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  • Isaac L. Davis

From Margiela Tabi Boots to High-End Punks: Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

In terms of iconic forms in modern high fashion, none is as famous in contemporary fashion circles as the tabi toe shape. Originally from Japan, the designer Martin Margiela would use the tabi shape in numerous manners, paying tribute to its place in Japanese traditional culture and the aesthetic value it offered. In the following decade, the tabi toe silhouette would become tied to Maison Martin Margiela and even attributed to the label. While Margiela’s usage of the tabi toe was originally a homage, it has since been twisted into being an appropriation of Japanese culture, by the consumers of his products.

In fairness to Margiela however, his work is not alone, with another example among the numerous available being the brand Enfants Riches Deprimes experiencing the same phenomena, albeit with a different audience. From the Tabi toe to a bucket hat embroidered with a drug logo, these products have been turned from appreciative works to works appropriated by consumers. With this change in meaning of a piece, one must ask the question of who controls the meaning and context of the work of art: The artist or the consumer? And when an item goes from being an appreciation of a unique culture to appropriating it, what is lost in the process?

Left Image: Traditional Japanese Geta. Right: Maison Margiela Tabi Boot.

Originally emerging from Japan in the Edo period, the tabi shape has since become a part of Japanese culture, and was used for a variety of reasons, both cultural and practical in nature. Beginning as socks reserved only for nobility and the upper classes, tabis were originally only produced in purple and gold, and to be worn by those in the upper echelons of society. Eventually, tabi socks would become more and more accessible as modern production methods and demand from the Chinese market spurred mass production. However, one thing that would be changed from the traditional tabi socks of the elite was the color of the socks themselves. The colors would not be purple nor gold, which remained reserved for nobles. Instead commoners would use navy to indicate their class and position in Japanese society.

The tabi shape was eventually applied to footwear, and would come to be used in a variety of fashions throughout the 20th century. In 1988 the tabi would be used in another manner however, with Martin Margiela premiering the shape in his first critically acclaimed runway show. With models strutting down the runway in the split toe heel boots, the shape of the tabi would become more and more popular throughout the 90’s as well as throughout the 2000’s. For most people however, their understanding of the tabi boot begins not from the Edo period of Japan, but rather from Margiela’s debut 1988 runway show.

Photo of Maison Martin Margiela's first runway show, SS1989.

Some have argued that Margiela appropriated the tabi toe from Japanese culture, while others contest that Margiela’s use of the tabi toe is cultural appreciation and is respectful. Both of these takes seem to have kernels of truth to them. Could Margiela and his label have made the attribution to Japanese culture more obvious and widely known? I’d argue the answer is a resounding yes. Yet at the same time, Margiela and the world around him during this era did not thoroughly think through the implications of adopting other cultures' traditions or ideas without clear attribution. In my opinion there is a third way to look at this discussion, in which the consumers are most at fault for the tabi boots becoming a piece of appropriated culture, by the world of western fashion.

Although Margiela is the artist and his intent is relevant to this discussion, consumers seem to bear most of the blame here. In this instance the work of the artist has essentially been associated and (falsely) attributed to him, with him and his label being hailed as the originator of the tabi shape. As discussed earlier, the assumption that he is the originator is simply not true, and regardless of his intent, has caused the shape of the tabi as used by Margiela to become a piece of appropriated art.

Left: Japanese construction workers wearing Tobi Pants and Jika Tabi Boots.

Right: Person wearing Yohji Hakama Pants and Margiela Tabi Boots.

Another example of this idea is exemplified with the brand Enfants Riches Deprimes and the way in which the brand's pieces can easily be turned from an appreciation of heroin use, addict culture, and punk rock, to an appropriation of the worst parts of those cultures and experiences. Arguably years before founder Henri Alexander Levy transformed his experiences into the label ERD, the idea of the materially well to do opioid and or heroin user first came into the American psyche with the works of William S. Burroughs as part of the beatnik movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Burroughs, best known for his book Naked Lunch, was a user of heroin, yage, and various opiates, among other drugs. However, as a Harvard-educated and financially well-off white man, Burroughs was the exact opposite of many Americans' idea of what a heroin user is. Burroughs would go on to influence generations of proto-punk, Alt-rock, and punk musicians, ranging from Patti Smith to Steely Dan, Lou Reed, Kurt Cobain, and many others. Through Burroughs, the idea of the educated and well traveled trust fund junkie came to be embedded into the American underground’s idea of what a heroin user could be. This idea when combined with punk rock, Levy’s life experiences, and a capitalism-fueled opioid/opiate/heroin epidemic would come to form the wellspring of which the inspiration of many ERD pieces comes from.

A prime example of Levy drawing from the culture surrounding opioid and heroin use would be the recently released Narcan logo flip bucket hat. Narcan has been used since it's general release onto the market as a life saving drug capable of reversing opioid and opiate overdoses, and save the person who was overdosing from certain death. Now, let's say consumers don't really sit down and think about the Narcan logo bucket hat they're wearing, and merely see it as yet another object to flex for its cost and exclusivity. In this way a piece that comes from a deep well of ideas and culture is turned into a husk of former itself, having been appropriated by its consumer. It has been thoroughly robbed of its value, history and context, and in the process reduced to a lower form, unable to be appreciated by its consumer(s). Without the context of the designer’s experiences, heroin culture in the USA, and understanding of the opioid crisis, the hat is just an edgy embroidered hat, when it could be so much more.

While the tabi toe and the bucket hat embroidered with a Narcan logo flip don't have a lot in common, what they do share is the fact that they've been bastardized not by the designer, but by the audience. Let us be clear, it is not Margiela nor Levy who have appropriated the items completely (although one could make an argument that they have in part), but it is their consumer base who has done so. This of course begs the age old question of who defines the meaning behind a piece of art, the creator, or the consumer of said works? Much like the meaning of Margiela’s tabis, or the ideas embedded within ERD pieces, it is left to the consumer of these works of art to appreciate and do the legwork to understand the ideas behind these works. Along with this it is ultimately more important to recognize the effects that this appropriation by the consumers of these products has done to the products themselves.

This problem of art being appropriated by its consumers is nothing new, nor will it likely go away overnight. Given the fact that the audience of their works have generally proven themselves as unaware that they are changing the meaning of the item in a negative manner, it does fall back onto the designer to further educate the audience about the works they produce. Thankfully there are a multitude of ways for designers to mitigate the audience's accidental ignorance. From including more detailed explanations of the incorporation of pieces and the value they hold in the cultures they come from, to even including simple pamphlets explaining an item's traditional use among the culture it comes out of, there are a variety of ways designers can further their consumers' education. This is especially pertinent when they draw upon cultures that consumers may not be acquainted with yet. Ultimately though it is still on the consumer to work with the designer in finding and discovering the meaning of items, so that they may be fully appreciated.

A good analogy would go along the lines of art in a museum. If one entered an art museum and walked to the nearest exhibit only to find that all the placards giving the history and context of the artist's work were missing, you would be rightfully confused, robbed of the full experience of the art, and only able to appreciate the artwork at a surface level of understanding. This is no different for works of art made for the runway and then made available for consumption. By removing any piece from its context and long history, the consumer of the item reduces it to yet another item to be consumed without a deeper meaning, and only has a surface level understanding of the item. This robs the piece of its true value, allure, and meaning, as well in the process devaluing the item to its consumers. In this way the mindless consumer is robbing themselves in this process of appropriating, rather than appreciating works of art they own and wear.

Maison Martin Margiela Tabi Boots from SS1989 to AW2002

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