our genuine, unfiltered thoughts. Comments like, "They’re selling our heritage!" and "White people taking pictures in the Cape Flats walk over our poverty!" were not forthcoming, as people erred on the side of caution. And then, as though ordained from above, a young man in the front put up his hand and asked for the mic. 

“Who invented pants?” he asked. 

He threw a real spanner in the works there. Had we been appropriating pants from a mysterious genius – the Banksy of the pantsy? Silence. Gasps. A single locust and frog appeared on the windowsill. Who did invent pants?

I don’t know who invented pants, but they’re certainly too ubiquitous to render as appropriation today. Can you imagine if Hillary Clinton couldn’t sport a pants-suit? Oh, the humanity! So we’ll have to park the Magic School Bus on that question for the time being and let sleeping pants lie. Instead, let’s jump into a Toyota Quantum and journey around our land to address the question of appropriation and power.

It’s not uncommon to hear people, adorned or slightly accessorised by clothing, hats or jewellery that belong to tribes, clans, or ethnic groups, say that their look is celebrating those very people. And because of the wondrous effects of separate development during Apartheid and the years before, the history, traditions and culture of millions of people were trivialised as a nicety – something ‘out there’. As a result, many instances of appropriation are done out of a combination of playful innocence and wilful ignorance. “We’d look so great if we wore, one of those, you know those things that those people wear...” contains a sentiment that you’ve certainly heard before – even if you haven’t heard the sentence verbatim.

We’ve all had trouble with birthday parties – had trouble celebrating one person – so you can imagine how big a task it is to celebrate a group of people. This is a group with a history and a story that means something specific to those who tell it. It has a different meaning to someone eavesdropping from the outside. Do some do it to express nationalism? To demonstrate that these colours, patterns and garments that you’re wearing are equally your colours, patterns and garments, because you’re a South African citizen? Do we do it to bring marginalised groups into public spaces, a proverbial handout for when the land’s out?

The answers to these questions inevitably lead to the notion of power: the notion that some have an ability to ‘celebrate’ while others do not – a pernicious gift of conquest. For those who have asserted standards of beauty and everyday dress to turn around, point with a loose finger and say, “I’d like that instead” is brattish at best.

To broach this conversation with people whose dress and heritage are caught in the middle of a fashion tussle is, understandably, difficult. Asking your black friend who went to a private school in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands if you can wear that top you’ve been eyeing out is an unfair burden to put on his shoulders, which already have to carry relaxed hair and a comb-over. 

The other side of the coin is that asking the most radical black feminist if they think your dress is acceptable, even though they’re vocal on appropriation, is unfair. They have no responsibility to go about approving your outfits. Just because your coloured friend said it was fine with them to do a photo-shoot in the Cape Flats for your latest look-book doesn’t make it okay with other coloured people, particularly if you’re white. 

No individual is the custodian of a culture and a history that precedes them, which means that no one person can give you the approval you’re looking for to do things you shouldn’t. How far do we go, though? Does someone get Rent-a-Brownie going as a startup so that one can have a person of colour present throughout the day, letting fellow brown people know that there’s no appropriation in your outfit because they vetted you and your intentions? That’s more the plot of Jordan Peele’s next movie than a practical idea.

Fortunately, I follow Verimark on Instagram and when the caption to their latest post asked me whether I should ‘cop or drop’, I knew that it was time to cop some Blu52 – so let’s clear the water up. 

Whether you’re celebrating or not, it’s generally a safe idea to not take a garment as your own. The way of life that we’ve constructed, and perpetuate, relegates traditional dress to the realms of once-in-a-while for those to whom it belongs, as we’re forced by society to conform to the norms of Westernised dress. As a result, sporting a look that isn’t yours embodies those previously mentioned dynamics of power, where you pick and choose for the sake of your own personal style simply because you can.

Black and coloured people have had to give enough of ourselves over the centuries. Don’t take more from us.

After throwing North Shore High’s most divisive party, even Cady Heron’s mother could snap at her daughter after finding a vase underneath the sink, “This is the fertility vase of the Ndebele tribe! Does that mean anything you?” Our history and heritage often feels like a vase in a house that you hide away when you want to and show off when it suits you.

Our history, our heritage, and our clothes mean something to us and regardless if we find out who the Banksy of the pantsy is or not, it should mean something to you, too.

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