The Three Sisters

Lessons on Inspiration, Appropriation, and Design

It is an accepted notion that, as artists, there is a springboard from which we launch our creative vision. That springboard is usually known as inspiration. Most designers I know, including myself, are veritable magpies when it comes to that. We poke, prod, look under rocks, stare at the clouds, voraciously devour catalogs, books, travel; we consistently have our attention caught by the new, the shiny, the sparkly, the cutting edge, or by the old, the historical, the primitive, the imaginative. We collect bits and pieces of the world to amalgamate with those of our collaborators and create stimulating visuals representing our characters’ identities—and realities—for our audiences. At least that is the implicit idea of how artists and designers work. In a globalized economy and capitalist world everything seems to be fair game; inspiration is everywhere.

Yet in this world of instant information that is seemingly hyperaware of cultural equity, diversity, and inclusion, appropriation seems to be everywhere as well. I’ve watched various productions and designers come under fire for appropriating cultural dress influences, visuals, and material goods; I’ve also watched, perplexed, while other artistic products have been celebrated for their “interpretation” or “new take” on the same cultural inspiration. And because words are important, for the purposes of this article, I am employing the definition of “cultural” as the Cambridge Dictionary does: “of or referring to the way of life of a particular people, esp[ecially]as shown in their ordinary behavior and habits, their attitudes toward each other, and their moral and religious beliefs.”

Interestingly enough, in the continually swirling national conversations and op-ed columns discussing representation in casting choices, cultural make-up of production teams, and other production/spectacle values, significantly less attention is paid to conversations regarding why negative cultural appropriation continues to happen, literally playing out on local, regional, and national stages today. As a professional costume designer and someone who researches and speaks to cultural appropriation in costume and fashion design, I’ve observed several paradigms—appropriation, design research, character identity and representation, concept and creation, and execution—that seem to contribute to the perpetuation of its more negative and oppressive forms.

illustration of a woman

Author’s research archive from The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu. 2009.

Appropriation Paradigm

First of all, let us call a spade a spade. Cultural appropriation has occurred since humans of varying nations and cultures began interacting. And it flows both ways; the hubris in assuming that dominant Western cultures are the only appropriators is overly simplistic. Time and again cultures have been influenced by material goods, philosophies, aesthetics, and a myriad of other community values, manners, and mores from one another. For example, while researching for a production of Victoria Kahnuble’s The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2009, I was surprised to discover the rather lavish British-inspired fashions that the native Hawaii’an royal family had adopted, which had been documented in the early 1800s shortly after missionaries established their presence in the islands.

The point is: cultural appropriation happens. The sooner this can be accepted, the sooner the discussions can move on to how it can happen constructively. Presently, most hews and cries of offense focus solely on how or why it is wrong or should be avoided. This is based on the notion that appropriation is purely the copying or stealing of cultural elements for one’s own benefit, rather than constructively utilizing and approaching the concept from a place of exchange, discourse, collaboration, and true inspiration. The negative effects of appropriation come to the fore when the motivation, intended outcome, and/or benefactors of the appropriation utilize it in oppressive messaging, continuing damaging stereotypes, or individual financial gain—“othering” in a disconnected, dehumanizing, and problematic sense.

two actors shake hands onstage

Production photo by presenter. The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu. National Museum of the American Indian, May 2009. 

Design Research Paradigms

While investigating the perpetuation of cultural appropriation in design, particularly fashion, I was struck with the realization that we—at least those of us trained in Western-based design schools, theories, and institutions—are set up for pitfalls within our own work due to the very process we have learned.

To start, there’s what I call the issue of “observational” research methodology. So much information we absorb is rooted in and presented through Western traditions, where external observers were the ones who recorded the mechanical uses, traditions, and meanings of various cultural ceremonies, daily life practices, and spiritual and religious beliefs—all of which is detached from, and quite often in opposition to, personal firsthand knowledge. Just as frequently, the information was recorded with language that immediately dismisses or demeans the practices and beliefs observed purely because they are different from those held by the observer. Acknowledging this, our usual research resources such as books, articles, journal entries, field notes, artist renderings, paintings, museum collections, exhibits, and even items like material goods, become suspect in their recordation and presentation. History is in the eye and pen of the observer/researcher.

