Cultural appropriation seems to be a phrase that’s coming up more and more frequently on social media, particularly in conversations surrounding the fashion industry. Many popular fashion companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Savage X Fenty, Gucci, and Prada have been accused of cultural appropriation in designs and marketing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.” A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation refers to when people in the dominant culture in society take elements from a culture that has previously been systematically oppressed. This means that in 2012 when Karlie Kloss walked down the Victoria’s Secret Runway wearing underwear paired with a Native American headdress, suede fringe, and turquoise jewellery the Navajo people were deeply offended as the outfit disrespected and trivialised their culture. When designers take inspiration from other people’s cultures, it lets them show a love for the cultural aesthetic. The caveat of that is that often, in doing so, these designers remain prejudiced against its people.
There is a double standard in society where things are made ‘cool’ for white people but are too ethnic for people of colour. This was evident in the Gucci fall 2018 runway show when white models wore turbans which were later sold at Nordstrom for $790. After this The Sikh Coalition stated on social media: “The turban is not just an accessory to monetize; it’s a religious article of faith that millions of Sikhs view as sacred. Many find this cultural appropriation inappropriate, since those wearing the turban just for fashion will not appreciate its deep religious significance.” Fashion is greatly influenced by culture. However, it is important to engage with cultures on more than an aesthetic level which pays respect to the origins of the item so that it is not disconnected from its history.
Rihanna has recently been accused of cultural appropriation after she posted a picture on Instagram of herself topless with Savage X Fenty boxer shorts and a necklace of Lord Ganesh. The fact that Rihanna did not acknowledge Hinduism and sexualised the neckless shows a clear lack of understanding and respect for Hindus. Yes, you should be allowed to appreciate other cultures, but it should be done in an appropriate way.
It is possible to conclude that cultural appropriation in marketing is another extension of Eurocentrism as European designers claim other culture’s traditional dress from themselves with no credit or royalties given to the culture that it came from. This also links to the disconnect between design and the physical production of garments. There is a history of racial capitalism that is rooted in the fashion industry. We see many celebrities gaining social and economic value from a racial identity that is not their own. The clearest example of this are the Kardashians, who have a long history of black fishing and other cultural appropriation. Kim originally named her shape wear brand Kimono and more recently Kendall Jenner released a new tequila brand, Drink818, whilst clearly having little knowledge about the traditional Mexican way that it should be drunk.
However, I would argue that it is acceptable for the fashion industry to borrow from other cultures so long as it is done in a respectful way that considers historical contexts and cultural sensitivities. In the 2015 China: Through the Looking Glass Met Gala, people praised the Chinese inspired outfits. This is because outfits like Rihanna’s yellow dress were designed and created by Chinese fashion designers. These designers knew how to draw inspiration from their own culture without removing the history behind it.
Brands can avoid cultural appropriation if they pay homage to the artistry and acknowledge its origins. Sacred artefacts are not accessories and cultural inspiration should not be a substitute for diversity. If a designer is going to use another culture for inspiration, then they should research the cultural history extensively and include the people of this culture rather than only using white models and artists. This means that the values of the culture are shared, and respect is given where it is owed. Ultimately, what cultural appropriation does is not give credit to the cultural origins of the product and instead makes it fashionable for white consumers.
Hopefully, as we move forward fashion brands will become more aware of cultural appropriation and take action to ensure that it is only cultural appreciation. But, in the meantime we have to call out brands and influencers. People must be held accountable for cultural appropriation to happen less frequently.
– Hannah Judge
Featured Image Source: Pexels