Cultural Appropriation Is Not Okay: Why Lingerie Brands Need to be More Thoughtful About ‘Exotic’ Inspiration

When looking at lingerie, I love exploring the designer’s inspiration–but it can also be very revealing of how a designer views the world, for better or for worse. Unfortunately, one thing I’ve noticed a lot recently is the way that many collections from lingerie designers use ‘exotic’ inspiration in a way that is troubling.

Examples of Victoria’s Secret’s Racist Costumes

Victoria’s Secret is one brand that has been critiqued for their tokenizing use of Japanese and Native American culture and rightly so. The Lingerie Addict has a great article explaining exactly why this is something that you should be upset about. Victoria’s Secret has neither been subtle nor truly apologetic about the way they consistently use the dress, symbols and ideas from non-Western cultures in an exploitative and demeaning manner.

But there are many other designers who I see using ‘inspiration’ as an excuse to treat cultures other than their own as ‘exotic’, using a euro-centric or colonialist attitude in the way they approach and utilize imagery and inspiration that is supposed to come from non-Western cultures or continents.

Marlies Dekkers SS14 ‘Brasiliana’

I recently read this explanation of Marlies Dekkers’ inspiration for her Spring/Summer 2014 collection:

During my research for my fall/winter 2013 collection, The Mauritshuis, I became intrigued by world traveler Johan Maurits and his adventurous appetite to explore the unknown. In his role as a governor he often visited his beloved Brazil and was inspired by the local population, artifacts and wildlife. It became his mission to document all these unidentified exotics and share his findings with the world – a phenomenon known as Brasiliana. Through my designs I want to take you on a magical journey and let you experience these breathtaking discoveries. A fantasy I want to share; my spring/summer 2014 collection: Brasiliana. (Source)

What struck me when I read this paragraph was the way that Marlies Dekkers’ entire to approach to her inspiration seem to romanticize and exoticize her subject matter. The story of the 17th century governor Johan Maurits is so heavily tied to colonialism, focusing on ‘exploring the unknown,’ while discussing places that were known, to the local population. This kind of cultural tourism seems shallow and exploitative, reducing a land full of rich culture and heritage into a colorful collage of ‘discovery.’ The idea of discovery itself, when discussing a land already filled with a rich history and populace of its own, is deeply problematic.

Now, I think Marlies Dekkers is an extremely talented designer and she’s made some beautiful bras. But this attitude makes me not want to shop with her. One of the reasons I wanted to do my ‘Around the World in Lingerie’ posts is because there are so many cool and unexpected ideas happening all over the world and I would love to see more. An attitude in which the rest of the world is just an inspiration all-you-can-eat buffet without history or consequences is no longer acceptable.

Fred & Ginger SS13 ‘Arabian Delights’

Fred & Ginger ‘Arabian Delights’ collection is another example of a using cultural references in a way that felt superficial. The idea of using the ‘Arabian Nights’ as inspiration is not a problem in and of itself. What becomes questionable is the use of ‘Arabian Nights’ to explain a stereotypical portrayal of Arab or Persian culture (the origins of the tales are in fact Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore).

Jasmine, from Disney’s Aladdin

 

For anyone who had read and engaged with the ‘Arabian Nights’ stories, they would see that they are a diverse and multilayered group of stories from a variety of cultures– creating a lingerie collection that seems to truly draw inspiration from Jasmine in the Aladdin Disney movie makes the ‘Arabian Nights’ inspiration seem like an excuse for some parachute pants and interesting facial appliqués, rather than a true engagement with the text.

One thing I would also add is it is relevant that the lingerie world (including the designers I’ve mentioned here) is overwhelmingly white and European and uses white models in almost everything. A lack of people of color is an issue throughout the lingerie industry, which makes the exotification of other cultures even more of a problem. This can also be seen in the rapant and unapologetic use of the word ‘nude’ to describe a shade only appropriate to white consumers. This matters because it means that there is less question when brands blatantly exploit non-Western cultures– but it also means that those who might otherwise be able to expand and add to the lingerie world in exciting ways are shut out when it becomes clear that there is no effort being made to integrate or engage with diverse influences in a manner that is not condescending or colonialist. One thing I always talk about when it comes to diversity and cultural awareness is the idea of respect. Taking a culture, a place or an experience and reducing it down to a motif is not respect.

