8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

The Lord Ganesha duvet cover was taken down after complaints. Here's some more examples of UO being dumb about appropriation.

8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off
8 more cultures Urban Outfitters ripped off

So Urban Outfitters has yet again had to pull a product after protests from people who are part of that culture. This time, it's Hindus. According to the Philadelphia Business Journal

Urban Outfitters has pulled its line of duvet covers that feature Hindu deity Lord Ganesha from its website after religious leaders banded together to urge its removal. The duvet covers, which were exclusively available online for $129-$169, are now labeled as "sold out" on the Philadelphia-based company's website.

The image has been removed from the UO website; a set of pillows with the same design is also gone. Weirdly, there's another Ganesha tapestry by a different designer (shown at the top of the page) that's still up, along with pictures of how one might use it as a bedspread, plus a Golden Ganesh tank top.

This seems to happen about every three months for Urban Outfitters — less than a year ago, they got in trouble for appropriating the same deity, which resulted in the hilarious headline "Urban Outfitters pulls religiously insensitive socks." 

But Hinduism isn't even close to the only religion or culture that UO's gotten in trouble for appropriating.

If you'd like a primer on when cultural appropriation in fashion is acceptable or are thinking something along the lines of "What, I'm not allowed to wear anything from a culture that's not my own? That's bullshit!" this post is a pretty good sum-up of why people might get mad upon finding one of their gods being used to sell $8 socks. 

The "Lord Ganesha duvet cover" in question.

There's the similarity aspect —

  • Is XYZ an homage, or a copy?
  • If XYZ's an homage, does it only draw from stereotypes?
  • If XYZ's close to a straight-up copy, is anyone from the culture that made the original XYZ seeing any of the profits?

There's the significance aspect —

  • Is the thing that inspired XYZ deeply meaningful in a religious or cultural way?
  • Has the culture that originated XYZ started using it as fashion in this way themselves?
  • Does selling XYZ en masse to suburban teenagers trivialize the original?

And there's the source aspect —

  • What culture is XYZ drawn from?
  • Who made or designed XYZ?
  • What's the designer's connection to the culture?
  • Is the culture being drawn on one that's historically been a lot less powerful than the culture of suburban America?

The socks alone would give you the idea that URBN kind of refuses to learn the underlying point about why people get upset with them over and over, even if they usually stop selling the specific merch in question. And it's not remotely just Hinduism that's gotten pissed about this. Let's take a look at Urban Outfitters' history of cultural appropriation, and run each example through the three-S test.

Yeah, there's plenty of other companies that do all this stuff, fashion neccessarily takes "inspiration" from all over the place, and trends originate in much higher places than Urban Outfitters. But URBN, for whatever reason, is particularly lunkheaded about it.

1. Native American prints, 2011 

REPRESENTATIVE ITEMS: "Native"-print flasks, dresses, pants, shirts, socks, leggings, underwear, everything.

SOURCE: Mish-mash of Native American cultures in general, Navajo Nation in particular.

SIMILARITY: The Navajo Nation's 2012 lawsuit against Urban Outfitters points to symbols and marks that "evoke the Navajo Indian Tribe's tribal patterns, including geometric prints and designs fashioned to mimic and resemble Navajo Indian and tribal patterns, prints and designs."

SIGNIFICANCE: "The Navajo weaving tradition developed in the American Southwest over centuries and emerged as a distinctive Navajo activity by 1650. Generations of weavers used handmade tools and local materials to clothe their families with blankets in traditional and innovative patterns. Navajo weaving was not isolated. It shared many traits ... with weaving by the Pueblo Indians who lived in neighboring villages. During the 1600s, contacts with Spaniards and Mexicans introduced sheep's wool and indigo dye. By the early 1700s, Navajos actively traded their blankets to other Indian tribes, and received praise for their tight weaving and bold patterns."

OBJECTION: The Sioux Nation's Sasha Houston Brown posted an open letter to URBN CEO Glen Senk:

All too often industries, sports teams and ignorant individuals legitimize racism under the guise of cultural "appreciation". There is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures. 


2. Keffiyehs, 2007

REPRESENTATIVE MERCH: Anti-war woven scarves

SOURCE: Palestine, Middle East in general

SIMILARITY: Knockoff. 

SIGNIFICANCE: "Also known as a shemagh or hatta, it was first made popular by Middle Eastern peasants moving into cities in the early 20th century, according to Rashid Khalidi, an Arab studies professor at Columbia University. ... The plain white one is most popular in the Gulf states, for example. The red-and-white one was associated with the Jordanian army. The black-and-white versions are most common in Palestine and were traditionally worn by rural peasants.

At various times, they have became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. In the 1930s when the British tried to ban them, elite city dwellers wore them in solidarity with peasants, often atop their fezzes. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat then adopted the headscarf in the 1960s, and it became the emblem of Palestinian nationalism. "People were wearing it already, but Arafat really made it into a symbol," said Khalidi. By the 1980s, wearing the scarf in Europe or North America implied solidarity with the Palestinian movement."

OBJECTIONS: From Arab-American forum Kabobfest: "With a great deal of discomfort and a tad bit of pissed-off-ness, I regret to (re)inform the KABOB-o-sphere that Palestine has officially become a trend ... That's right folks, for a mere $20 (or 75.0127 Saudi riyals) you, too, can jump on the socially stupid hipsterdoofus bandwagon by rocking your very own 'Anti-War Woven Scarf '! (available only at Urban Outfitters or ... er ... uh ... the Middle East)."

