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Who's offended by Victoria's Secret?

After their 'racist' use of Native Indian headdresses, Victoria's Secret is yet another fashion brand in the firing line for cultural insensitivity. But is appropriation always insulting?

New Statesman
Model Karlie Kloss walks the runway during the Victoria's Secret 2012 Fashion Show in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Victoria’s Secret was forced to issue a public apology after its annual catwalk featured a lingerie model gyrating down the runway in nothing more than her underwear, heels, and an oversized, pseudo-comedy Native American headdress.

Instant outrage followed this rather brazen attempt to use a sacred object to promote an underwear brand. Victoria’s Secret promptly issued a formal apology and removed the photograph from all marketing material.

The incident follows a chain of recent libel suits which saw a slew of fashion brands facing racism allegations for their appropriation of Native American imagery. Urban Outfitters faced legal action from the Navaho nation after printing their name on its products, Paul Frank were forced to issue a public apology after hosting a Native American themed party, and No Doubt very recently had to withdraw their latest music video after they faced a storm of offended criticism for its thematic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ clichés.

Why has this collective outrage exploded so suddenly? Although all the above examples are understandably offensive, they don’t detract from the fact that Native American heritage has long been part of the landscape of popular culture. From Clint Eastwood to Pocahontas, the American Indian image has been subsumed into mass culture - sometimes respectfully, other times much less so. The fashion industry, in particular, owes an unquantifiable debt to this visual culture, but few have yet to be offended by the legions of beaded moccasins in any high street shoe shop.

So, where do we draw the line? When, in other words, does cultural appropriation become cultural misappropriation?

It is, of course, demeaning for popular culture to arbitrarily borrow sacred symbols with no acknowledgement of their correct context. What’s interesting, however, is that the laws of political correctness differ between different art forms.

Consider the music industry – the entire history of popular music is, arguably, an extended exercise in cultural assimilation. Jazz, rap and hip-hop owe their entire existence to the elastic intermingling of alternate cultures. Paul Simon's seminal 'Graceland' album is widely considered one of the greatest records of all time for his open inclusion of South African musical traditions – albeit achieved collaboratively and inclusively, and still mired in racial controversy following Simon’s apparent boycott of anti-apartheid protests.

In our current musical climate, Damon Albarn remains a key example of how to do cultural assimilation credibly. He is currently creative co-director of Africa Express, a project seeking to foster collaboration between Western and African artists, with the intention of gaining a wider audience for the latter. The project has so far been extensively applauded for its inclusive approach and progressive sounds.

Of course, the extenuating factors are obvious. Whether cultural assimilation is seen as a tribute or an insult comes down to whether it is achieved in earnest artistic collaboration (as in Albarn) or flippant superficiality (as in Victoria’s Secret).

Nonetheless, a huge grey area is destined to loom over the issue. No Doubt were recently forced to pull their new music video following outrage at their use of Native American outfits. Its worth asking – had they sampled traditional American Indian music instead of clothing, would anyone have been as offended?

The truth is that nowadays, cultural assimilation has become so all-pervasive it’s almost unnoticeable. Popular culture has always consisted of mining, borrowing from and subverting the cultural heritage of the past. In fact, Frederic Jameson went so far as to see this as a defining factor of the postmodern age. For him, the past and its symbols no longer exist, "except as a repository of genres, styles, and codes ready for commodification”.

This has vast implications for political incorrectness - no symbol can truly be said to be culturally isolated any more. The eagle-feathered headdress which inspired such extensive outrage on the Victoria's Secret runway doesn't belong to the Native American repositry alone. It's origins date back to widespread early cultures, including Aztec warriors, early Gaelic clan chiefs and Slavic hussars. Now it’s been assimilated into contemporary culture and passed into the collective unconscious. Its original meaning is melded and mixed in a sea of new, secular meanings.

In other words, in a postmodern, post-ironic, globalised world, can anyone really be said to have ownership over their own heritage?