Many thanks for the invitation to join you all in blogging at Concurring Opinions! During my visit I’m looking forward to writing about things that are not necessarily part of my law-and-fashion beat over at Counterfeit Chic, but to start off I can’t resist sharing an image from Paris Fashion Week that touches upon – or, rather, walks all over – both fashion and cultural property.
Take a close look at this sandal from John Galliano’s runway show for Christian Dior. The carved statuette that forms the heel is reportedly a Masai fertility symbol.
Even setting aside the awkward juxtaposition of a curvy, pregnant woman with teenage fashion models so thin that they may not even be capable of conceiving (a legal issue for another day), the colonialist image is a disturbing one. Galliano, like many other Western designers, is known to “ransack the world’s closets for inspiration,” as I put it in my first book. Many of the resulting cultural hybrids (to use Naomi Mezey’s term) are extraordinarily beautiful expressions of human creativity that few would wish out of existence, even if greater norms of attribution to source communities should be developed and encouraged. Some uses of others’ cultural products, however, are simply inappropriate. Placing an African religious symbol literally under the heels of predominantly white women on a European runway is one such offensive use. Selling those same shoes to wealthy women around the globe is another.
I’m reminded of an Australian case that I’ve written about and taught, along with Christine Haight Farley and a number of other scholars. Milpurrurru v. Indofurn Pty. Ltd., (1994) F.C.R. 240, involved a rug merchant who appropriated a series of sacred Aboriginal images for his carpets. It happened that in this case the theft was so literal that copyright law provided a remedy. But what about damages for the desecration of the sacred images that had been trodden underfoot? Or the fact that, lengthy as copyright terms are, religious beliefs are likely to outlast them? Or the potential appropriation of religious images that are not the work of a specific living artist but are instead iconic forms, repeated and passed down over time?
To be fair, maybe the admittedly brilliant Galliano or the august fashion house for which he designs consulted authorized Masai representatives and female elders, who freely and without the pressure of economic or other coercion licensed the use of the fertility figure. It could even be their gift to the reproductively challenged pale populations to their north. But I doubt it.
Perhaps the most peaceful resolution of an issue like this one is a demand for mutual inquiry and respect, rather than protective legislation. Moreover, bearing in mind the violent response to Danish editorial cartoons of Mohammed several years ago and the resulting tension between religious demands and freedom of speech, any such legislation would require extraordinarily careful drafting. But if the cultural “owners” of this fertility symbol object to its commercialization, there should be some forum for their concern.