The point is: cultural appropriation happens. The sooner this can be accepted, the sooner the discussions can move on to how it can happen constructively.

And who controls the presentation? Museums, websites, and databases have traditionally relied on observational data that doesn’t originate from or wasn’t controlled by the source community, which means that by the time the data, notes, or observations are presented, they have already gone through a filter. A clear, concise description of the item, art, or object and a laundry list of what its uses are or may have been can be written and read with implicit bias. Frequently, the biases reflect that these beliefs or traditions are quaint, outmoded, or somehow lesser than the dominant (recorder/observer’s own) culture. Some observations, descriptions, and information are even written with analogies that connect to the recorder’s own culture. While this is often done to aid the viewer or reader’s understanding, these analogies tend to distort or misrepresent the resource’s truest meaning to the source community.

Searches help illuminate how presentation affects information and research. Keywords are king, even within established collection databases. Whether we like it or not, Google Images is often the easiest place to start online searches, offering researchers “popular” representations of various cultural communities. For example, using the keyword “global dress” in a search mostly returns images of Indian women in traditional sari dress. Another recent eye opener was what an image search returned for “professional hairstyles” and “unprofessional hairstyles.” For the former, it was images of a variety of women’s hairstyles worn by predominantly white or white-presenting women; for the latter, image results were largely of women of color, even though most of the hairstyles would be deemed conservative and professional. This is a small but startling example of how words and Western culture conspire to either define or perpetuate damaging cultural representation.

screenshot of google image search for "world dress ethnic"

Sreenshot of “world dress ethnic” Google keyword search. Accessed February 28, 2017.

Another segment of research and inspiration that is often taken for granted is whether our inspiration comes from a living culture or a “historical” one. There appears to be a Eurocentric idea that folk dress is something brought out periodically, worn as celebration of heritage, but then put back up on the shelf along with the pictures and artifacts of a time gone by. Kimonos, Native American ceremonial regalia, and Chinese cheongsam are often referred to as historical garments, with little or no acknowledgement that these are actually still regularly used as part of a contemporary context in these cultures.

There is also a problem related to thinking of our collected knowledge and its presentation as being fixed. As designers, we rely on a wide variety of sources of previously collected data, imagery, visuals, material objects, and descriptions. We are repeatedly taught to consider the provenance of research, as well as whether it is firsthand, secondhand, or otherwise. There is the subliminal message that as long as our research matches this criteria it is somehow gospel—set and irrefutable in its accuracy and description. Yet information, like contemporary fashion, changes daily. Even “historical” information. We learn and relearn at the speed of light.

Reflecting on all the anthropological information designers need to be aware of, I’m left with the question of who among us has been trained with an attitude of stewardship of cultural visual histories and traditions. Reframing how we research and represent characters, and viewing ourselves as active stewards of history, stories, and cultural inspiration, is a more constructive way to work through our process. Digging deeper into cultural resources not presented through a Western lens, seeking and navigating research that assists in understanding historically oppressed cultural issues such as survivance and the inherent colonial viewpoint of ethnography—these are some steps for reframing and even reinterpreting how we “see” our research and cultural inspiration.

Character Identity and Representation Paradigms

As designers, we often overlook the question of whose character representation we are designing. Stereotypes can have strong design potential and uses when applied to visual identities; but whose stereotype is it? Is it the source culture or social group, the production’s intended audience, or popular culture at large? Where in the world, literally, is the production being both set and performed?

In an attempt to address issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), many contemporary playwrights and casting directors are requesting that casting reflect “the diversity of an American city.” Yet the city they’re speaking about, what they mean by diversity, and how that is accomplished in character identity is left without an answer. What does “diverse” even mean? It boils down to visual identities—ways to wear our “diversity” on stage. However, this is quite often an oversimplified way of addressing the greater issue of representation on stage, and we wind up relying on stereotypes and ingrained accepted cultural norms.

Consider the description “androgynous.” For an American citizen, “androgynous”—as a gifted young trans designer pointed out recently—has by and large been visually defined as a body clothed in “gender-neutral” yet still overtly masculine silhouettes. “Diverse” is treated in much the same way. In broad conversations of representation and EDI, “diverse” typically means representing the socially accepted visual identities that represent the “diverse” cultural, racial, and ethnic communities in various American cities.

As designers, we often overlook the question of whose character representation we are designing.

