Cultural Appropriation in Fashion: An Ugly Problem
By Ariel Beccia--The fashion industry is notorious for pushing boundaries – and making some serious blunders along the way. Whether it’s a lack of diversity on the catwalk or hyper-sexualized images of women in magazines, it seems as though there’s a new controversy with every season.
Most recently, it’s the products of the industry – the clothes, shoes, accessories, etc. – that have been subject to critique. Cultural appropriation is a term that has been gaining attention as designers find “inspiration” from other cultures in a less than tactful manner, and the offenses have been a-plenty lately.
Looking back at major fashion events is uncomfortable, to say the least. There was DSquared2’s fall collection of jackets adorned with indigenous patterns entitled “DSquaw,” a reference to a derogatory term for a North American woman or wife. Then Elle Canada declared the dashiki the “newest it-item of note,” perhaps forgetting the item has been worn for centuries in parts of Africa and has symbolic connotations. And it wasn’t just designers appropriating cultural fashion. Miley Cyrus has donned dreadlocks, Selena Gomez a bindi and Kylie Jenner cornrows, despite the fact that none of these woman have any ties to the cultures from which these styles originated.
What does it mean when someone wears an item from a different culture? Actress Amandla Stenberg posted an incredibly smart video that sums up the issue. She explains, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high-fashioned cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” These sentiments parallel Nicki Minaj’s backlash against Miley’s hairstyle, saying “If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle … then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us.” That is what it boils down to: cultural appropriation reduces important cultural items to fashion trends for the masses, devoid of context or meaning.
So, should we never wear items inspired by other cultures, instead sourcing inspiration solely from one’s own roots? Not necessarily. There are issues, too, in overzealous accusations of cultural appropriation, which has been called a paternalistic guarding of cultures. After all, in today’s world, the sharing of traditions can be understood as a key component in what brings us together as a multicultural, globalized society. But there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. The former is defined by a lack of knowledge and/or respect for the cultures from which one borrows, while the latter involves mutual benefits, transforming borrowing into a cultural exchange.
What does this look like? As Maisha Z. Johnson wrote in a piece for Everyday Feminism:
“…you could support a Navajo artist by purchasing designs directly from them. You could wear a South Asian bindi when invited to do at an Indian festival. You could research the meaning of Japanese décor and honor that meaning when you include those items in your home.”
These actions, by maintaining the meaning and context of these items, are respectful. More importantly, they foster an increased understanding of the traditions and cultures from which these styles come from. This is compassionate fashion. Dream-catcher earrings, feathered headbands or “tribal print” pants from the mall – not so much.