The Mixed Ethics of Prints and Patterns

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A few months ago, one of Instagram's best dressed (trust me) fashion influencers lit up my world with a post simply stating, “At the moment, I thoroughly enjoy getting dressed in pattern or color combos that at first might not seem like they make sense together, but actually work well.” At that double tap of my thumb, all I could think about was the array of layered combos I wanted to throw at the world. What style guidelines used to define as “a match” has blossomed into the idea of juxtaposing textures and silhouettes. Do whatever the hell you want, but darling, make it fashion. As much as I fully believe in this statement, there are a few rules — a sort of cultural etiquette — that should be observed when it comes to wearing an outfit full of prints and patterns. A bit of thought should go into what we decide to wear on a daily basis. No, not simply what would look good, but careful, conscious thinking about what some of these prints might stand for, where they came from, and who profited off of them.

Patterns of Abuse

Acknowledging appropriation is still very new in the fashion realm. I mean, go figure that a mainly white-washed industry would be late to the idea that stealing from other cultures is actually wrong. Print borrowing, stealing, thieving –– whatever you’d like to call it — is a huge problem everywhere from the catwalk to the $10 sale rack. Oh, and the excuse that these brands are “taking inspiration”? Well, it's not actually inspiration when there is no true respect, value, or monetary compensation given to the culture that design was taken from.

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Let’s look at just a few examples. Back in 2008, American Apparel filled their racks with “tribal-inspired” prints, dubbing the line “Afrika,” a collection that was incredibly tone deaf and reeked of appropriation. In 2012, Urban Outfitters was called out and rightfully sued for a line of “Navajo style” flasks and other accessories. This sort of aesthetic is commonly stolen from the Chinle patterns of Navajo peoples’ art and culture. Not only did Urban appropriate their commonly used print styles, they rudely used the Navajo name to pawn off the cheaply made products. (It is important to note that most prints resembling a tribal design, especially in fast fashion, are almost always an abuse of culture.) Then, just last August we tuned in to the runways and witnessed Stella McCartney dress a whole batch of white models in head-to-toe looks “inspired by” Ankara prints. This print originated in Indonesia and was first appropriated by the Dutch and then traded in West African ports — this is why it is also known as Dutch wax print. Fabrics such as these are typically made into garments called kitenges worn by women in Eastern or Southern Africa, but the design has recently been used by retail companies like Topshop, as well as high-end designers like McCartney, to make bags and clothing. Mind you, McCartney was kind enough to have one, JUST ONE (for the people in the back), model of color walk in her show featuring the prints. These instances are not a form of inclusivity or inspiration. This, my friends, is fashion colonialism.

Imprinted with Integrity

As you can see, the principles behind your threads mean more than just how they look, and we have the power to give back to cultures that the fashion world has long abused. In my opinion, carefully sourcing your clothing is the most crucial step in keeping your closet morally conscious. For starters, know who designed what you’re wearing. Not only that, but try to find the origins of its inspiration by diving into the brand’s story and asking questions. I’m not here demand you not to wear what you desire, but I am asking you to engage with another culture’s creativity in a way that is both ethical and positive. Respect the people we can thank for the “inspiration" that we see on a daily basis by purchasing from artisans that represent a culture and who strive to preserve their heritage. Shop with more intent and care to honor the people that have blazed trails in the fashion industry without even knowing it.

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If you can’t find it in yourself to do the above, then there are plenty of beautiful designs out there that are suitable within any culture –– try houndstooth coats, floral printed jackets, and fruity fruits galore! Even when shopping prints secondhand, I consciously pick which ones I will introduce into my wardrobe. When thrifting, I tend to stick to what I love and, thanks to our EIC, Magdalena, I have a strong love for polka dots –– which honestly look good with close to anything you choose to pair with them!

Once you’ve found the proper print to adorn yourself, then the fun begins and you can really experiment with Reese’s comment in your own outfits. Pair away with an array of colors and fabrics galore. But, of course, there must always be a method to the madness that comes along with getting dressed. What I’m talking about is a clear, well-thought-out play of prints and patterns –– premeditated boundary-breaking, as I’d like to call it. For example, try mixing bright florals with abstract prints like this one from the brand Matter. Their collaborative efforts with artisans take traditional prints and give them a modern twist, working directly with the craftspeople belonging to that heritage and history. Or match a gingham pattern with this absolutely universal striped print created by YEVU, a line using sustainably and thoughtfully made textiles from Ghana. I’d model both combinations around the streets of Austin all year long.  

As always, sourcing our clothing matters –– in fact, now more than ever. Not just for the safety of our beloved Mother Earth, but to respect the cultures and peoples that inhabit it. With a bit of effort and respect, we have the power to revolutionize an industry that is long overdue for some change. So mix away, my friends, with a layer of color, thought, and care.

Illustrations by Elizabeth Stilwell. Cover image via YEVU.