Fashion across the country is worn differently; Washington, D.C.’s collective populations dress very differently than those in Austin, Nashville, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Mobile, Fainesville, and Seattle. Accepted visual representations—stereotypical or representative—for Christian, Muslim, white, black, Indigenous, and Asian diverge greatly across regions within the United States, just as descriptions such as conservative, trendy, eccentric, artistic, dour, and goth do. Questioning the contemporary social paradigms of visually descriptive words is never really given much time.

Another question of representation to consider is whether a community’s permission, implicit or explicit, has been sought and granted for its representation and use. Susan Scafidi, law professor at Fordham University and founder of the Fashion Law Institute, notes that anyone using or wearing cultural items and artifacts without the permission of that cultural community is appropriating. Yet there is not much discussion of this in relation to design. The luxury accessories brand Coach landed itself in trouble with their collection of Navajo-inspired handbags—designs based on traditional patterns, handed down by families, generation to generation, with only color schemes tweaked. There was little, if any, discussion of remunerating or even crediting these artist families for what in a Western context would have been viewed as the theft of intellectual property.

Originally ill-conceived costume and fashion designs continue to perpetuate oppressive stereotypes and cultural appropriation. Commercial pattern companies, cheap and easy Halloween costume company products, and ready-made “show-costumes-in-a-box” rentals all seem to include in their product catalogs misappropriated variations of non-Western garments. While some historical re-enactment garment companies and patternmakers have begun offering more accurate patterns of cultural dress, many of these are based on cultural clothing traditions during seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial occupation or later.

four models in fur coats

DSquared2 fashion line, 2015. Photos by Getty Images, via Jezebel.

Culturally inspired designs and silhouettes—whether historical, traditional, or contemporary—can also fall into the “nation-less” category, meaning a generic representation of a broadly referenced cultural group, lacking individual cultural distinction. For example, a broadly termed “African-inspired” concept versus Massai, Egyptian, or Yoruba, or a “Native American” design versus a culturally specific “Lakota Sioux” woman’s dress. Many identifiable “Native American” design motifs are actually rooted in the design motifs of Southwestern nations, with some recognizable ones from the Great Plains or Pacific Northwest nations. Yet in the United States alone there are over 550 federally recognized nations, and many more who have not sought or been granted federal recognition.

The inherent need for cultural specificity can be extrapolated to other countries and cultures, including regionalism in dress, design, and imagery. Being able to acknowledge, articulate, and dive into these distinctions is important for our design abilities to represent our characters and our inspiration in the fullest, most respectful spirit.  

Concept and Creation Paradigms

Spectacle and commodity often significantly motivate a desire to create an exciting production concept. Many designers and production teams fall into the mindset of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” I have not been immune to this rabbit hole. When given the need for an exciting, alternate reality for characters and their world, it almost feels like everything is fair game as long as it defies the conventional depiction or definition of dominant cultural reality. Perhaps it is Shakespearean fairies dressed in First Nations regalia. Or a backdrop of beautiful Japanese painted parasols, raining down with cherry blossom leaves, while a white performer, surrounded by backup singers, perform dressed in sexualized traditional Geisha/cheongsam dresses.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if…” springs from the necessity of designing an “other,” looking for aesthetics that clearly help define place and character as being other than the accepted norm. Like appropriation, “othering” isn’t inherently bad. It is exactly what designers are charged with when a production concept is looking for aesthetics, imagery, and dress practices that clearly create a world outside of the dominant culture. Inspiration for creating visual character identities and environments—ones that reflect an interconnection of spirituality, cosmology, or nature—seem to most often rely on source communities and cultures not historically dominated by Western European belief systems. Typically, inspiration is drawn from (using the commonly accepted broad strokes) Asian, African, or Native American nations, cultures, and communities.

Handled and interpreted sensitively, these inspirations can help designers develop strong, unique visual storytelling imagery. However, literal use and lack of interpretation, or without sensitive reflection early in the design process, can lead into, at the least, the thoughtless negativity that appropriation can generate. Quickly down the same path come the reinforcement of oppressive and negative stereotypes and imagery.

To begin rethinking and reworking our Western design processes, we need to look at our conventional training models: university and college programs.

screenshot of rugs

Screenshot by author. Navajo Style Guide, Nizhoni Ranch Gallery. Accessed February 28, 2017.