If you are an indigenous Brazilian or even simply someone who know Brazil on a more intimate level, how can you possibly take seriously the claims that Marlies Dekker’s Braziliana collection will “take you on a magical journey and let you experience these breathtaking discoveries.” The press release describes it as a ‘fantasy.’ But Brazil, either now or in colonial times, was not a fantasy. And to treat it like a not-real place is not to respect its real culture, history and people. Truthfully, I expect more from designers and companies if I’m going to continue admiring and supporting them.

35 Comments
  1. This is a brilliant post and it explains cultural appropriation in the lingerie industry to a T. Another thing I would add is that not only is it simply appropriated but it is also sexualised by it’s usage. One of the worst instances of this is when Dita Von Teese wore a sheer Saree when she went to India! It really bothers me that she sexualises a lot of cultures in her burlesque performances too.

  2. Love this post.
    I am very glad about how you talked about brazilian culture as a non-exotic one. We have some cultural points that are very unique, here, but they are not known or used in the pop culture (does that make sense? I hope so). To keep using exotic birds (and yes, they are exotic even to us!) and indigenous aspects to categorize our culture is not nice and actually kind of offensive, since the ones who do it usually make it look like the european culture is better than the others. Actually, when europeans came here on the XVIth century, they treated our culture like this, making indians and black people slaves and considering themselves as superiors. This is not nice or something to be proud of.
    Just to add a little information: brazilian cities and government don’t treat the indigenous cultures very well, it’s a big fight we have. We do have other cultural aspects from the northeast, for example, that most people outside of Brazil doesn’t know. And our big cities are not exotic at all.

    I love that you have this notion and that you try to pass it to your readers. Every culture is unique and it’s lovely to see the lingerie market using them as inspiration. But it should be done the right way!

  3. I completely agree. I’m always turned off by collections like this. It’s just not funny anymore in a day and age where we have the ability to truly learn more about other cultures, not just believe the ‘fantasy.’ Most troubling, it takes away the humanity of an entire culture, as we treat them as simply objects for our consumption, and mock what may be painful or precious to them.

    Even though I love Disney (sorry, grew up in Orlando, can’t help it), I hated their Pocahantas movie. As a Native American woman, am I really supposed to be okay with them depicting my ancestors as running around in buckskin mini-dresses?? Historical accuracy FAIL.

    I feel this way about crosses and rosaries used in jewelry or the ‘Catholic school girl’ costumes. As a Catholic, I find this highly offensive. This is our sacred symbol, and others feel comfortable co-opting it for their own uses. Blah.

  4. Wonderfully written post. Thank you so much for breaking it down so eloquently. There needs to be more accountability. I’m sharing your post with our Facebook fans.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed my post and wanted to share it! I think it’s something that really should be talked about more.

  5. I think this topic is a bit more complicated than everyone gives it credit for so let me ramble on about it. A commenter said that crosses and rosaries are their catholic sacred symbols (so bad catholic school girl costumes) but the cross is a symbol of torture before it ever was a religious symbol. The rosarie or ‘prayer beads’ are not just native to the catholic church either. We can go on to the swastika… another borrowed symbol from someone else. Now if we get down to a cultural perspective… we are asking designers to be inspired by culture but not to misrepresent culture. If Brazilian culture was presented as is you would get the same plain boring lingerie everyone wears most likely.
    I will take this a bit closer to home: I’m Canadian. For the most part we wear ill-fitting ugly cotton bras and ugly cotton panties from department stores.. if you stripped off the outer shell of most women. However: If there was a Canadian collection… inspired by the mystic of Canada… i would want a beaver fur lined bra and matching panties (and a toque too). I wouldn’t want some ugly bra and undies representing my country no matter how close to reality that is. I WANT the fantasy. Most people do. That is why when the olympic games are hosted in certain countries they spend millions of dollars recreating themselves, cleaning up, and then presenting their best. Often their best has historical value… for Canada it always seems to be the native heritage even though a HUGE percentage of the population is not native. For some reason that is seen as the ideal… the fantasy… ‘the way things use to be’.
    Back to lingerie. We ask designers to bring us something new, something beautiful.. something that induces our own fantasy without allowing it to use the fantasy of culture? All cultures have their own fantasies: both about other cultures and about themselves. I think when we say ‘stop portraying our culture wrong’ we run into the ugly truth of portraying it right. You want to really design a lingerie collection around the mistreatment of aboriginals, clear-cutting forests, pipeline spills, economic downturns, poverty, the select 10% that are rich, the rest struggling to stay out of poverty and maybe become rich… the sky-rises, the concrete cities… the insects, the garbage piles… etc? That is almost any country you name. Societies all function roughly the same… only the landscape changes and a few forms of government.
    I don’t think lingerie companies, for the most part, are trying to be offensive. They are trying to remind us of what it was like to dream. When I was a child i wanted to be a Persian princes… and that culture changed depending on what book I read. Now it can change depending on my panties. Fun 😀

