On cultural appropriation in fashion

cultural appropriation dreadlocks marc jacobs

“When does inspiration turn into appropriation?” is the question that keeps popping up on the internet since the last few years. How do we spot the difference between someone being inspired, or someone appropriating a culture? And in what ways can we provide solutions for designers and consumers to avoid cultural appropriation?

cultural appropriation headdress
Source: Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images

Cultural appropriation in fashion

After a quick Google search, the following definition of cultural appropration pops up: “Cultural appropriation is a concept dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture”. The difference between equal cultural exchange and cultural appropriation can be found in the imbalance of power, the colonial element and the loss of cultural context.

Cultural appropriation in fashion often takes place when fashion brands, designers or consumers pull cultural or religious items out of their original context just because of their interesting or aesthetically pleasing appearance. The original meaning of the object, one that generally has a historical or cultural background, is thus lost and gets replaced by a more superficial meaning. Karlie Kloss, for example, was heavily criticised in 2012 when she walked down the Victoria’s Secret fashion show runway wearing an Indian headdress. In 2017, she was again accused of cultural appropriation when she posed for Vogue dressed as a Geisha.

cultural appropriation dreadlocks marc jacobs
Source: Kevin Tachman
cultural appropriation kim kardashian braids
Source: Getty Images

For many, the issue with cultural appropriation and the reason for their anger about it, is this stereotypical depiction of (most often) non-white cultures or religions to and by members of the white culture. We indeed see that the majority of the looks that are deemed appropriation, seem to be inspired by minority cultures that mostly originate from areas that once were colonies to Western countries. Marc Jacobs, for example, was criticised for having his models wear dreadlocks during his spring/summer 2017 runway. Gucci showed Sikh-inspired turbans at their fall/winter 2018 fashion show. More recently, Kim Kardashian was heavily accused of cultural appropriation on social media for wearing her hair in braids, like the Fulani in Africa originally did.

One question we can ask ourselves is: why have we been calling so much attention to cultural appropration recently? We know it has been happening for a long time, but only since the past few years it seems to have become a serious issue. One explanation for this is that since social media, and especially Twitter, have become so popular and widely-used, people seem to be more sensitive and more aware about topics like this one. It’s firstly easier for internet users to find images and footage of fashion week runway shows, and through social media they get a chance to voice their opinions on these shows more easily.

cultural appropriation gucci turban
Source: Gucci / Imaxtree

Can we fix the cultural appropriation issue?

As you can see, cultural appropriation is a deep-seated and complex issue. However, many of the debates about it can be boiled down to only one question: is it appreciation or is it appropriation? According to Amandla Stenberg, inspiration from or appreciation for a culture turns into appropriation and thus becomes offensive 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”. We thus have to consider cultural apprpriation a problem when the people and cultures that were targeted by it, feel offended.

When fixing a problem, it’s important to start at the roots. Hence, it is vital to especially focus on companies, fashion houses and designers when trying to tackle cultural appropriation. First and foremost, it is essential that companies are sensitzed about cultural, ethnic and racial differences between people and groups of people. By on the one hand reflecting on the possible harm certain pieces can afflict on a culture and on the other hand being transparent in their apologies when cultural appropriation occurs, companies are able to take their responsibilities. Second, despite the fact that social media often spark the debate on cultural appropriation, they also serve as a social spotlight. Companies that are in the spotlight have to realise that they can’t get away with designing and producing culturally sensitive products anymore. Third and last, for the sake of cultural sensitivity and creativity, designers have to be encouraged to look beyond cultural stereotypes when seeking inspiration in other cultures than their own.