Designers also have a rather specific design concept process to contend with. The conventional process usually starts off with bigger questions of theme, representation, and motivation. Yet revisiting these questions, or considering new ones in light of where a design is headed—particularly in relationship to how the design choices may be affecting the story being told—seldom occurs. For example, is our design actually creating something new? Do our characters copy, distort, or amalgamate history and imagery? How may the design be viewed by a member of the community we drew inspiration from? Productions and producing companies like Cornerstone Theatre, which have intensive, almost immersive, community-based theatremaking models, have already recognized and embraced a restructuring of the more conventional production design process.

To begin rethinking and reworking our Western design processes, we need to look at our conventional training models: university and college programs. Pedagogically, these programs would benefit from and help break the cycle of oppressive design and production practices by including training in how to dialogue with community, how to analyze and synthesize inspiration and research with a more accurate and authentic understanding, and how to develop relationships with the source community that creates channels of input through all aspects of production.

Execution Paradigm

This may sound obvious, but execution—what is considered the final phase of design—can also find a few pitfalls for poor appropriation. Quite frequently, producing entities, particularly costumers and costume shops, are under resource constraints such as time, skill, and available materials, which can lead to a lack of ability to accommodate truest representation of costume. However, knowing the time and place when it is necessary for fullest representation of character is tantamount. This includes the proper traditions of dressing and wearing a garment, like learning how saris are wrapped and worn and conveying it to wardrobe and the performer(s), or knowing the impact and meaning of kimono style and obi dressing that are being used for a specific production.

With execution, appropriation can also sometimes boil down to an oversight of sensitivity in material choice. A rather infamous example is the “innovative” technique of utilizing a mop head as a base for which to build afro-centric hairstyles. It wasn’t the design that crossed the line; rather, it was the execution and its contention as being a “creative solution” to a challenge that did it.

Our Lesson from The Three Sisters

Ultimately, all of these observations bring the Three Sisters to mind—and I am not referring to the human spirits that populate Anton Chekhov’s play. I’m referring to our plant sisters of bean, corn, and squash. These three lovely plants, which are grown in clusters together in Native American agricultural practice, demonstrate a deep and strong lesson in reciprocity.

Reciprocity is traditionally defined as “mutual dependence, action, or influence.” The second definition includes the exchange of privilege. The Three Sisters can be planted alone and still grow; in fact, the neat tidy rows of many a garden and farm field reflect this. But the botanical reciprocity shared by bean, corn, and squash being planted together in clustered mounds or groupings is irrefutable. The mutual benefits in soil fertilization and nitrogen processing, physical strength and support, pest control, and even the meticulous use of rainwater by the roots that grow at various layers below the earth are clear examples of this reciprocity. (To really experience the poetic lesson of the Three Sisters, read Robin Walls Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.)

As storytellers, collaborators, and human beings, we are called to learn from this reciprocity: to see and act as stewards of our inspirational knowledge and relationships; to learn, acknowledge, and hear our fellow people’s histories, cultures, beliefs and religions; to sensitively and clearly represent our characters’ identities, stories, and their people; to be aware of our privilege as designers and creators; to check our creations for sensitivity, accuracy, and, if creating something “new,” for originality; to seek out feedback and responses for our design’s impact on our audience, characters, and inspirational source communities; and to continue that sensitivity through execution.

Together, we must have the strength, grace, and fortitude to enter perceived difficult conversations; the humility to ask questions genuinely; and the wisdom to discern and speak out when a production concept, design, or idea begins to veer towards disrupting or dishonoring our inspirational communities. This is our role as stewards and storytellers. Inspiration is everywhere, and it is up to us to use it powerfully, to use it wisely.

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I teach a course in costume design for world theater, and I'm going to completely change my approach so it is an opportunity for critical analysis and a bridge to talk with our communities.  It's also heartening to see a confirmation that what we wear not only matters, but has larger impact than we realize.  This topic is widely overlooked and long overdue.  Thank you!

That’s great, Holly. This feels like the tip of the iceberg of several conversations surrounding representation, research lenses, appropriation and production practices. There is an increasing impact of fashion and style on individuals, society, and how it seeps into production design. It’d be great to hear what you change and how effective it is. Thanks for sharing.