    • I have a lot of thoughts about what you wrote, but basically this sums it up:

      1. There is a BIG difference between romanticizing your own culture and one that you know nothing about

      2. Canada is not a country that has been historically marginalized, stolen from and exoticized. There is something between ‘make underwear about garbage’ and ‘misrepresent a culture that has been stolen from, diminished or sexualized.’ When the number of voices talking ABOUT a culture radically overshadow the number of voices being listened to FROM that culture, there is something wrong.

      • I kind of want to copy this reply and carry it around with me, so that I’m coherent and articulate when people try to convince me I’m wrong to feel uncomfortable about cultural appropriation.

  6. So it is only okay to romanticize a culture you know something about? I’m an English major and part of that is studying world literature. Such as reading the Ramayana, the Koran, etc. I also do a decent amount of traveling. So, am I allowed to make a lingerie collection romanticizing a culture as long as I know a lot about it – even if it is the same essential lingerie designs as someone who knows nothing about it? Or are lingerie designers only allowed to romanticize their own culture because they can’t possible know enough about other cultures? To me it sounds like the latter: that only an Indian can make a collection that truly reflects India because anyone else who attempts to is misrepresenting a culture. BUT: what if the designer misrepresents their own culture? What happens then?

    I understand the ‘defend the underdog’ reaction (and why people are instantaneously going to hate me)… it runs heavily through the humanities to the point I have a white male teacher constantly putting down white males as ‘white supremest patriarchal.. etc etc’. However, I disagree that making a lingerie collection inspired by the fantasy of a culture is necessarily stealing, diminishing, or sexualizing. It is only sexualizing if you can’t separate sex from lingerie. It doesn’t need to steal or diminish a culture… it can rather celebrate an origin story, a fantasy, a portion (need not be all) of reality, or the past. It can capture an ideal, an alternate reality, a dream.

    My father is part aboriginal btw… so I actually do know a fair bit about a historically marginalized people. I have also studied Thomas King (did some Massey lectures) who speaks extensively about aboriginal issues of identity and about cultural misappropriation and colonization. Remember: Canada was a colony as well. Part of King’s struggle and the struggle of many aboriginals is identity: who are we.

    I do not believe telling lingerie designers they cannot do collections inspired by other cultures is the answer. Should a lingerie designer spend a great deal of time learning about the culture before designing a collection after it? Maybe. But then comes into question: how much knowledge is enough? who is allowed to do collections from what cultures? how do we tell if a culture is being misrepresented? And is it an offense to misrepresent another culture but not your own?

    Now, my little disclaimer I always tack onto the end because when I get into discussions like these as people tend to hate me unless they know this: I am a rhetoric major… I love to argue and discuss theory. It brings me great pleasure. I hope I have not made anyone mad by my views… I often play devils advocate and I often throw ideas out there just to explore the other side or to explore the holes in the argument. AKA: don’t hate me.

    • I think there is a big difference between saying ‘never do anything about another culture’ and saying ‘be careful.’ I certainly would never issue an overall ban unless there was something that was NEVER okay (e.g. Native American ceremonial headresses, blackface, etc.). Every design or inspiration comes from a variety of places and I would never say that you can learn nothing from cultures or people different from your own (far from it!). What I’m pointing out here are designers who have done it wrong, who have been exploitative and who have made something that in no way seems either thoughtful or fair.

      Btw, I’m not saying you have no understanding of marginalized peoples– simply that comparing Brazil or ‘Arabia’ to Canada is unfair and assumes a an equal balance of cultural power that does not exist.

