In a climate where the internet exists, there is no excuse for cultural blindness, says Shelina Janmohamed
Zara’s lungi fashion skirt is the latest example of uncomfortable cultural appropriation
The traditional lungi, it turns out, is going high street. This longstanding clothing staple for men all over the world – but particularly in south Asia – has had the western design stamp from Zara. The fashion retailer is selling a women’s skirt, which features the lungi’s usual folds at the front and the traditional checked pattern. The price? A mere $100 for something you can pick up for spare change in streets and markets around the world and in much more interesting and colourful patterns.
Yes, we’re in that place again where western fashion brands bestow their approval on cultural totems and then overcharge for them.
Another case is the large shopping bags that are used in these regions, the ones that people travelling to the subcontinent and Africa often use on aeroplanes. They are usually white with blue and red checked patterns on them, best known for filling up airport floor space and blocking the aisles on aeroplanes. Marc Jacobs stuck a Louis Vuitton logo on one and sent it down the catwalk with a whopping price tag of $595.
When the Zara lungi story went viral, there was a lot of chuckling. One headline talked about Zara “selling your dad’s lungi”, which is probably a sentence that no one ever imagined being uttered.
Even if we’re looking to be generous, there’s no viable excuse for such ignorance, because there’s a basic internet search, for starters. I sometimes wonder whether to laugh or cry at the blindness towards other cultures. US actor, writer and comedian Mindy Kaling was described as sporting a “unique” look by one American fashion website with them “officially obsessed” with her outfit which they “simply cannot get enough of”. It consisted of a black and red “double-slit dress”. Yes folks, she was wearing a kurta, that unique item of clothing worn by hundreds of millions of people right around the world.
While these might trigger an overuse of the eye-roll emoji, they raise some serious issues. Are people that ignorant of other cultures and histories and so entitled about their own that they think they can repackage them without anyone noticing? This might remind you of the company that claimed it invented the original toothbrush, when in fact the miswak, the twig used to clean teeth, has been around for several millennia.
This is not ignorance. This is disrespect, entitlement and cultural appropriation. It’s the fact that cultural symbols are usurped and exoticised but the people who created them are not given credit. Or worse, the people who created these items are mocked when they wear them. Men who wear lungis are too often dismissed as country bumpkins. I remember when I had henna patterns on my hands as a child, they were described as “dirty”. But when non-Asian people had it done, it was described as pretty and unusual.
It's as though things only have value if a western voice gives it status as something worth having. And that people from countries that Donald Trump uses derogatory terms to describe can't possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute to a global conversation about cultures.
Award-winning author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie was recently asked by a French journalist during an interview: “Do people read your books in Nigeria?” and added, for a real kicker: “Do they have libraries and bookshops?" To which Adichie succinctly replied: "Your question says more about France than Nigeria."
Adichie says that she was later told the interviewer was feigning ignorance but Adichie's response is no surprise given how common such questions are and the questions were delivered with no hint of irony.
When it comes to the creation of culture and fashion, it is often seen as only gaining value when it is crafted in the West. We need to push back on that and stand firm on the value of other cultures and our pride in them. They don’t need to be validated with a brand logo or a western voice.
What we also need to do is to stop overlooking and start recognising the people who are really creating these cultures. It is most likely that the lungi skirt and the Louis Vuitton bags were made in one of those same countries where the products first came into existence. Those workers probably also think that the people designing them and buying them have more money than sense of the realities of the world. And they could well be right.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World