3. Bindis, 2013


SOURCE: South Asia, particularly India


SIGNIFICANCE: "Traditionally, the bindi is worn on the forehead of married Hindu women. It symbolizes female energy and is believed to protect women and their husbands. ... The bindi is most commonly a red dot made with vermilion. In addition, the bindi is a way of accentuating the third eye, the area between the eyebrows where attention is focused during meditation. ... 

More recently, the bindi has become primarily a decorative accessory and is worn by unmarried girls and non-Hindu women. It is also no longer restricted in color or shape, and self-adhesive bindis made from felt in various designs and colors are common. Bindi styles often vary by the area of India in which they are worn." 

URBN DESCRIPTION: "These face gems are modeled after the traditional ones that were originally worn by Gwen Stefani in the 1990s to signify the third-eye connection she felt with Gavin Rossdale." (OK, that copy is a joke on the UO blog, but... I mean, come on.)


4. Ethiopian dress, 2013

REPRESENTATIVE MERCH: Vintage '90s Linen Dress

SOURCE: Ethiopia/Eritrea

SIMILARITY: Via Lolla Mohammed Nur, who started a petition about it: "A friend of mine showed me Urban Outfitters was selling a "one-of-a-kind" dress on their website, which seemed to be an Ethiopian and Eritrean dress. It was being sold as a vintage dress; the labeling said nothing about it being Ethiopian or Eritrean. ... They said it was "popular in the 90s era," but it was popular because people like my mom wore it. 

SIGNIFICANCE: "This was just one dress, but it still made me mad. The model was wearing it with a pair of boots and her hair was disheveled, which was awkward and disrespectful. Ethiopians and Eritreans are very proud of our culture and heritage and the many ways that manifests itself – language, identity, dress, food, dance, art. We're protective of that."

OBJECTION: "While there was an aspect of feeling proud my culture was being recognized, you're also being robbed by this company that has no affiliation with you or your community parading this dress on their website as something people would assume to be American. ... It could have been a positive thing for us. But it is just one example of what American corporations in the fashion industry are good at doing: ripping off designs from indigenous communities (I'm using that term very broadly), and calling them something they're not. It's a larger issue, but it's also an ethics question about this company. If they'd behaved ethically they would have done something about it."


5. Dia de los Muertos, 2013

REPRESENTATIVE MERCH: Dia de los Muertos tank, tee, other housewares.

SOURCE: Catholicism in Latin America, particularly Mexico.

SIMILARITY: Knockoff of imagery.

SIGNIFICANCE: "Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. (Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar.)"

OBJECTION: Via Elaine Rita Mendus at MásWired: "The clothes pull Mexican images and culture from where they belong and turn them into cute jokes for teens and twenty-somethings to wear without a clue or a care as to where these images came from. The meaning and culture is completely pulled from the holiday when somebody decides to slap a picture of Marilyn Monroe with her face done up as a sugar skull onto a tee shirt. Or, turn a Star Wars storm trooper's helmet into a calavera."

6. Catholics

REPRESENTATIVE MERCH: Vanessa Mooney Fly Awhile Rosary Necklace

SOURCE: The rosary is a string of prayer beads used in the Catholic tradition.

SIMILARITY: It doesn't have beads, but it does have the cross at the end, a little Mary at the Y-joint and that obvious rosary shape.

SIGNIFICANCE: Rosaries are basically prayer organizers; the beads all signify different prayers.  They're arranged in sets of decades — one Lord's Prayer, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be to the Father — during which you're supposed to be thinking about one of several Mysteries. Usually, you're supposed to do five decades, one complete go-round of the string, in a session. 

OBJECTION: Nobody's made a stink about this specifically regarding Urban Outfitters, but people wearing rosaries as secular jewelry is a thing in general. I include it because I find it personally annoying. Even though I'm not Catholic anymore, it's one of few times where I as an American-born white lady feel like I can get a whiff of what cultural appropriation feels like. Teenage Madonna was one thing (for one, hers were real, not mass-produced knockoffs; for two, the Ciccone family was extremely Catholic); mass marketing them just strikes me as irritating and lazy.

7. Fair Isle

REPRESENTATIVE MERCH: Infinite sweaters, leggings and

SOURCE: Fair Isle is a traditional knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colors. It is named after Fair Isle, a tiny island in the north of Scotland, that forms part of the Shetland islands. Traditional Fair Isle patterns have a limited palette of five or so colours, use only two colours per row, are worked in the round, and limit the length of a run of any particular colour.

SIMILARITY: Well, they tend to have more weed-inspired patterns than the average handknitted Scottish ones, as seen above.

SIGNIFICANCE: The Fair Isle people have been having their patterns ripped off without compensation by pretty much every mass-market clothing brand for almost a century, and appear to have given up. Even so, I note it because it's the same design laziness.

8. Buddhism

REPRESENTATIVE MERCH: Buddha Buddha Happiness Light, Buddha banks, lots of other stuff.

SOURCE: Buddhism, specifically Chinese.

SIMILARITY: This little nightlight guy is a chibi version of the Laughing Buddha: "When westerners think of "Buddha," usually they don't visualize the Buddha of history, meditating or teaching. Instead, they visualize a fat, bald, jolly character called "The Laughing Buddha." Where did he come from?

The Laughing Buddha emerged from Chinese folktales of the 10th century. The original stories of the Laughing Buddha centered on a Ch'an monk named Ch'i-t'zu, or Qieci, from Fenghua, in what is now the province of Zhejiang. Ch'i-t'zu was an eccentric but much-loved character who worked small wonders such as predicting the weather."

SIGNIFICANCE: It's motherfucking Buddha, the actual center of an actual religion


OBJECTION: Buddhists appear to be too chill for Twitter or petitions, but... I mean, look at this.


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