      Finding inspiration in something that is unfamiliar or different is not in itself a bad thing– but using lazy stereotypes and othering by way of focusing on the ‘exotic’ is.

      • I respect your view :-)

        Your mention of blackface totally reminded me of the new Lone Ranger movie coming out thanks to Disney. To me that is a little bomb waiting to explode! I learned not too long ago that the gentleman who played the original Lone Ranger was actually native (one of those ‘who knew’? things) but the way they represented Tonto marginalizes the native people. I wonder how many fires they will have to put out over this one…

    • I love your comment and agree with all of it. I think the issue of cultural appropriation is often misused and misunderstood. I find it to be characteristic of what could be called “the regressive left”, which includes people like your unfortunate professor. There’s an element of self-loathing, which I’m largely against.

      Have you seen this post, recently?:

      http://www.thelingerieaddict.com/2016/06/dear-marlies-dekkers-east-asian-stereotypes-not-feminist.html

      I find it sad to see all the angry commenters, so eager to participate in the witch-hunt of what is basically a celebration of traditional cultural markers – as you say, a fantasy.

  7. I think you did a great job in pointing out how designers attempt to be original and instead come up with something that is a caricature at best and can also be offensive to many. At least this is my interpretation and I hope avi2kat will also agree with that (and it’s really ok if you don’t, but let’s keep it at that).

    And speaking of cultural misconceptions… something you mentioned here in the past, but I just witnessed it myself and was quite annoyed by it: Last week I was working in the main campus of one of the world’s largest software companies, located right here near Seattle, WA where I live. I can’t say the name of that company due to a non-disclosure agreement so I’ll just say, “Nine letters, first one is M, last one is T, and O in the middle”.
    The company, which shall remain unmentioned, offers its employees and guests a free wireless network as long as they follow very basic, commonly accepted guidelines. No problem. But when I attempted to follow a link in an email I was denied from visiting that specific site since the words “lingerie” and “lesbian” next to each other can only mean “pornography”.

    • I know exactly what you mean! Honestly, simply the word ‘lesbian’ is banned so often it makes me want to cry…

  8. Throughout history people have been mixing and blending, changing their own cultures by adopting from neighbouring countries. Sometimes that exchange has been through peaceful trade, and many times it has been aggressive and colonial. So I do not see something inherently wrong with replicating a colour combination or stylistic element you admire, any more than using the tomato or potato in the national dish of a European country, or employing the Latin alphabet in a Germanic language.

    One doesn’t need to completely understand a culture in order to borrow from it, because the result is a fusion, not a true replication of the original idea. The problem, in my opinion, comes when you start to romanticise the culture you are borrowing from, when you pretend to represent it accurately, or when display a sense of cultural superiority. When I look at the ‘Arabian Nights’ outfit I cringe, not only because it is hideous but because of the way they’ve decorated the model in order to evoke the image of where they’re taking the idea from.

    It’s hard for me to express where the line is, but I think there clearly is borrowing that is done in the right spirit and that which is exploitive. I think my own cultural borrowing stays on the right side of that line by my assessment, but is it so simple? Specifically, I appreciate Indian cuisine and am always trying to improve my skills when I get the opportunity. But in addition to creating more authentic dishes (as taught to me by Indians) I also borrow some flavours from Indian food and put them in western-style dishes. I don’t think it’s wrong. I don’t think it would be wrong if I published my recipes, either. However, if I photographed them with a background of Indian fabrics, I’d start to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

    I wonder if there’s a clearer way to distinguish between different types of inspiration, because “I know it when I see it” is very subjective.

    • I think your comment is very valid. There is so much to gain from appreciating and connecting with cultures outside whatever you are most used to. What makes a big difference to me is whether when you are doing it you are simplifying and stereotyping, which is what I see here. Or, in the case of Marlies Dekkers, focusing on her subject as ‘exotic’ which is usually a fancy way of saying ‘strange, far away and totally unlike my own.’

  9. Brilliant post. This is an important subject, often overlooked, that deserves scrutiny. While it’s easy to make arguments from several perspectives, the core for me is respect — respect for other cultures. Stealing other people’s history and fashion is colonialist and wrong. Thanks for pointing a light on this.

