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India: fashion & cultural heritage

Appreciation or appropriation?
di Radha Khera
Tempo di lettura 7 min lettura
6 dicembre 2022 Aggiornato alle 22:00

What is cultural appropriation?

Mark Twain once said «India is the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined». While India may be considered a developing nation, its strong and attractive cultural heritage has offered significant inspiration to the rest of the world.

In addition to bringing the world knowledge of Ayurveda, Yoga, Spirituality, music and food, Indian fabrics and attire too have left a mark (and continue to do so) in the ever evolving world of global fashion. As the second largest exporter of textiles in the world, India’s diverse cultures and religions - “Every 100 km, different food, different people, different culture” – bring forth varied traditions and styles of dressing. Diverse techniques, weaves, embroideries and prints abound!

In the current era of globalization, international fashion houses have witnessed the potential of indian craftsmen and while some have appreciated the inspiration by dedicating their designs to India, several instances of cultural appropriation (including by designers from within the country) have brought to the forefront challenges in the current legal regime to protect indigenous heritage and traditions.

In what is understood to refer to “use of elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that does not respect their original meaning or give credit to their source”, cultural appropriation in the fashion industry has been gaining attention.

Unauthorized use of another culture’s traditional knowledge, art and expressions, cultural appropriation is also seen to include another culture’s dress, folklore, religious symbols etc. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), understands “heritage” as “cultural legacy which we receive from the past, which we live in the present and which we will pass on to future generations”. It identifies that cultural heritage also comprises social manners, knowledge and techniques linked to traditional crafts amongst others.

The World Intellectual Property Organization’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (WIPO’s IGC) also acknowledges that cultural heritage may encompass additional things like literature, drama, music and art. However, since heritage belongs to people as opposed to an individual or a group of individuals, the concept of ownership under intellectual property rights clashes with collective ownership when claims of cultural appropriation are made.

When inspiration meets IP

Having said that, whether it be “Indy Turban” being pulled up for appropriation of the sacred religious article of faith of the Sikh community, or “Chandelier hair clip” resembling what is called a “Maang Tikka” in India, a traditional jewelry item worn on the forehead, several brands from across the globe have lifted culturally inspired designs and styles only to be confronted with moral policing at the hands of public.

At the same time, with diversity being the driving force in times of today, thriving in each other’s culture and respecting it are more necessary than ever. Thus, there is a very thin line demanding brands extend their due diligence to ensure appreciation of a culture does not extend to exploitation or appropriation.

Apart from international designers taking inspiration from India, there have been many instances within the country where designers have resorted to culturally inspired creations without due credits or acknowledgement of the heritage of India. Technologically advanced techniques such as digital printing have only highlighted the existing lacunae in legal protection, such as instances where protected Geographical Indications could not be enforced merely because the replicas were digital and the particular GI was protected due to its hand made attribute/quality. Further, even slight changes on motifs/designs can protect a subsequent design or motif from the scare of copyright infringement.

In the present times of digitization, with digital printing promising to be a boon as technology develops, lack of robust protection brings to the forefront lacunae in the existing protection and rights of the rightful creators or continuators of cultural heritage. Instances of commercial exploitation or inspiration from Indian artisans and craftsmen alike, make one wonder whether protection given to expression of “ideas” is sacrosanct specially when it comes to protecting traditional art, history and culture.

As public resources available to anyone, with no special laws in place prohibiting exploitation of folklore of distinct cultural communities without prior permission, the flexible Model Provisions for National Laws on the protection of Expression of Folklore against Illicit Exploitation and Other Prejudical Actions, 1982 adopted by UNESCO and WIPO providing for protection of cultural heritage without “prejudice to related legitimate interests” may be of interest to India.

Governmental Initiatives

In the meanwhile, some aspects of cultural heritage/crafts and prints may be protected under the current Intellectual Property framework in India. The Geographical Indications Act, 1999 allows protection of goods originating from a geographic region.

In 2006, the Standing Committee on Labour of the Lower House of the Parliament, Lok Sabha, initiated nation-wide registration of crafts under the GI Act in collaboration with National Institute of Fashion Technology and Development Commissioner for Handicrafts. However, since GI protection accrues to a community rather than an individual, this legislation is usually resorted to for community centric cultural creations.

Further, In 2016, Pahchan, an initiative of the Ministry of Textiles, was launched and as of August 2021, a total of 2,7 million artisans were registered under the initiative. With a view to standardize the diverse handicrafts industry in India which has an estimated 7 million artisans practicing 32 broad crafts across the country, endangered crafts have been identified and several crafts registered under the Geographical Indication Act.

To encourage craftsmen/create and raise awareness, commemorative postage-stamps on certain crafts including the famous Kutch Embroidery were released in December 2018. A digital marketing portal allowing artisans registered under the Pahchan initiative to directly market their handicrafts has also been launched.

Another legislation that promises protection is the Trade Marks Act, 1999 wherein protection may be sought of a “Collective mark”. For instance, the Tamil Nadu Handloom Silk and Tamil Nadu Handloom Cotton (Tamil Nadu is a state in the south of India) have registered collective marks representing the silk and cotton handloom of the state. Artisan Clusters, defined as geographical concentration units producing handicraft/handloom products particular to a region, may apply for a collective trademark subject to fulfilling the requisite criteria for registration of a trademark either as a design or figurative element. In addition to assisting in the supply chain and marketing, collective marks provide important information about the product in question.

Getting it right

Regardless of the legislative vacuum and general lack of awareness surrounding cultural appropriation, there are some brands which are getting it right. A prominent example is leading indian lifestyle brand Good Earth. Their products proudly showcase India’s rich trove of culture and design legacy and highlight the cultural inspiration upon which they are based.

For instance, Good Earth presented the Blooming Poppies collection as part of The Heirloom Project which marked the 10th anniversary of the Islamic Wing’s reopening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (The Heirloom Project sought to foster relationships between global artisans who abide by Islamic historic techniques and design philosophies through a special curation of products).

The blooming poppy is an iconic butah (pattern) from Mughal India and Good Earth’s dinnerware and home textiles for the Met prominently showcased the cultural heritage link and served as a fine example of how modern lifestyle products can (correctly) bring centuries old cultural icons to the forefront. In fact, the very same motif is used by other brands too, but seldom do we see an acknowledgement or propagation of inspiration from the cultural heritage of India.


To conclude, cultural ideas due to lack of statutory backing and legal definitions, remain vulnerable to inspiration which may turn into harmful appropriation in the fashion industry. While regulations and negotiations are yet to reach a position in India where known designers may be deterred in unfair monetization of works of local artisans, it must also be remembered that the country’s fashion designers are a leading voice in showcasing India’s rich and varied heritage in artisanal fabrics and crafts to the global market.

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