  10. Being trained as a fashion designer myself I can tell you that these designers who created these look probably didn’t think about these issues at all! Well, I can say this only for myself and for the fashion school I attended: in class we never even talked about taking inspiration from foreign cultures. We just took inspiration from what we liked without thinking about it or being conscious about the fact that there was something to think about. We were always taught to create something interesting and new, regardless where the inspiration comes from. Designers just think about what looks fashionable, they don’t have second thoughts (most of them I guess). At school I would have really appreciated a subject about gender studies, body images and so forth.
    It’s not that I want to take these designers in protection but they probably didn’t have a clue about this issue.

    • I think that is SUCH an excellent point. That’s a big problem with the way that fashion & design degrees are taught and it leaves its graduates ill-equipped to deal with these issues that do affect them. I certainly don’t think these designers mean to be hurtful at all! But the only way to make things better is to point out where they are failing.

  11. As someone living in Brazil (who is married to a Brazilian), I’m always baffled by the romanticism with Brazil. Granted, even on my first trip here I saw very poor neighborhoods due to where my relatives live but even if you stay in only the rich tourist areas it’s hard to miss the poverty, corruption, poor infrastructure etc. Yes, there’s A LOT of natural beauty here but this country is so much more. We’re going through some major social unrest and seeing someone inspired by the “beauty” of Brazil really trivializes the country as a whole. I really wish people would stop seeing Brazil as exotic and just accept it as a major country (hello, 6th largest GDP!).

    As for the white models displaying the various themes, well, even Brazil is horrible about using a diverse range of models. I did a post once on it and I was only able to find one lingerie brand that had a single non-white model: http://www.bralessinbrasil.com/2012/10/why-you-should-care-about-brazils-top.html !! Don’t even get me started how many people act disappointed that my daughter’s don’t take after me when it comes to their eye color (I have blue eyes and DH has brown eyes) …

    Long story short, great post and I couldn’t agree more.

    • Thanks for the post as well as the link. I think this “exoticifation” thing is a worldwide phenomenon where people in one region tend to idolize, often sexualize, a certain type of person- mostly female, but not always- they don’t see very often in their own country.
      And just to illustrate this I wanted to say that as someone who grew up in the Middle East although not of a Muslim/Arab origin, I still think the “Arabian Delights” set shown in this blog is laughable at best.
      And now, speaking of cultural mayhem…
      First, for those of us who were born BEFORE 1975, maybe even 1985, I had to check out what DH actually means, even though I suspected.
      And not only that…It’s about 11:45 pm here on the 4th of July, in my adoptive, very accommodating hometown in the Pacific Northwest in the USA. And for those of you who don’t know, today we celebrate our independence. So right now people in my most-diveresed- zip-code in the USA (possibly in the world) are extremely busy lighting all those Chinese-made explosives they got in a “native” shop outside of city limits…

      Lets celebrate!!!

  12. I’m kind of umming and ahhing about this one. Interesting and I’m glad you wrote it but I think people can go a bit mad on the ‘cultural appropriation’ vibe. It often feels less like making a point of representing other cultures correctly and more like an insinuation that blurring lines between and embracing “other” cultures is a bad thing to me. And I don’t really view it that way.
    Interesting points relating to colonialism. But again, there’s nothing wrong with ‘discovering’ other cultures if that discovery is personal.
    For me, the main thing is to help yourself and others be educated in cultural difference (and particularly work on making that education available to people who are clearly getting it wrong) rather than pointing at the ignorance of others and giving it a title.

    • Chloe makes some good points that make me a little more relaxed about the issue. I certainly see the point being made about the term “exotic” and its Eurocentric origins, most of the lingerie pieces pictured here look fun and I don’t really see much offense in them, especially the Brasiliana. It is a beautiful piece of lingerie, and I don’t see anything that I would find stereotypical of Brazil there, it seems to me that it is just a clever marketing tag. I can see however that the “arabesque” piece might be a little offensive to some, expecially since the culture is much more sensitive to sexuality and the female body. Thanks for starting the conversation though, as I had never even thought that this might be an issue for some, and it might make more of us conscious about the feelings of other individuals.

  13. I facepalmed at the Fred and Ginger set. I think the pants are a cool garter belt concept and have nothing against the parachute idea, but…I wonder what my Turkish relatives would think about it. They mostly wear Marks and Spencer.

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